Monday, December 31, 2007

New Year's Eve - by one calendar, at least

It's New Year's Eve, and my husband Richard and I are not out partying. It's not so much that we're not as sociable as we used to be, or that we don't stay up late much, or that we're getting old. All of those are true to some extent, but they're not the main reason we're not out partaking in the revels marking the end of one year and the imminent arrival of a new one.

The main reason is the timing. For me, the changing of the year has already happened, on winter solstice. The night of December 21 was the longest night of the year and the days have lengthened noticeably since then. So since I've already celebrated the turning of the solar year, it seems to me like this New Year thing is old news.

The business of marking January 1st as the beginning of a new calendar year is a relatively new phenomenon in human history. The ancient Romans apparently began a new numbered year on January 1 (although that day actually varied a good bit since the years weren't precisely calculated), but even as late as the Middle Ages, different European countries began the new year on dates varying from Christmas to Easter to the first of September. The standardization of the year and its opening day as January 1 was the result of the widespread adoption of the Gregorian calendar (named for Pope Gregory XIII) between 1582 (when the Pope ordained the new calendar) and 1752 (when renegade countries like Britain and Scotland finally got around to adopting it).

The adoption of the Gregorian calendar was quite handy on the whole, since it corrected some serious issues the Church had with the Julian calendar, including the fact that the day of Easter drifted around too much, and the aggregate errors in year length required large adjustments from time to time.

But the late medieval astronomers and mathematicians who devised the Gregorian calendar deviated from the solar calendar in one respect important to me: rather than have the new year begin on the day after winter solstice, which is when the Northern Hemisphere turns toward light, life and spring, they set it as a week after Christmas, so as not to distract from the religious holiday.

No wonder then that the official New Year's Day seems a bit anti-climatic to me: the solar year ended on winter solstice, a week and a half ago.

Still, Richard and I will each light a candle tonight, and looking at that flame that represents light in the darkness, new beginnings, hope and life, we'll say our resolutions for this new year, solar or Gregorian or whatever.

Happy New Year, no matter what calendar you use!

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Lighting the Darkness

Every year my husband Richard and I celebrate the passing of winter’s longest nights with a party: we fill our bellies with homemade eggnog and other treats, 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, partygoers help us light them one by one; the small flames burn through the night heralding the sun’s return at dawn.

Light is a traditional part of winter celebrations in latitudes where the tilt in Earth’s axis sends one hemisphere away from the sun during half of each year. The resultant darkness inspires the menorah of Hanukkah, Advent and Kwanzaa candles, and the Yule log burned in holiday bonfires.

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 grew longer again.

No wonder 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 crowded 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 born in Hispanic New Mexico 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 intellectual darkness, bestowing knowledge and understanding.

As I strike a match to light a wick at our holiday party, and place a flaming votive candle on its bed of sand inside a paper bag, I think about the lessons in luminarias. The bags by themselves are flimsy and flammable, the candles too dainty for sizeable light, 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 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 inherent in the simplest of things.

As I light another wick and watch the streetlights wink on, clouding my view of the darkening sky, I wonder if our ancient fear of the night has blinded us to an illumination visible only in true darkness: the light of the stars. Away from the glare of electric lighting, the night reveals heaven’s miracle: we see the stars only by light from the past which has traveled years across space to reach our eyes, while their current light shines only in our future.

Standing with family and friends in the darkness of a blessed winter night, I turn my face to the silver-spangled heavens. My spirit glows, lit by the commonplace grace of small candles burning in simple paper bags.

Happy Solstice, all!

(This essay first appeared in my weekly column in the Salida, Colorado, Mountain Mail newspaper, and was heard on KHEN community radio, 90.6 FM, Salida, Colorado. All rights reserved.)

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

A year in butterflies

My friend Bob Pyle, author and lepidopterist extraordinaire, is embarking on an amazing journey around North America: in 2008, he will attempt to find and observe as many butterfly species as he can in the United States and Canada. His Butterfly Big Year will serve as a witness to the status and lives of our 800-some butterfly species, and also as a benefit to raise funds for - and awareness of conservation of these amazing pollinators. (Imagine knowing how to transform your body from crawling caterpillar to fluttering adult - that's an ordinary part of life for a butterfly.) You can take part in his historic journey by pledging a donation to the Xerces Society for every species he sees and documents, and you'll also be able to read about his travels and experiences in the book Swallowtail Seasons: The First Butterfly Big Year, to be published by Houghton Mifflin (once Bob makes it home at the end of the year and gets to writing!). Bob's a scientist, but he's also a man in love with butterflies, and this journey reflects both his passion and his knowledge. I eager to hear his dispatches from along the way.


After a fall so warm and dry that we had no significant moisture between September and December, a storm late last week finally brought us rain turning to snow - lots of it. Our local ski area, Monarch, went from bare ground to skiers' nirvana with over 70 inches - almost six feet - of new snow on Thursday and Friday. Another storm blew in yesterday, dumping foot in the high country.

With that kind of snow, it was impossible to resist playing hooky today. So we didn't: this afternoon we piled our skis, boots, and poles in the car, along with our daughter Molly, home for a pre-holiday visit from Portland, and headed for the mountains. Twenty minutes later, we were parked in a white wonderland, with fresh snow covering trees, rocks, mountainsides, road, and no one else in sight. We laced up our boots, clicked into bindings, grabbed our poles and began to schuss uphill.

Flakes of snow twirled out of thinning clouds overhead; two ravens coasted by, silent but for the sound of air passing through their stiff black wings. Then it was just the creaking of fresh snow under skis and labored breathing as we climbed the old narrow gauge railroad grade. Ours were the first tracks - except for the twin-hoofed prints of a herd of mule deer that bounded uphill through the snow as we watched.

We skied uphill for almost an hour, then followed another railroad right-of-way around a forested ridge, swooping down and across a creek almost buried under mounded snow. We saw more deer tracks, met two other skiers, and two guys in a Jeep looking for a lost pair of dogs. We startled a flock of mountain bluebirds caught uphill by the sudden storms, and watched a long-tailed, rusty-capped sparrow hop about, foraging for seeds on the surface of the snow.

For the last half a mile, we raced the sunset downhill. We schussed around the last bend as the clouds overhead turned brilliant pink and then began to fade. Red-cheeked, out of breath, and almost giddy, we stowed our skis and slithered down the snowy road toward home as the early darkness of a winter night swallowed the landscape and its mantle of fresh snow.

This afternoon's outing reminded me - again - of the joy of simply getting outside and losing ourselves and our cares in the company of the living world. How easily I forget, and how generous and beautiful is the remembering!

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Why Blog? Because it's not all about (Me)me

I'm thinking about the blogging life, since Dani Greer, who writes about new authors and new books, and about the land, and Janet Riehl, storyteller and wise woman, tagged me for "It's all about (Me)me." So here are my answers to this meme on the blogging life:

1. How long have you been blogging? I'm a late-bloomer. I didn't figure out that I loved telling the stories in the data better than I loved collecting the data until I had spent ten years as a field biologist studying wildfires, sagebrush communities, and grizzly bear habitat. My first book wasn't published until I was 34 - which, oddly enough, was the same age my botanist great-grandfather was when he found his professional niche studying deserts around the world. So it should be no surprise that I didn't discover blogging until earlier this year.

2. What inspired you to start blogging and who are your mentors? I wanted a place to write in a less formal way than my published writing, a place to muse and try out ideas and report on what I read. My mentors are other bloggers, especially those who highlight - and illustrate - the places we live in and love, and the stories we tell about what makes us so beautifully and imperfectly human, bloggers like Sherrie York at Brush and Baren, Susan Albert at Lifescapes, Donna Druchunas at Sheep to Shawl, and Deb Robson at Independent Stitch. I learn something from every blog I read - the blogosphere is like having a whole world of storytellers at my fingertips!

