Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Spring Resumes, Life Continues

Yesterday brought rain and then wet snow and then rain again. A low cloud ceiling shrank the world to just town and the very bottom edges of the mountainsides, and a heavy blanket of snow smothered all it touched: houses, cars, roads, sidewalks.

Today is a different world: sunny, sixty degrees and dry. The sodden blanket of snow has vanished as completely as if it had never existed, except in deep shade, and up on the peaks and mountainsides above town. Our tomato plants survived last night's low of 22 degrees thanks to the warm thermal mass of their wall-o-waters the insulation of a row cover thrown over the top to keep the snow out. (The water in the tubes of the wall-o-waters was 44 degrees this morning, amazing when the low last night was half that. Those protective plastic and water teepees saved the tomato plants!) The spinach is sprouting huge dark green leaves, the lettuce springing up, the tulips are blooming. And in the wild shortgrass prairie restoration that is our front yard, the pasque flowers, those heralds of spring in the grasslands, sprang back up this morning as soon as the snow blanket melted off. The native pincushion cactus that a friend gave me last year is crowned with three pale pink blossoms that look like exploding stars. (Thanks, Ellen!)

Spring in the Rockies reminds me that life, the most important miracle of all, continues no matter what. That's a blessing.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Isis moves on

I tried to write this last night, but I couldn't. I was too soppy. Yesterday morning, on a day of chill, drizzling rain and clouds hanging low, we ended the life of our Great Dane, Isis. We all die. Knowing that doesn't make it easier to part though. Nor does it make the decision to end another's life easier.

For nearly five years, Isis has been the "big dog" in our lives, the sweet and goofy companion who has been at our heels (literally, as she never really grasped just how big she was) 24/7. She came to us after two horrific years at a puppy mill where she was starved, burned severely, and abused in ways we don't want to imagine. From the moment she leaped into our truck and refused to get out, she declared that she had been waiting for us and we had better take her home NOW, thank you very much! So we did.

She repaid us by being an inspiration: she lived forgiveness. Despite how she had been treated up until she was rescued, emaciated and near death, she was never mean or aggressive. She greeted everyone with affection; at play, she galloped exuberantly or spun "donuts" of joy.

When Isis pranced alongside me, her long legs pacing mine and her tail gently waving, people often stopped to tell me how beautiful she was. It was true: she looked like she was wearing a shiny black tuxedo jacket open to show off her snowy white chest and muzzle, the sleeves pulled up to reveal her white ankles and feet. Until she turned to show off her other side, with the puckered burn scars cris-crossing her body from nose to tail, the crooked spine and the shrunken shoulder. It was her gracious and goofy spirit that made her beautiful.

Last weekend, Isis collapsed several times. Each time, she heaved herself up, legs buckling, swaying as she stood, then careening into motion, now toward the wall, now toward the door. We guided her staggering progress the best we could, hauling her up, front end first, then back end. Even the short trip from our bedroom, where she slept each night, to the living room, where she reclined on her queen-sized dog bed during the day, became an adventure. Her age and the injuries of her years in the puppy mill had finally caught up with her. So we decided to let her go while she still had her dignity, and before the pain took away her love of life.

Yesterday morning we sat with Isis at the vet's as our Big Dog slipped from this life into whatever's next. She was gracious and trusting to the end. We all cried - even her vet. She was a big dog, and she leaves a big hole in our lives. We'll recover, and we won't forget her lesson: forgiveness trumps all.

Goodbye, Isis.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Curlews, shorebirds of the prairie "sea"

Driving home from Denver on a classic Rocky Mountain spring day last Saturday, Richard and I left ice fog and sleet behind us as we topped Kenosha Pass, and dropped into bright sunshine in South Park (the real one, a high bowl of a valley stretching for miles in the mountains of south-central Colorado). I had just put on my sunglasses when he pointed at a group of birds near the highway.

Six shorebirds big as pheasants balanced on skinny, gray-blue legs probing the winter-dry grass with outrageously long, down-curved bills like surrealist darning needles. The mottled brown and tan feathers of their backs blended perfectly with the light and shadow patterns of the prairie, and their buff-colored bellies held a hint of cinnamon.

"Long-billed curlews!"

I swiveled to keep them in view as we whizzed past. I thought about asking Richard to turn around, but they were so close to the road I was afraid we'd scare them off.

