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.)

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Winter greens for the winter blues

Have you ever wondered why the winter holidays celebrated by Northern cultures involve evergreens? When deciduous trees and shrubs drop their leaves and flowers are long gone, when daylight disappears and nights grow long, when the soil itself freezes and snow mantles the ground, we need a reminder that life will indeed continue. Hence the evergreen Christmas trees, wreaths of fragrant fir and pine, ivy garlands, and holly centerpieces with shiny leaves and bright red berries.

Those are things I love about Christmas--especially the resinous smell of pine and fir sap, a fragrance that reminds me of sun-warmed summer days even as icy winds blow down the valley and snow dusts the peaks.

But when I find myself feeling the winter blues, I need more than the fragrance of evergreens or the shine of holly berries. I need fresh greens to eat. There's something about ingesting crisp leaves full of chorophyll, the green pigment that plants use to capture the sun's energy, that lifts my winter mood. We live less than a block from the local grocery store, so it's easy to go buy a box of those organic greens from California. But I'd rather eat greens I've grown with my own hands here in my own soil. And although we plant spinach and market greens in fall, and manage to keep some of them alive over the winter, they grow so slowly once the day length drops below 10 hours and the night's lows drop below 10 degrees that the harvest is occasional and tiny.

So this year Richard and I decided to experiment with growing fresh greens inside. Our house is designed to capture the winter sunlight for heat, which means it's got lots of windows facing south and thus can function as a decent greenhouse. In mid-November, long after our last real garden harvest, I planted one flat of spinach seeds (Catalina, my favorite variety from Rene Shepherd) and another flat of Rene's Paris Market salad mix. The Paris Market mix started sprouting in less than a week; the spinach took a bit longer. They're putting out their first real leaves, and looking a bit leggy, so I've taken to moving the two flats from our bedroom where they get sun for less than eight hours a day through the 8-foot-wide sliding glass door, to the living room, where a 16-foot-wide bank of windows occupies one whole wall. If my experiment works, we'll be eating fresh salads in the New Year.

And that--along with a spicy-smelling piñon pine tree cut to thin our overgrown local forests--takes care of my winter blues.

(Thanks to local artist Rod Porco, maker of extraordinary sculptural baskets and talented woodsworker, for the wreath above and for our firewood and Christmas trees!)

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Giving Thanks

The holiday we now celebrate by stuffing ourselves with turkey and a host of other dishes, often followed by a glut of watching football, did not begin with either turkey or sports. In fact, it didn't begin with people who we now call Pilgrims from a colony in what is now Massachusetts.

The very first Thanksgiving recorded on what is now American soil came on September 8, 1565 when Pedro Mendez de Aviles, a Spanish colonizer, landed with his party at what is now St. Augustine, Florida. Faced with an assemblage of native Timucua Indians who might or might not be friendly, Mendez de Aviles ordered the group to celebrate an impressive Mass of Thanksgiving for their successful voyage to the continent they called the New World, but which was, in fact, the old world to the many cultures who already resided there. After Mass, the Spaniards invited the natives to join them in a feast featuring bean soup made from their remaining shipboard supplies.

Thanksgiving services, with and without feasts and most often without Native participation, were common in the early years of European settlement of North America. Don Juan de Oñate and his train of followers celebrated a Mass of Thanksgiving in 1598 on the banks of the Rio Grande near what is now El Paso, Texas, as the Spaniards marched north to lay claim to the far-flung empire of New Spain. The English settlers of the Berkeley Hundred colony on the James River in Virginia celebrated a service of Thanksgiving upon their arrival in 1619, and of course, the settlers of Plymouth Plantation celebrated the Thanksgiving feast in 1622 that we commemorate today. (That theirs lasted three days and that turkey was not on any recorded menu are facts set aside in the day's evolution into a national holiday to gluttony, followed by a national day of shopping.)

Thanksgiving celebrations of yore were generally celebrations of the European effort to wrest a whole continent from its native people. That seems to me something to attone for, rather than something to feel thankful for. So on our national holiday of Thanksgiving, I make an effort to focus my day on things for which I can give thanks.

I begin with thanks to the Earth, our own green and blue planet which, despite being battered by its swelling human population, sustains the only life our species has ever known. And a rather spectacular life it is, shared with some 1.8 million other species, from microscopic creatures with shells of glass to lives the size of giant redwood trees and blue whales as long as school buses. Thank you, Earth!