3. Are you trying to make money online, or just doing it for fun? Money? Fun? Hah hah hah hah! I'm a writer. I make my living from my articles for national magazines and newspapers, from teaching and speaking, and from the books I write (ten published, the two-book set I'm whaling away at now will make 11&12 or double-eleven, however you count it). I'm blogging as another way to write about what I believe in: the importance of restoring our relationship with the community of the land. To give voice to those whose voices we cannot hear, to find new ways to tell the stories of my head and heart.

4. What 5 things do you struggle with online? 1) Finding time to blog. 2) Remembering to shoot photos to illustrate my blog. 3) Remembering that I don't have to be perfect. 4) Brevity. 5) Finding the words when I find time to blog.

5. What 5 things do you love about being online? 1) The blogosphere is like radio in a way: you send your words out into the ether and often have no idea who they reach because you can't see your audience. But listeners and readers find you, often in unexpected ways. 2) The immediacy of it. 3) The informal and random nature of the connections; the huge web of relationships that grow organically. 4) Other bloggers & 5) Readers, bless you all!

I'm tagging Sherrie York, Donna Druchunas, and Deb Robson. Your turn now. . . .

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Storytelling and the winter garden

Next week I'm visiting Janet Riehl's blog, Riehl Life: Village Wisdom for the 21st Century, which is just what it says: a compendium of every-day insight from across cultures and generations. Janet is writing about the practical stuff we learn from life, and what the arts have to teach us about what it means to be fully human (as in "humane"). One of her threads is about why stories matter, and that's my topic. So catch me on Riehl Life on Monday!

I've also just been invited to join Audubon magazine's new blog, The Perch, as a writer about gardening and western environmental issues. So look for me on my winter garden sometime in the next week or so. I've got spinach, arugula, and stir-fry greens growing slowly under insulating row covers despite night-time lows of ten degrees! When I throw off the white row cover fabric at mid-morning after the frost has burned off and see those crinkly green leaves underneath, I am reminded of how sometimes just the smallest gesture - like remembering to cover my garden each night - makes a huge difference. My attentiveness to those hardy greens means the difference between life and death for them and it gives us a bit of fresh food from our own soil through the winter.

Last night when friends from Boulder stopped by, I clipped some stalks from the rosemary - also under a row cover - to give them for their dinner. Smelling the rich perfume of fresh rosemary leaves on my hands, I was grateful for the gifts that plants give us. As winter closes in here in the mountains, the nights grow longer and life slows down, the touches of green in my garden remind me that all of life's cycles come around again - and again.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

What Wildness is This (again)

What Wildness is This, the new Story Circle Network anthology from University of Texas Press showcasing women's voices on the landscapes of the Southwest, is garnering some great reviews. I've got an essay in the book - it's the thirteenth anthology to include my work - so naturally, I think it's a great book. But I'd love it anyway for the range and depth of the writers it includes, from ones I know and am inspired by like Joy Harjo, Denise Chavez and Barbara Kingsolver to writers I didn't know before and am delighted to meet in print, like Cindy Bellinger, quoted in the second review below.

Here are some recent comments. The Texas Observer writes:
The women who have contributed to What Wildness is this have been given a channel for sharing their clear, and often startling, visions. In doing so, they have carved out a domain of their own.
New Mexico magazine adds:
This is a book where none can escape the truth of the land. These women, more than most, appreciate the experience of a life that is untamed. They show us how to balance duties and dreams until we walk with confidence, knowing how "each step deliberate on the skin of the earth, we pick our way across a plateau strewn with wildflowers and bones."
It's a pleasure to be part of such a fine book. Thanks to the editors, Susan Wittig Albert, Susan Hanson, Jan Epton Seale, and Paula Stallings Yost, and Theresa May and the staff of UT Press for putting together a book that's giving a bunch of feisty and inspiring women's voices the notice they deserve!

The power of words

If you've ever wondered why you write, or whether words really makes a difference, read Tara Parker-Pope's "Well" blog entry in today's New York Times, Rewriting Rap to Empower Teens. I don't care what you think about rap or other forms of popular poetry set to music - this is a vivid example of the power of words. A group of Atlanta teens who are part of HOTGIRLS, (Helping Our Teen Girls in Real Life Situations), got tired of being hassled by guys on the streets. So they wrote their own rap as part of an exercise in learning what's appropriate, testing their power to speak out and change the way things are:
Imma give you yo number back
Cause I don’t like you and yo game is whack
You see these boys just don’t know how to act
I try to walk away but they talk smack
Take it to the streets
Parker-Pope writes:
Rewriting song lyrics helps girls “critically analyze the messages they encounter in the media and in their daily lives,’’ said HOTGIRLS founder Carla E. Stokes. “Girls are using hip hop as a vehicle to reach their peers and raise awareness about issues that affect their lives.’’
The program also takes the teens into a recording studio to create their own versions of popular songs, putting their words onto CDs, telling their version of how the world is, what it feels like to be a teen girl in the city, a girl pressured to be sexy too young, seen as a ho if she does it and a bitch if she doesn't.

You may not like their language, or their rap. But you've got to cheer the fact that these teen girls are finding their voices and using them to turn a genre of popular music into a way to speak out and change the way their world sees them.

Sending our words out
Telling our stories
Telling the world
our world
we matter
That's why we write.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Green roofs and glimmers of moonlight on the road

Last week I gave a mini-class on green or vegetated roofs, roofs with an insulating, carbon-sequestering, heat-island-effect mitigating and habitat-providing layer of soil and plants. My audience: Boulder Associates, an architectural firm in Boulder with an office in a very cool renovated historic bank building on the Pearl Street mall. They specialize in sustainable architecture, and their office shows it: it's flooded with natural light, uses energy-saving products throughout, and showcases a variety of innovative, sustainable materials including my personal favorites, cork floors and sunflower seed hull counters, which show seed hulls clearly, giving the counters a lovely random and natural pattern.

After my talk, Richard and I drove home to Salida the long way. The very long way: we headed north first, crossing the subdivision-choked high plains to Fort Collins via back roads.

From there we headed west, following the winding canyon cut by the Cache La Poudre River through the ancient crystalline rocks at the root of the Front Range on its way to the Plains. We went upriver, driving into the late afternoon sun, following the Cache La Poudre-North Park scenic byway. Scenic the road surely is: it winds up out of the plains along the river in a rocky canyon so tight at times that there is barely room for both the clear flow of the river, punctuated by anglers in waders stalking trout, and the two lanes of Colorado highway 14. The rocks are the show here, forming sheer cliffs right along the river, or at a remove, high above, twisted and compressed and shot with huge white veins of quartz.

We wound our way up and up and up and up as the sun slowly headed toward the horizon, finally topping out on the gently planed landscape of Cameron Pass with the white crags of the Never Summer Range to the south and the air smelling of wet spruce and fir needles.

Then a short drop into the high basin of North Park, zipping along through forests of lodgepole pines, and, just after the small town of Rand, turning onto a gravel road that angled southwest across the high valley. Just as we turned, and Richard slowed for the slush left by a recent snowstorm, we saw a yearling moose, all chocolate brown with tan stockings on its long, gangly legs, trotting off the road. It was tagging along behind two adult mule deer who looked absurdly small beside their long-legged, long-backed, big-eared adoptive "child." I hope they know what they're doing. . . .

We headed out of North Park to the south, topping Willow Creek Pass just as the one-day-shy- of full moon rose in the east, a chalky white disk in the still-blue sky. On the western horizon, the peaks of the Park Range stood bright white against a sun that hadn't quite set.

The light held as we zipped down Willow Creek to join another scenic byway, Colorado Headwaters, at Granby. We rushed west along the upper Colorado where it winds through the rumpled topography of Middle Park, through Windy Gap with its wide band of autumn-gold cottonwoods along the river and in the rear-view mirror, the line of the Front Range turning pink in the afterglow of sunset. Through Parshall, where a freight train four times the length of the tiny town passed slowly by, Sulphur Hot Springs with a steaming cloud rising from the historic spa, and to Kremmling, where the Colorado cuts its way out of the Rockies in the steep V of Gore Canyon, headed for the Plateau Country.