Long-billed curlews are North America's largest and one of our rarest shorebirds. They're named for those improbable curving bills (eight inches long, fully a third of the bird's total length) and for the sound of their call, a drawn-out whistle that goes up at the end, and which echoes over shortgrass prairies and sagebrush-grasslands in summer: "cur-lew! cur-lew!"

They are considered shorebirds for their winter habitat, the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. But the shore where they spend their summers is metaphoric: they nest in the "seas" of sagebrush and prairie that make up the western Great Plains from Texas to Alberta, and the Great Basin from Nevada to British Columbia. Their migrating flocks once darkened the skies over the prairies by the hundreds of thousands. But market hunting in the 1800s slashed their numbers, and breaking the sod for farm fields ate up their nesting habitat. Loss of habitat to agriculture, development, and cheat-grass fueled fires continues to threaten their survival.

Seeing the long-billed curlews along the side of Highway 285 the other day lifted my spirits like a visit from friends long thought lost. Knowing that curlews still migrate through these landscapes and that their calls still echo over the shortgrass and sagebrush seas gives me hope for the future - theirs and ours - on this, the only animate planet we know.


Last night I woke to the whooshing waves of chinook winds, followed by a downpour of rain, then sleet pinging on the metal roof, and finally big wet flakes of snow. The apricot and plum trees in my neighborhood are blooming and the bluebirds have returned, their backs as bright as chips of sky fallen to earth. It's clearly spring in the Rockies!

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Writing and Dining and Gardening

It's been a crazy week of writing deadlines - I'm working on a feature article for National Parks magazine on the history and future of cottonwood riparian forests, those oases of shade and water that green the arid West. Just as I was starting on the final push to finish the piece came an invitation to attend a gathering in honor of the Orion Society and Orion Magazine hosted my friend Bill deBuys (if you haven't read his River of Traps, you're missing an incredible look at northern New Mexico). The gathering, sponsored by the non-profit organization simpleChange, featured Chip Blake, head of the Orion Society and Orion Magazine, and Barry Lopez, one of my heroes in writing and life, and his partner Debra Gwartney, editor of Home Ground, a thick volume that calls itself an encyclopedia of landscape terms but is really an extended essay of affection and attachment by some fine writers who throw their hearts and prose into defining the features characteristic of the landscapes we live on and love.

How could I turn down the chance to hang out with Barry, Debra, Chip, Bill, goddess of editing and publicity Nancy Fay, and 40 other interesting people? I couldn't, even though it meant an 8-hour round-trip drive in the middle of a crazy work week. Fortunately, Richard, my love and the carrier of my briefcase on trips such as this, offered to drive. We set out on a windy afternoon and tacked cross-gust up and over Poncha Pass and south down the long expanse of the San Luis Valley. When we dropped off the Taos Plateau into Ojo Caliente in northern New Mexico, the apricot trees were blooming in billowing clouds of white and pink around the adobe farmhouses. Spring!

Listening to Barry Lopez speak about the state of the world today was humbling, inspiring, and left me feeling hopeful for what each of us can do for this Earth that sustains us, and for each other: love. He believes in the power of loving action, of people working in their own communities, the wisdom that is inherent in the land and each of us, and how real power comes from ordinary people cracking open our walls and being vulnerable and aware and active in the world. (He said it better, of course. My excuse for paraphrasing badly is that I'd worked all day and then had a four-hour-drive to get to the event in the first place. But it was worth it.) I'm still thinking about the conversations of that night, integrating what I heard and said and letting it all settle before I decide where to go with it.

One place I'll go is back to my kitchen garden, where I work with earth and sunlight and my partners, the plants and their partners in pollination, to grow a good portion of the food we eat. And that brings me to where I'll be this Saturday, April 7th, between 1:30 & 3:00 p.m.:
Tattered Cover Bookstore in Highlands Ranch (9315 Dorchester Street, between Lucent Drive and Broadway in the Highlands Ranch Town Center) where I'm part of an "expert panel" of garden book writers including Angela Overy (Sex in the Garden) and Dave Wann (The Zen of Gardening in the High and Arid West) there to answer your questions about playing with plants in our challenging environment. The point is to sell books, of course, but I'd be happy to see any and all of you whether you buy books or not.
Speaking of gardening, the spinach and Mesclun lettuce mix I planted in my kitchen garden last fall survived the winter (under row covers and some serious snow) and are now happily producing early greens. The tomatoes and basil I seeds I started inside three weeks ago are growing apace; they're nearly ready to transplant to larger pots. And we saw the first mountain bluebird today, blue as a chip of sky. Spring is here!