I give thanks for those myriad species as well, including the ones like ravens and sagebrush and Indian paintbrush that animate my everyday landscape, and the tiny ones that live on and in me, aiding my body in its digestion and health; as well as the wilder and more distant ones like grizzly bears, eelgrass, leatherback turtles, baobab trees, sooty shearwaters, and monarch butterflies, whose stories and lives inspire my own. Thank you, Peoples of Earth, Sky, and Waters!

I give thanks for my far-flung human community of family, friends, and colleagues, all of those whose lives have touched mine over the years. Thank you!

I give thanks for the plants in my garden and those grown on area farms, and the animals that provide the food I cook lovingly to nurture friends and family. Thank you, winter squash vines for your hard and crusty fruit, maple trees for yielding sap for syrup, wheat for the seeds ground into flour, cows for the milk churned to butter and that thick whipping cream, chickens for your nutritious eggs, pecan trees for those rich nuts, grapes for the juice we ferment into wine, and barley and hops for the seeds we make into foamy beer!

This year I have some special reasons to give thanks: Our country's political winds have shifted rather dramatically from what has seemed like a culture of fear and divisiveness to one of hope and the generosity of inclusiveness.

I am thankful that my memoir, Walking Nature Home: A Life's Journey, will be published next March, with illustrations by Sherrie York, an artist whose friendship and inspiration I cherish. For the surprise award of a fellowship from a private foundation that will allow me to stay at home and work on the next book for three months beginning in mid-January. (Thanks to Grant Pound and Colorado Art Ranch for midwifing the fellowship!)

And last but certainly not least, I give thanks for my family, especially my husband Richard, who has not only survived bladder cancer, but continues to inspire me with his sculpture work.

So on this official day of giving thanks, I have much to be thankful for. And that makes this a rich Thanksgiving indeed. May yours be similarly blessed, with many reasons to give thanks!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

A boulder goes on the road -- and some news

Last weekend, I got to ride along with my husband Richard as he hauled his latest sculpture project, a fire-pit carved from a granite boulder rounded by long-vanished Arkansas River Valley glaciers, to its intended home in a Denver backyard. An architect and his design showroom-owner wife had commissioned Richard to carve them a fire-pit to serve as the centerpiece of their newly landscaped backyard. Their only specifications: the rock had to be approximately 36 inches in diameter to accommodate a basin (for the gas fire of the fire-pit) 24 inches in diameter. Oh, and it needed to be about two feet high.

The search for the right rock took months, and ranged to quarries as far away as the Pacific Northwest. In the end, they found just the right boulder at a rock-yard not three miles from Richard's studio, a beautiful rounded chunk of granite with sinuous curves and two wide bands of quartzite running through it. Once Richard figured out what the boulder had to say, where the basin for the fire-pit should be carved, and which sides were the top and bottom -- oh, and how to mend the crack that ran through the whole boulder and threatened to split it in to two much smaller boulders -- he was set to begin.

Well, except that in order to begin, he had to be able to move the boulder around and turn it over -- did I mention that this fabulous rock weighs nearly a ton? So he invented and fabricated a gantry, a portable overhead crane capable of picking the rock up and moving it by hand.

Once he had carved off the lobe to make a flat bottom -- the fire-pit would sit on a paving-stone patio, and leveled the top and carved the basin and polished the top to a mirror finish, he decided that the gas fire should be contained in a steel basin that appeared to float just above the basin carved in the stone. (That would keep the heat of the fire from making that fatal crack in the rock worse.) So with the help of friends, he hand-forged a steel bowl to echo the shape of the basin in the boulder. He put the whole thing together, finished polishing the rock, and then it was time to deliver it. . . .

To Denver. Two and a half hours away, over three mountain passes, all over 10,000 feet elevation. In November, when snow falls on the high country. But as it happened, the weather was perfect the day of delivery, our aging Isuzu Trooper did a fabulous job of hauling Richard's 13-foot utility trailer, the portable crane, tools, and the near-ton of rock up and over the mountains and down to Denver.

And Richard did a fabulous job of backing the trailer into the architect's garage at the right-angle bend in the narrow alley. And of hoisting the fire-pit boulder off the trailer with his ingenuous hand-powered crane. And of using the crane to hoist the boulder up two steps, easing it through a door that is exactly the width of the boulder, with not a smidgen to spare. And of using that crane -- did I mention that it rolls? -- to ease the boulder exactly into place on the patio. The plumber connected the gas, the fire was lighted, and wow! It looks exactly right. What a lovely end to quite an adventure in sculpture. . . .