We parted from that byway north of Kremmling, a good thing, because it was dark and I was too tired and sated with the sights of the road to take notes. We drove the rest of the way home by moonlight: up the Blue River with the peaks of the Eagles Nest Wilderness shimmering ghostly against a sky shot with stars as I fed Richard bites of potato salad for dinner-on-the-road while he drove. At Silverthrone, we shot onto I-70 and sped through the marbled walls of rock where the Gore and Sixmile ranges grind against each other in a still-active fault. We shot off the ribbon of interstate at Copper Mountain and then turned south again, headed up the short and nearly straight pull to Fremont Pass.

Coming over the pass and into our own watershed, the Upper Arkansas River drainage, Mt. Massive and Mt. Elbert, Colorado's two tallest peaks, shone like enormous white elephants sleeping along one edge of the valley far below, their glimmering snow-lit bulk dwarfing and palely illuminating the landscape. Through Leadville, and then alongside the silver ribbon of the Arkansas River tumbling down the valley through Granite, Buena Vista, and on to the pool of lights of the town where the river slices its way out of the mountains, headed for the Plains: Salida, the exit for the Arkansas, but home for us.

We tumbled out of the car at nine-thirty, our brains stuffed with the sights of a seven-hour drive home via two scenic byways, three major river drainages, over four passes, and along eight mountain ranges, and the last half of it by the reflected silver light of an almost-full moon. It was magic - and our own bed never looked so good!

Monday, October 15, 2007

Out on the Plains & headed home

Last week, Richard and I put 630 miles on our new Subaru Forester in just two days while taking my parents on another drive-a-scenic-byway trip. This time we headed northeast on I-76 from Denver, following the South Platte River across the rolling shortgrass prairie to Julesburg. Once we got away from the suburbs and climbed up out of the shallow South Platte River valley with its irrigated fields, we rolled with the gentle waves of the prairie, the dry tan grassland hugging the soil like a close-napped carpet.

By the time we dived off the twin ribbons of asphalt at exit 170, ten miles short of Julesburg to take the South Platte River Trails byway, the prairie had ever-so-subtly changed. The grasses were now knee-high and taller, and there were more kinds of them, forming a patchwork mosaic in hues from straw to gold to palest orange-going-peach. We had left the extreme aridity of the shortgrass prairie behind, a region so dry that the dominant grasses only venture a few inches above ground while their roots extend as deep as six feet into the sheltering soil. And we had entered the edge of the mid-grass prairie, a slightly wetter belt where grasses grow tall enough to wave in the wind.

As the sun dropped lower over the wide horizon that evening, we circumnavigated the rectangle of the South Platte River Trails byway following rural roads on both sides of the river. We saw the site of the fort featured in the movie "Dances With Wolves" (through the film was shot in Montana), the site of Colorado's only Pony Express Station, a gorgeous and peaceful stretch of the South Platte, and Julesburg and Ovid, two small Plains towns.

The highlights: Pony Express State Wildlife Area, a small patch giving onto the placid curving ribbon of the South Platte, dotted with the golden flames of cottonwood trees in their fall best. The wonderfully kitschy teepee-shaped picnic shelters at the Colorado Welcome Center at the Julesburg exit, and the severely beautiful lines of the enormous red brick beet sugar refinery and its antebellum-plantation style office - vacant since G&W Sugar went bankrupt in the 1980s - in Ovid.

We stayed that night in Sterling, sixty miles upriver on the Platte. The next morning we headed off on the Pawnee Pioneer Pathways byway, a route that meanders on two-lane paved and gravel roads through the prairie between Sterling and Greeley, a hundred miles west. Whole swaths of this route are wide-open grassland with nothing to interrupt the view of the miles-distant horizon.

Highlights of that route: The groups of pronghorn, tan as the shortgrass prairie, that we spotted here and there. The Prairie Cafe with its sign "buffalo served here" in tiny Stoneham (no store, gas station, or other services, just a small cluster of wind-blasted houses, a grain elevator, and three churches). Three pied-billed grebes happily swimming in one small puddle of creek many miles from any other body of water larger than a windmill-filled stock tank. The sight of Pawnee Buttes rising above the undulating prairie like miniature mountains. The ghostly line of giant wind turbines that follow the receding bluff in the hazy distance far beyond the buttes themselves. Walking the trail to the buttes in the chill wind of an approaching fall snowstorm, smelling the moisture on the wind and listening to the glorious silence of the open prairie. Seeing kit fox prints pressed neatly in the pale dust of the trail.

And best of all, many miles to the west where we dropped off the open plains and into the crowded farmland encroached by suburbs, the migrating sandhill cranes. Richard, who was driving, spotted them and simply pointed at the sky. There, high overhead were hundreds of cranes circling in a huge gyre. We stopped on the side of the highway, got out and watched. They circled, wide wings outstretched, long necks and legs extended, higher and higher, sometimes turning into the sun and nearly disappearing, then coming around again so that we could see their ever-smaller silhouettes. Now and then I could hear a fragment of their rolling, wild "khrrrrrrr! khrrrrrr!" calls in the intervals between the trucks rushing by on the highway. As the gyre of cranes began to form Vs and head southwest on what must have been a layer of high-altitude winds, I heard crane voices again. I turned north, and there was another group, this one flapping straight south and lower. We watched them pass, the music of their rolling calls washing over us as they flew overhead, aimed south for the winter.

Hours later, after we had dropped my parents at their apartment west of Denver, we were winding our way up into the Foothills toward the first of three mountain passes we cross on our way home, when I looked at the sky and saw another gyre of sandhill cranes high overhead, wide wings outstretched as they circled, gaining altitude. I pointed them out to Richard and he alternated between watching sandhills and watching the winding highway until the birds were directly overhead and out of view through the windshield. I opened the sunroof and we followed them until they disappeared from view entirely. We sped on, all of us aiming in our own way for home.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Taking to the road

In September, my friend and collaborator, photographer Jim Steinberg, came to see me with a proposition. He had spent the last two years photographing all 25 of Colorado's scenic byways, routes designated for their outstanding scenic or historic values. Jim wanted me to write the text to accompany his dozens of show-stopping images for a coffee table book on the byways - by January. Lyrical, informative essays on 25 routes giving the sense of the landscapes and their history, human and natural, in three and a half months. Sure. (How many hours are there in each day? Weeks in a month?) I said yes, of course. (Did I mention that it's a two-book set and the details of each route are due in February for the atlas & road guide?) I probably am certifiable. But who could resist an assignment to follow so many open roads?

Fortunately for my sanity and Jim's deadlines, I know many of Colorado's scenic byways already. Some, like the Collegiate Peaks and Top of the Rockies byways, which trace the Upper Arkansas Valley where I live, I know so well it's hard to write about them - there's too much to say. Others, like the North Platte River Road in northeastern Colorado, I don't know at all.

So for the past four weeks, Richard and I have been exploring far-flung parts of Colorado. We barreled down dusty gravel roads leading to the crumbling ruins of ancient pueblos - silent, but oddly still very much alive - in the southwestern corner of the state. We drove with my parents up into the glacier-nibbled and lava-capped high peaks of the Flat Tops in northwestern Colorado on a week when the aspens poured rivers of gold over the mountainsides. (That's Trapper's Lake in the Flat Tops Wilderness in the photo. The drive up a gravel road and short walk over a glacial moraine to the lake shore was my favorite side trip on that particular byway.)
I drove out onto the southeastern Plains to see the pale ruts of the Santa Fe trail still scoring the shortgrass prairie; we wound up and over the Wet Mountains two days later on another byway. Tomorrow, we're off to pick up my parents for a trip downstream on the North Platte River to explore the wide spaces where Colorado meets Wyoming and Nebraska.

What have I learned from these byway excursions? That the state of Colorado is even more diverse than I knew. That within a day's drive of the valley I call home are slickrock deserts, soaring palisades of sunset-colored rock layers, the ghosts of ancient ones who farmed where today's tractors plow modern fields, silver and gold mines that yielded instant, fabulous wealth and equally sudden bankruptcy, peaks sculpted by glaciers and dotted with snow even in summer, lakes hidden atop cool mountain "sky islands" rising out of sere desert, winding canyons holding log cabins and the rock spires of eccentric castles, wide plains stretching to the far horizon, ruled by fleet pronghorn. And that's just the beginning. The landscapes I thought I knew hold far more stories than I'd imagined, and I'm just beginning to discover them. No wonder we Americans love the open road!

Now I need to get ready for tomorrow, when we'll load up the car (our wonderfully efficient and clean-burning Subaru Forester) and hit the road again. Until the road brings us home!

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Knitting, culture and place

Craft has always fascinated me because it's part of how we express our relationship to the world around us. As a knitter, I'm especially interested in the different styles and patterns of knitting around the world. So I'm delighted to host Donna Druchunas, award-winning author, whose new book, Ethnic Knitting Discovery: The Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, and the Andes, was just released by Nomad Press on my blog. Here's our conversation about how knitting reflects culture and place:

Susan: I'm fascinated by how art and craft express people's experiences of the places where they live and the other species that share those landscapes. So I'm curious about how the patterns you show in Ethnic Knitting Discovery relate to the landscapes and cultures they come from.

Donna: What's really interesting is trying to track the movement of knitting traditions around the globe. The knitting style used in the Andes is also used in Portugal and Turkey. Most knitting historians believe that the craft began in the Middle East and later travelled to Europe and then to the United Sates. Tracing the path of the Andean technique makes me wonder if it wasn't brought to Portugal (and Spain?) by the Moorish conquerers as they were spreading Islam into that region, and then brought to South America later by the conquistadors and Christian missionaries. A similar style is used in Greece, but I'm not sure how closely related the Greek technique is to these others.

There are also similar designs and techniques that have been used in Scandinavia and the Baltics; some Lithuanian mittens have patterns that closely resemble Turkish socks, and fisherman's sweaters with similar construction have been made in many different parts of Europe. Before printed patterns, it seems like knitters had no problem sharing their techniques and stitches generously, and styles and garment constructions spread around, often quite quickly.

S: For example, do any of the patterns depict native animals or plants? Or if they are more abstract patterns, are they derived from shapes of the landscape, plants and animals, or cultural practices?

D: Some regions use mostly geometric patterns, and others use pictorial patterns. In most regions, there are some historical meanings to the symbols, although modern knitters probably don't think about this much in their designs. For example: In the Andes, many of the knitting designs are based on plants and animals in the region. There is a coca leaf pattern that is incredibly popular, as well as designs of flowers, water, the sun, dogs, cats, lamas, snakes, and many other animals. In Norway, symbols are more geometric, but no less meaningful. There are many variations of crosses, for example, that carry Christian symbolism. Circles may represent fidelity, like a wedding ring; squares stand for the four corners of the earth; and triangles may symbolize the Christian trinity, female power, or the virgin Mary. Although less popular today, animals, plants, and people were commonly featured on Norwegian sweaters and mittens in the past. My book, Ethnic Knitting Discovery, merely covers the tip of the iceberg. Volumes could be written, and have been written, about the textiles traditions in each of these regions. I hope my readers will get excited by my introductions and do further explorations on their own.

S: Is the knitting of anyone culture or region in the book more reflective of its landscape and natural community than the other regions?

D: Not really. Although knitting techniques and designs spread throughout Europe and then to other parts of the world fairly quickly, people were still quite isolated before the invention of the automobile. It was quite common to be born and die without ever leaving your own village or traveling over ten miles from home. So designs became unique in each region. This is even true within a single nation. I focused on a particular region of Noway in my book, but other knitting traditions around the country were unique, although there are some similarities that tie together the whole Scandinavian region, and "leak" into the designs found in the surrounding areas. The combination of world travel by a few and isolation of the many is something that's difficult to imagine in the United States today where just about everyone travels at least to another part of this huge country every year for the holidays, a wedding, or a high school graduation. Such informal travel would have been unheard of even 100 years ago. My great grandparents came to the US from Russia and Lithuania, and I'm the first person in our family to have an inkling of desire to return for a visit, over a century later.

S: Do you think that craft is a reflection of our view of the world? Or simply a decorative abstraction?

D: I think it's different for everyone. Some people knit and crochet to keep their hands busy, following patterns that they buy at the local yarn shop or hobby store. Others use their craft to be a part of a community and to connect to other knitters today, and to those who lived in the past. In any case, crafting is always a very personal experience.

What craft is your passion? Does it express something about your ties to culture and place? Let us know what you think!

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Coming Attraction: Donna Druchunas and Ethnic Knitting

Join me next Wednesday, October 3rd, for a lively "chat" with knitter, award-winning author and blogger Donna Druchunas. Donna's new book, Ethnic Knitting Discovery: The Netherlands, Denmark, Norway and The Andes has just been released by Nomad Press. I've had a chance to read a pre-release copy, and I can attest that like her other books, Arctic Lace, which was a finalist for the 2006 Colorado Book Awards and which won Foreword Magazine's Book of the Year Award, and The Knitted Rug, this one is vintage Donna: an inspiring look at out-of-the-ordinary knitting, presented in a way that any knitter will want to pick it up and knit away! Better yet, she teaches us something about not just the craft of knitting, but the history of the art and how it's been used. I find that Donna's books always teach me something about humanity, and about myself as one particular example of the species.

Why is a knitting book author appearing on a blog called "The Community of the Land"? Because art and craft have at least as much to say about the places where we live and our relationship to them as do science, philosophy, history, or any other discipline. The designs we use in art and craft come from what we know about the world around us; what we make of them speaks of what we love, value and are inspired by.

So join me on Wednesday to hear what Donna's comments about Ethnic Knitting Discovery and the Community of the Land!

Monday, September 24, 2007

Silver "Eddie" Award!

This morning's email brought great news today from my editor at National Parks magazine: "The Refuge," the article I wrote on the crisis facing the nation's largest elk herd and the haven established nearly a century ago to protect it, was honored with a Silver "Eddie" Award in its category at the FOLIO Gala in New York City! (The Eddies, also called FOLIO Awards, are like the Oscars of national magazine publishing.) The Eddie goes to the magazine, but I am proud to have written a Silver-winning article.

Here's how the article opens:
Dawn comes late to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, on winter mornings. When the sun finally edges over the high ridges that crowd the town of Jackson and paints the Tetons pink, the huddled mounds studding the snow-covered meadows along Flat Creek finally come into focus as thousands of sleeping elk. They stir, shaking the hoarfrost from thick pelts with a clatter of antlers and flapping of ears. Plumes of breath rise from thousands of black nostrils, forming a shimmering cloud in the frigid air as the elk wait for breakfast to be served.

And soon it is: The growl of engines in low gear accompanies the sunlight as rubbertracked crawler tractors appear, pulling trailers loaded with 20 to 30 tons of alfalfa pellets across the snow. As a tractor approaches a group of elk, the driver opens a gate in the underside of the trailer, releasing a stream of green pellets.

The elk crowd flank to flank like so many dairy cows, lipping the pellets from the snow and pawing for more. When the pellets are eaten, some elk drift away to forage in the snow-covered landscape. Others hang out in groups, digesting their meal. As the first of the day's horse-drawn sleigh tours thread their way through the crowd of animals, a few bulls pick fights with each other, clashing racks while cameras record the scene.
Read more at "The Refuge". (Click on the title of the article.)

I don't write for the recognition, but it's surely a kick to get that kind of national accolade.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

On the road again

Tonight I'm home, with the bright crescent of a waxing moon setting in the southwestern sky. But my mind is on the road. Thanks to photographer Jim Steinberg (this is your fault, Jim), I'm starting a new book project: Colorado Scenic Byways: Taking the Other Road, a two-book set that Jim calls a "love poem" to the 25 designated routes that show off the state's diverse landscapes and cultures. From the open spaces of the Eastern Plains with their ancient dinosaur trackways, grain elevators and futuristic wind generators, to the abrupt rise of the Foothills and High Peaks cris-crossed with Jeep and hiking trails, pocked with mines and dotted with ski areas and starter castles, to the wide swaths of Mountain Parks that run the gamut from shrub desert and sand dunes to lazy rivers meandering through green hayfields, and the brilliantly colored rock layers that shape the western Plateaus, Colorado is one amazing place.

One part of Colorado Scenic Byways: Taking the Other Road, is a coffee table volume in the spirit of our previous collaboration Colorado Less Traveled, a finalist for the 2006 Colorado Book Award. In this new book though, we're paying homage to a uniquely American love: the open road. We'll weave the photos and words into a lyrical whole that evokes the spirit of each road, each scenic byway.

The second part of Colorado Scenic Byways is a take-along Atlas & Road Guide, a route-by-route map of each byway giving the down-and-dirty details you'd need to get the most out of the trip, including maps and altitude profiles, details of geology, geography and history, fun and fascinating facts, and traveler's tips from each of us.

The deadline for this whole glorious assignment: January 1 for the essays for the coffee table book, February 1 for the road guide narratives. Yup, it's crazy - but how could I turn something like this down?

Richard and I managed to drive three of Colorado's scenic byways on our trip to Durango last weekend for Colorado Art Ranch's second Artposium, an event which was most appropriately focused on maps and creativity. What a weekend! We filled our minds with maps as metaphoric and literal aids to imagination and life, and filled our spirits with the starkly spectacular landscapes of southwestern Colorado and the stories of their millennia of human culture.

That's me in front of a nearly eight-foot-tall sagebrush at Lowry Ruin, an Ancestral Puebloan site perched on a hilltop off the Highway of the Ancients byway with a gorgeous view of the whole Four Corners region. If you're in southwestern Colorado, it's worth the trip on the dusty gravel road to visit Lowry. If you can get there at sunrise or sunset when the light colors the ruins golden and picks out the distant Henry Mountains to the west in Utah, Sleeping Ute Mountain to the south, the great tilted wedge of Mesa Verde to the southeast, and the high peaks of the Platas to the east, you can see why people settled in this now-isolated site. It's a view swells the soul.

(As a footnote to my traveling green entries, our Subaru Forester was a delight to drive. It's comfortable - I love the sunroof for skygazing!, averages 29 miles per gallon of gas, and its exhaust just smells like air, nothing more.)

Now I'm home with the brilliant silver moon setting as Cygnus, the Swan, flies down the Milky Way directly overhead. But my mind is very definitely on the road - on 25 scenic byway routes, in fact. Join me on the trip when Colorado Scenic Byways: Taking the Other Road is published next fall!

Monday, September 3, 2007

Traveling green, part II

When I first wrote about traveling green in June, I fully intended to say more about the subject in my next post. But when I got home, the garden was bursting and I had an article to write on green roofs for Audubon magazine, so I didn't get back to green travel.

It turns out that traveling "green" is both easier than I imagined and harder. Headed for a destination like Portland, where light rail lines cris-cross the metro area and buses are frequent, cheap, and convenient, it just required a change of habits. Instead of reserving a rental car and finding a road map of the city, I looked up the Max line map on the internet before leaving, and figured out how to get to our motel. Once there, we looked up the bus map and schedules and headed out with an itinerary in hand. (Also, we had our daughter, Molly, who lives in Portland as a guide. But even without her, it wouldn't have been difficult.)

I interviewed Tom Liptan, Portland's green roof guru from the Portland Bureau of Environmental Services and talked to Mace Vaughan, Conservation Director of the Xerces Society, a non-profit whose mission is the conservation of invertebrates, those zillions of creatures without backbones from starfish to butterflies. (Why does Xerces care about green roofs? Roofs carpeted with soil and plants are potential habitat for butterflies, native bees, spiders and other arthropods in cities where habitat for the smallest among us is often scarce.) Richard and Molly did Dad-daughter stuff, which involved looking at art and tasting coffee and beer. We all got around handily without a car using light rail and the bus system, and saved not just money and fossil fuel, but also avoided the hassle of navigating city traffic and finding parking.

(That's me in Washington - not at work on a magazine article!)

On the weekend, we headed to my brother's house in Olympia, Washington, normally a two- or more-hour drive via traffic-clogged Interstate 5. But this time we three boarded an Amtrak train and spent the time talking and watching the scenery go by. Even with the cost of the round-trip train tickets, we still saved money over the cost of a rental car for a week, plus gas. (We got a discount on the train tickets because we belong to Colorado AAA.)

Back in Portland, we stayed at a motel near the airport, and took a free shuttle to catch our morning flight home to Colorado. On the drive home from Denver, we talked about trading our commodious Toyota Sienna van for a smaller car to get better gas mileage.

Last weekend, we did just that: using AAA Autosource, a painless way to buy a car without the haggling and time-wasting dance at a dealership, we drove our Sienna to Denver, spent about 15 minutes with Heather Parrish, our Autosource sales person, and drove away in a brand-new 2008 Subaru Forester. (Thank you, Heather!) The great thing about our new car, besides the gas mileage (we got 28 mpg on the way home) and the price (we got the fleet price through AAA) is that it's a PZEV, partial zero emissions vehicle. That means its tailpipe emissions are not quite zero, but close enough to meet California's new emission standards, the strictest in the United States. According to the test results for the California Air Resources Board, our Forester's tailpipe emissions are at 0.09 (not quite zero) and the average new car in its class has a score of 0.38 - quite a difference.

One last green note about the Subaru Forester: the plant in Indiana where our car was made was the first auto plant in the US to achieve zero landfill status. Nothing from the plant goes to the landfill: it's all reused or recycled. (The plant is also a designated wildlife habitat, for whatever that's worth.)

Now that I've had some practice with greening my business travel, I'm aiming for an even smaller carbon footprint in upcoming trips. It's not easy to change habits and rethink how I travel, but it's worth the effort to ensure a future for all of us on this extraordinary blue planet.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Summer in the garden: sunflowers and tomatoes

Summer has finally come to our garden here at 7,000 feet above sea level in the south-central Rockies. By that I mean that the sunflowers in every possible permutation have opened their yellow and rust and brown faces, and the tomatoes are laden with fruit. I always plant a row of sunflowers somewhere in the garden, trying for as many varieties as possible (though I eschew those bred to lack pollen, because that cheats the bees and beetles, who depend on the pollen to feed their young).

Every year sunflowers pop up in different spots around the kitchen garden and yard on their own, and surprise us with their charming variety, their genes a mix of the wild Helianthus annus, the native annual sunflower, and whichever variety the bees crossed them with. Their heads grow heavy with seeds, much to the delight of the goldfinches, those warbling songsters of the yard, and the pine siskens and chickadees too. We even see yellow warblers and other insect-eaters gleaning their hairy stems and rich heads for tasty insects. The sunflowers make better habitat for the birds in our yard than feeders, because they're spread out and the spilled seed never rots or breeds disease organisms. (It's also not concentrated enough to attract the local squirrels, deer or black bears, all "pests" at seed feeders.)

And the tomatoes: all six varieties of tomatoes are finally ripe. The first ones to ripen are always 'Pompei,' a heritage Roma-type tomato, long and narrow and great for cooking because they have a rich flavor and not much juice. (That's them in the left-center of the bowl in the photo.) They're also delicious sliced in a salad of fresh garden greens, especially when they're just-picked and still warm from the sun. We savor the first Pompei in early July.

Next to ripen are the yellow pear tomatoes, thumb-size, pear-shaped as their name and sunny yellow (in the center below), perfect for eating fresh like the fruit that they are. Sometimes we find our friends in the garden, standing next to the raised bed with the tomatoes and eating the yellow pears right off the vines. They are great with crackers and cheese and a glass of wine, or halved on a fruit salad.

This year the chianti rose ripened next, their fat and round and juicy fruits a gorgeous shade of pinkish-red that really does look like wine. (The pink, round tomatoes on the right hand side of the bowl.) Another heritage variety, these may be my favorite for their sweetness and silky texture, and the fact that they seem to have no acid at all. They're not the prettiest tomatoes - their skin is so thin that they always split - but they take the size prize. I harvested one that weighed in at nearly two pounds this summer. Cut into wedges and served with fresh basil and mozzarella cheese drizzled with a little olive oil and balsamic vinegar, they are heaven!

Next to ripen were the cost0luto, which win the prize for looks: these small, somewhat flattened tomatoes are scarlet and ribbed with smooth, slightly shiny skin, as if they've been waxed. (The costolutos are in the lower left quarter of the bowl.) They have the richest, most intensely tomato flavor of any variety we've ever grown. Then came the persimmon, small orange globes as bright as their name and bursting with bright flavor too: they are citrusy and perfect for eating fresh or cooking.

The last of our six heritage varieties of tomatoes to ripen are the perhaps the best: black Krim, a black-russian type tomato, named because their tops stay a dark green shade that looks black, while the lower half of these beefsteak tomatoes ripen to a dark ruby red color. (The two black Krims are in the upper left, the one on the right bottoms-up.) Their flesh is smooth and velvety, and their flavor instense and sweet. And they are huge, almost as big as the Chianti rose tomatoes.

We're only about a month from the first hard frosts, which usually comes in late September. But in that time, I plan to savor the summer tastes of tomatoes eaten fresh from the vine, and the sight of sunflowers in every shape and color pivoting their heads to follow the sun as it moves across the cloudless sky. Here in the mountains, we revel in summer, perhaps because it doesn't last long. Here's to tomatoes and sunflowers!

And thanks, as always, to seedswoman and cook Rene Shepherd of Rene's Garden Seeds for the fabulous varieties of fruits, herbs and vegetables that delight and sustain us from the kitchen garden.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Eight days and thirty-two hundred miles

Richard and I just returned from a thirty-two hundred mile drive across the inland West, that wide stretch of mostly-open, treeless country between the Rockies and the Cascades. Our excuse for the road trip was a family gathering at my brother's land high above the Klickitat River in southern Washington.

We stopped in Portland first, and celebrated our anniversary with our daughter, Molly, and a dinner at Terroir, a wonderful restaurant in her Portland neighborhood that features local, fresh food served small plate style (like tapas). We shared a variety of dishes, beginning with a cold cucumber-yoghurt soup with hints of chile and cilantro and ending with a chocolate tart and a creamy slice of cheesecake topped with boysenberries. Yum! From there we braved the congested I-5 corridor in Washington to visit our nieces, Heather and Sienna, and their families, because they couldn't join us all at the land. (And yes, we spent half an hour one evening sitting in a traffic jam in between Olympia and Tacoma - I'm so glad I live in rural Colorado!)

Then we headed for the Columbia River Gorge and Bill and Lucy's land high above the gorge with a fabulous view of Mt Adams rising like the enormous dormant volcano it is on the northern horizon. We hung out, looked for birds and wildflowers - the yampah was blooming, its white Queen-Ann's-Lace-type flower a hint of the starchy bulb that for millennia nourished the people who loved on this land before us, ate salmon and fresh corn off the grill, and stayed up until what seemed way after dark to us old folks watching for the Perseid meteors.

We saw a few meteors, but mostly we just admired the myriad stars, sparkling in uncountable numbers in truly dark skies. Far from streetlights, yard lights, billboard lights, parking lot lights and stadium lights, the sky was the best show of all, black and infinite and positively littered with the twinkling dots of so many stars you can't begin to count them all. Looking at the heavens like that is a glimpse back in time to the universe where life began, a look at the wondrous fact that we exist at all, here on the only blue planet we know in all of space.

On the long drive home, we detoured to blue highways, the two-lane roads that take longer to get from point to point, but which gave us a more intimate experience of the landscapes. We saw stepped canyons cut in dark layers of basalt, sagebrush twice as tall as I am flourishing in the deep soil of stream bottoms, the searing scars of windblown range fires blackening miles of what had been green and sage-clothed landscape, pelicans riding the choppy waters of inland lakes, rivers sliding over worn cobbles, black-necked stilts teetering on impossibly long and skinny as they probed for food in muddy pond shores, the smoke of distant fires blurring blue horizons, mountains rising like waves from desert basins, red cliffs against blue sky, sagebrush coloring miles of high desert like gray-green and fragrant suede, bluebirds winging through Gambel oak.

We saw huge wind turbines with blades spinning in slow circles like one-legged dancers atop high ridges, pump jacks see-sawing up and down as they sucked ancient liquified carbon from the earth, the lighted derricks of drill rigs slowly piercing the skin of the earth, trucks racing their shadows down hills, trains winding up long grades.

We saw Wasco, Spray, John Day, Prairie City, and Unity, Oregon; Nampa (could that be a variant of yampah, the region's native "potato"?), Boise, Mountain Home, and Grassmere, Idaho; the Duck Valley Reservation, home to Shoshone and Paiute people; Owyhee, Mountain City, Elko, Deeth, and West Wendover, Nevada; Aragonite, Tooele, Salt Lake City, Spanish Fork, Helper, Price, and Green River, Utah; Fruita, Grand Junction, Delta, Montrose, Sapinero Gunnison and Parlin, Colorado.

We crossed the miles-wide Columbia, the John Day (three times), Malhuer (twice in two different states), Snake, Boise, Owyhee, Humbolt (the river that runs 250 miles west across Nevada only to disappear into the desert), Green, Colorado, Uncompaghre, Cimarron, and Gunnison rivers. We crossed the Columbia plains, Blue Mountains, Snake River plains, Independence Mountains, Pequop and Goshute mountains, Great Salt Desert, Wasatch Front, San Rafael Desert, Grand Valley, Cimarron uplift, and the Sawatch Range.

We traversed a huge sweep of country, all of which gave me a glimmer of the book I'm hoping to start this fall. But best of all, we came home. This valley in between two major ranges of the Rockies, this town that sits on the Arkansas River, this house on a formerly junky industrial site now restored to a native wildflower and bunchgrass grassland where the hummingbirds trill among the Indian paintbrush flaming bright scarlet is truly where my heart is: home.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Summer rain

After weeks of dry weather and air filled with smoke from huge forest fires off to the West, the past ten days have brought us the summer "monsoon" season - late, but much better than never. We've had some whopping thunderstorms - today's brought pea-sized hail, which I would not have chosen if anyone had asked for my opinion! But the storms have also gifted us with nearly two inches of rain, and my garden's loving the moisture plus the nitrogen fixed by the lightning, as are the wildflowers in our restored native grassland front yard.

The hummingbirds zip around the yard in the morning and the evening - they rest in the shade through the hot parts of the day - drinking from the scarlet gilia, the orange-red flames of Indian paintbrush, and the dangling bell-like blossoms of the scarlet bugler penstemon. We never got around to putting up a hummingbird feeder when we finally got this house finished enough to move in last summer (after spending six years building it, but that's another story!). Now I'm glad. The flowers in the yard are so abundant that the hummers don't waste energy fighting over the feeder. We get to watch their natural behavior, noting which wildflowers they prefer at different times of day. And they get to play their part in the community of our yard, pollinating the flowers that entice them with nectar. Today I watched two broad-tails, one rufous, one calliope, and an immature I couldn't identify, all feeding in different parts of the yard at once.

Since we garden without pesticides, the wildflowers and the herbs attract a steady parade of butterflies too, including this female black swallowtail (that's from Butterflies and Moths of North America, a fabulous butterfly and moth identification web site hosted by Montana State University) laying eggs on our dill. I don't mind leaving extra dill to feed the caterpillars that metamorphose into these gorgeous black-winged adults. Watching them float through the garden on sunny afternoons is more than worth the loss of a few dill plants!

Eight Random Facts Meme addendum two

3. My first car was a horse and a pack train. Several commenters asked for the details, so here's the scoop: I worked for the U.S. Forest Service during and after college, and was too poor to buy a vehicle. The National Forest in Wyoming where I worked is known as the "horse forest" for its large areas of landscape so steep and rugged that the easiest way to get around is by horse and pack train. So I learned to pack panniers (it's critical that each pannier in a pair weigh about the same) and tie various hitches (I might still be able to tie a diamond hitch if I put my mind to it!).

I worked in the backcountry for ten days at a time doing my biology field research. Sometimes my camps were only a half-day ride in, sometimes several days. So I spent a lot of time and many miles on horseback with a mule or two tagging behind. I never rolled a pack string, but I did see that happen once. I had to shoot a horse that time (with someone else's gun): the lead horse in the string shied and lost its footing on a really steep slope and the other six horses, all roped together, literally rolled nearly 500 feet down the slope together. One horse both front legs. I was coming down the trail about a quarter mile behind, saw the accident, tied up my duo, and clambered down to help. I can still hear the horses screaming, a sound I'd rather forget.

I only lost my horse once, when a co-worker and I had ridden in to a remote area to map grizzly bear habitat. We made camp in a lovely meadow along a stream, hobbled our horses (our standard practice to keep them from overgrazing one part of the meadow) and climbed up a steep ridge looking for grizz sign. We saw a lot of it, and when we got back to camp late in the evening, we had had a visitor: a bear had pawed around, tried to reach our packs, (hung ten feet up from a tree branch), and our horses were gone. We set off back down the trail following their prints. We found the buggers at one that morning at the trailhead, hanging around the corral - still hobbled. We hiked most of the way in the dark (no moon), fording one river and having a great-horned owl fly down the trail so close over our heads that we could feel the air from its wings. (It wasn't after us, just hunting in the darkness down the open corridor of the trail.) We slept at the corral that night and rode back to camp the next day. I was younger then. . . .

Making up for a two-week silence

The last two weeks completely got away from me, between working on two feature articles for two very different magazines at once, house guests, and keeping up with the garden. So I'll go for several short posts on different subjects instead of one long one.

First, I've got to brag: I knitted a rug! Really. It's not hard, thanks to Donna Druchunas' well-written The Knitted Rug. I've knitted Icelandic-style sweaters before, but I wouldn't say I'm an experienced knitter, so I picked a rug Donna rates as "intermediate" skill level: the Crayon Color-Block Sampler. It's like a patchwork sampler of comprised of five different rectangular blocks, knitted on large (size 17!) needles. I used Knit Picks "crayon" yarn, a cotton chenille. Since the pattern calls for bulky yarn and crayon is really more like sport-weight, I knitted with four strands of yarn instead of one. I wasn't sure it would work, but the finished rug is cloud-soft and very cushiony underfoot, which is good since it's a present for Luz Mariela, the eight-month-old newly adopted daughter of our friends Peg Logan and Rolfe Larson. The yarn's not only a great texture and softness for a baby, it's also machine washable (cold, delicate) and dryable (same). So, Mari, there's your baby rug - crawl away!

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Addenda to Eight Random Facts meme

The first tomato is turning ripe! It's the size of my fist, and it's a Chianti rose, a cross between a heritage Italian tomato and a Brandywine that ripens pink and sweet and low-acid. (Seeds from Rene's Garden - thank you, Rene Shepherd.) My tomato vines are loaded with fruit and I can hardly wait to pick that first sun-warmed fruit and bite in - oh, yes.

The hot weather has finally come to south-central Colorado, and my garden is taking off. Now if we would just get some rain. . . .

And I'm finally tagging my eighth blogger: Velda Brotherton, you're it!

Monday, July 9, 2007


I've been thinking lately about the concept of stewardship, specifically stewardship of this benighted and beautiful blue planet.
What does it mean to be a steward of a place, a community, of this planet?

According to the New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, the word steward comes from the Old English words for ward or manager and house. A steward is thus someone who manages or tends a house, and stewardship has its roots in caring for home. If we think of Earth as the home of our species - and it is in fact as far as we can tell the only home our species has ever known - then how we manage or tend that home is a critical factor in the survival of our children and their children, of the genes that carry our species into a future we won't know. That makes stewardship pretty important.

But what is it? How can we be good stewards of our planet? Stories about being green are all over the popular media these days and web sites from Live Earth to Audubon and even Oprah have sections with tips on how you can be "part of the solution." Changing your household lightbulbs to compact fluorescents will indeed save energy and that means less CO2 added to the atmosphere, a very good thing. Driving less is good too, both for you and the planet. But it seems to me that stewardship is more than just buying new lightbulbs or walking more. As the original meaning implies, it's a commitment of sorts, a commitment to managing our own lives' and our species' impact on Earth.

I think stewardship is based on sharing. It means acknowledging that there are a lot of us humans and our impact on our home is huge. And it means having a new vision for our lives that springs from making space for the other lives around us, whether we ever see those lives or not. It seems to me that stewardship means joining the community of the land, the web of living beings who together green and maintain the ecological and spiritual health of our home, this planet.

I think stewardship is how you live your life, not just one action now and then. It's about making space for the other species native to the places where you live, about learning who else belongs to the community of your land and making those lives welcome. The first part of that is living your life in a way that's less consumptive of resources of all kinds, so that your choices allow other species to meet their needs.

The second part of that is actual restoration of habitat. It's not hard: If you live in a city apartment, get to know the native species in your area and welcome them to share your neighborhood. Put out a pot of native wildflowers, a hummingbird feeder, a box for native bees to nest in. Or volunteer to help restore wildlife habitat in a local park, schoolyard, or vacant lot. If you have an actual yard, make yourself a wild corner and plant it with native species: a tree, a few shrubs, some vines, wildflowers, and grasses, and let them twine how they will. Cultivate untidiness (but learn which plants are native and which are true weeds, harmful invasive plants that take over, disrupting the relationships that form the native community).

When my husband and I adopted our 2/3 of an acre of decaying industrial land on the wrong side of the former railroad tracks in our small town, we vowed to restore the native mountain bunchgrass prairie. Ten years and lots of weed-pulling, spraying, and burning later, our new house looks out on a front yard awash in scarlet, blue, yellow, and purple wildflowers and buzzing with the wings of hummingbirds, butterflies, and native bees. (The same bees that pollinate the heritage tomato plants in our kitchen garden, ensuring huge yields.) We'll always have weeds to pull, and we'll also always have the joy of knowing we took the place in the first photo and turned it into the second photo.

If you own or manage a larger piece of land, measure its health not just in how many cows it produces, how many bushels of corn, or how green it looks. Think of its health in terms of the larger community of the land: How many native species live there? Who are they and what are their needs? Challenge yourself to welcome these neighbors to your land and see how they fit, and what part they play in the web of relationships that nurtures you, too.

Stewardship is about nurturing the community of the land, not just one species. It's about belonging to this blue planet with every fiber of our being, every choice we make in our lives. Welcome to life on Earth!

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Eight Random Facts

Sherrie York at Brush and Baren tagged me with a meme - I feel like I've been chosen for her virtual playground team. I'm no longer on the meme sidelines!

(If you're wondering what a meme is, the word originated with British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who used it first in his book The Selfish Gene to stand for units of cultural transmission, just as genes are the units of biological inheritance. A meme could be a song, advertisement, style of dress, myth, story, slang, a cuisine - any unit that transmits culture. Dawkins summed up memes this way: In much the same way that the molecular codes of genes pass on physical traits, the bits of information called memes pass on human culture, propagating themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain. Or in this case, from blog to blog.)

Here are the rules for Eight Random Facts:
  • Players start with eight random facts/habits about themselves.
  • People who are tagged need to write their own blog about their eight things and post these rules.
  • At the end of your blog, you need to choose eight people to get tagged and list their names.
  • Don’t forget to leave them a comment telling them they’re tagged, and to read your blog.

Here are my random facts:
  1. I live in a house that has a view of four biomes: western Great Plains, southern Rocky Mountains, Chihuahuan Desert and Great Basin.
  2. In my garden are six kinds of heritage tomatoes (none are ripe yet).
  3. My first car was a horse and a pack train.
  4. My first dog was a Labrador retriever who loved to fish and hated hunting.
  5. My last dog was a Great Dane who was bigger than I am. When she galloped, I could almost fly by holding onto her leash.
  6. One of my degrees is in fine arts photography but I don't own a camera; my other degree is in field ecology and I don't own a field either.
  7. I do own a formerly decaying industrial property on which my husband and I are carefully restoring the native bunchgrass habitat (the wildflowers in our front yard are gorgeous right now).
  8. If there is a plant I love more than big sagebrush, I haven't met it yet.
Okay you fabulous wordswomen: Donna, Dani, Susan, Bobbi, Janet, Deb, Jane, it's your turn. . . .

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Traveling green

I'm in humid Portland, Oregon, on assignment for Audubon magazine. Since I live a relatively "green" life at home - I walk most places, live in a house heated and cooled by the sun, and eat from my organic kitchen garden - and since I'm writing for an environmental magazine, it seemed to me that this trip would be a good chance to try to make my business travel as green as possible.

I quickly encountered complex the trade-offs. I didn't have time to drive to Portland, and there's no train service from my part of Colorado to the Pacific Coast. That left flying, the least "green" alternative (a recent study estimates that a coast-to-coast flight emits twice as much carbon dioxide per passenger as driving an SUV would, and three to five times as much as taking the train). So I purchased carbon offset credits from Terrapass to offset the greenhouse gas emissions from my plane flights. Carbon offset credits pay for renewable energy development and other projects that attempt to remediate or soak up the greenhouse gases produced by activities that use up fossil fuels, adding that once-stored carbon to the atmosphere. They're not a perfect solution, but buying carbon offset credits from a reputable organization like Terrapass is better than doing nothing. (I think.)

Then there's the trip to the airport, 120 miles over the mountains to Denver. There's no way to get there via public transit (that's one drawback to living in the rural West - there is no public transit). My husband and I carpooled in our Toyota Sienna van, which gets around 22 miles to the gallon. (We're thinking of trading for something smaller and more fuel-efficient - probably a Subaru Forester - next time we have spare money.) We've resolved to keep our speed to 65 miles per hour or below in order to increase gas mileage (over 50 mph, your mileage-per-gallon drops as much as 20 percent for each ten mile-per-hour increase in speed). That made the trip a bit longer, but not enough to be worth burning the extra fuel and adding more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

At the airport, we parked at an economy lot and took a shuttle with a dozen other people for the last few miles or so. A slightly greener option that saves us $4 a day in parking fees. Nice!

With flights right after lunch, we had to get something to eat so we wouldn't starve on the way to Portland. (Bringing our lunches would have been much greener, but I ran out of time at the last minute. I'll plan more carefully next time, and we'll eat better!) We picked from the limited fast-food options available, mindful of the environmental cost of processing and packaging food. We ended up with a Caesar salad in a plastic container and a slice of pizza in cardboard. I was feeling pretty good about finding fairly "green" fast food until we sat down to eat, and I popped the top of my drink, a San Pelligrino soda, imported from Italy. So much for my green consciousness: next time I'll drink local water from a water fountain. It may be purified and chilled, both of which use energy, but at least it won't be shipped halfway around the world. Here's to local water!

On the plane, I faced another one of those trade-offs when the beverage service cart came around. What's the greenest choice there? Not sodas, with their high-sugar content and high energy costs in processing, or juices, with their long travel distances. Ditto for wines and beers or mixed drinks. I chose bottled water, but again, next time I'll bring my own. How? I saw a guy in the security line with two empty water bottles, which he must have been planning to fill in a drinking fountain after making it through security. He and his bottles safely passed the scanner, so I'll imitate his strategy next time.

When we reached Portland, instead of renting a car as I normally do on business travel, Richard and I caught a red MAX line train on Portland's light rail system, headed for the hotel I'd picked because it fit into Audubon's travel budget and was a few blocks from the MAX. (Yup, it's much more convenient to rent a car, but Portland has great mass transit, so I had decided when I planned this trip that it was time for me to practice the values I do at home while on the road. And our daughter, Molly, lives in Portland and rides the light rail all the time, so she volunteered to serve as our tour guide.)

The toughest part of taking the MAX was getting the machine at the airport to take my money, but once we had our tickets, we simply walked a short distance to the train, waited a few minutes, got on and were off. The trip up was quick, the ride pleasant, and we exited three blocks from our hotel. The best part? Whizzing past the bumper-to-bumper traffic on the interstate as we relaxed and chatted. Talk about feeling good about being green. . . .

Today I've mapped out the bus route to my first interview (thanks to Molly) and tomorrow I'm walking to the Metro Building to meet Tom Liptan, a landscape architect and green roof guru, who works for the City of Portland Bureau of Environmental Services, and has promised me a tour of green roofs in his hybrid car.

More on green travel choices in this trip to a summer-green region in my next post!

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Belonging to the community of the land

Earlier this month I gave a welcome talk for a conference in Texas. The topic: “the community of the land,” a phrase I’ve begun using in preference to “nature,” a word that has somehow come to connote a separate world -whether alien or utopian - to which humanity no longer belongs.

The phrase “community of the land” was inspired by Aldo Leopold, author of Sand County Almanac. Leopold, a wildlife biologist, spent a lifetime outdoors observing the relationships between plants, animals (including humans), and the land.

He came to realize that what was important in nature wasn’t individual lives or even individual species. It was the whole messy package, the steaming stew of interactions between plant and animal and landscape, between soil-dwelling microbe and root, root and tunneling rodent, rodent and soaring hawk, and hawk and the soil it decays into that created this living, breathing Earth. Leopold summed up his credo: The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to encompass soils, waters, plants, animals or collectively: the land.

The phrase “the community of the land” reflects the fact that landscape is not just a scenic backdrop; it is a vibrant, interrelated community to which people belong.

The piñon pine - juniper woodlands above town, for instance, are not static. They are constantly changing, shaped by the relationships between all the lives that inhabit them.
The legions of microscopic and macroscopic lives like fungi and springtails and worms that live, eat, reproduce, and die underfoot, and in the doing, cleanse the air and water that pass through the soil and keep it fertile. These tiny lives enter into partnerships with the piñons and junipers, the oaks, blue grama grass and the wildflowers that briefly splash the hillsides with color.

The plants in turn feed hosts of insects, from seed-gathering ants trailing in lines across the soil to native bees and butterflies sipping flower nectar. And birds too, like the piñon jays on whom the trees depend to carry their fat-rich seeds to distant jay-caches where uneaten seeds sprout new groves of piñons. The warblers and flycatchers that pluck insects off the branches or out of the air, the circling hawks that catch the rodents and snakes, the deer that munch on succulent plants and the mountain lions that munch on deer.

And the people that cut the trees for firewood, clear patches for houses and roads, and whizz between the trees on mountain bikes. This whole web of relationships is what animates the landscape and gives it the characteristic colors, smells, shapes and sounds that we recognize as piñon-juniper woodland, the dwarf “forest” the cloaks our hills.

Why care about the community of the land? Because it is our oldest home
, the place where our species was born and shaped. Because it is the earth we depend on, the planet that provides us with the air we breathe, the water that floods our cells, the food we eat and the raw materials from which we make the stuff of our lives. And because it is the home of our hearts and spirits. Reconnecting with the community of the land, that living web of interrelationships between species large and small, obvious and obscure can restore our sanity, our balance and our hope for the future.

Some believe our power has liberated or alienated us from nature, the great network of life that still shapes this unique blue planet. Not so.

There is a place for us in nature, if we’ll take it. It’s risky, but it allows us to exercise our species’ greatest talent: love. Love is the gift we bring to the community of the land. And it’s what allows us to truly belong to the only home our species has ever known.