The news? Colorado's Governor Bill Ritter has chosen my latest book, Colorado Scenic Byways: Taking the Other Road, a collaboration with photographer Jim Steinberg, as one of his gifts to dignitaries on his Trade Mission to China and Japan. So several cartons of our six-pound baby, a two-volume set of books described as "lavish" and "inspiring" are off to China and Japan!

And I'm off next week to do more book-signings for Colorado Scenic Byways, beginning with a program at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science next Tuesday. Check my web site for dates and places.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Optimistic asparagus -- and a hornet's nest

Yesterday, the day before a storm that felt like winter blew into our valley, I was watering the kitchen garden. It was election day, and despite my nervous excitement, I wasn't glued to the news. Hanging out and tending my plants--those that survived the last few hard freezes--is much more soothing than constantly pushing the "refresh" button on my internet browser to check for news. It was too early for election results, anyway.

So rather than making myself crazy staring at my electronic connection to the virtual larger world, I went outside into the real larger world--nature--and spent time in the garden.

I was giving the asparagus bed what may be its last soak for quite a while when I discovered that the plants which I wrote about in a post about optimistic gardeners last May have apparently decided it's spring all over again. The two largest clumps of asparagus have sprouted shoots as fat as my thumb, and one shoot is already several inches tall. Those asparagus plants think it's spring, not a few short weeks from winter.

The way the asparagus life cycle usually works, the roots, which are the larder storing the sugars produced with the previous summer's sunlight, send up shoots as the soil warms in spring. These fat stalks emerge from the soil and turn green in sunlight, ready to grow tall and do their solar energy harvesting, using sunlight to power a chemical process of making sugar in order to replace the fuel used for the orgy of cell division that pushed them up from underground.

New shoots follow these pioneers, handily producing more food, and thus more fat shoots which eventually mature into tall and feathery stalks, until the days quit growing longer. Then the plant goes into pass-on-my-genes-for-the-future mode and the feathery branches sprout tiny flowers (males and females on separate shoots, relying on the wind to assist in the act of fertilization). About that time--early summer, usually--the plant figures it has stored all the food it needs, and its shoots brown off as the roots go dormant. The following spring, when the soil warms again, they begin the lickety-split cell division that pushes new succulent shoots up into the light and air.

But it's mid-fall here in the southern Rocky Mountains, not spring. I don't know if these asparagus shoots can survive the freezing weather ahead, but I know this. Their effort, optimistic as it may seem, is the asparagus equivalent of believing in a world of possibilities. And last night's election certainly demonstrated to me the power of seemingly small actions like cell division--or voting--to work miracles.

So I'm going to watch those asparagus shoots. They may have something to teach me.

Oh, and the hornet's nest? "The Patriotic Thing to Do," my latest op-ed for High Country News landed on the front page of their web site and stirred up quite a hornet's nest of comments. (It also went out to 80-some newspapers with their Writers on the Range syndicate.) Here's how it opens:
Maybe I’m crazy, but I think that paying taxes is patriotic. And I’m tired of hearing Americans, especially Westerners, whine about their tax burden.
What does that have to do with the community of the land? Read it and see! (Here's a clue: it's about the nature of community.)

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Waiting for moonrise, and then the dawn

After months and months of writing to deadlines, playing hard and fast and fun with words, the ideas zipping from my heart and brain to the page, my creative drive simply stopped dead this week.

Richard and I had driven to Arkansas to visit his family, and after we arrived home, I couldn't write. Oh, I wrote in my journal, wrote some emails, and even wrote a snail mail letter. But beyond those commonplace communications, I couldn't find words.

I told myself that my lassitude was due to the drive. We did nearly 2,000 miles (950 miles each way between southcentral Colorado and northwest Arkansas) in six days, so that's a pretty good excuse. By the end of the second day, when I still couldn't drum up my usual writing jones, I knew it was something deeper. I live to write. Writing usually clears the fog and gives me energy.

This week I've felt like the ruined picnic shelter in the photo above, a relict of a whole host of planned "recreation facilities" built along the shore of what was to be a large reservoir, except that the lake never filled. Without that watery playground, the parking lots and boat ramps and picnic areas and scenic viewpoints and campgrounds never filled either. Eventually the whole complex was not only abandoned, the facilities seem to have been deliberately destroyed.

We camped there on our way to Arkansas, winding in on asphalt roads shrunk to one lane as the prairie reclaimed them, threading past restrooms with windows smashed and doors swinging open, parking lots knee-high in autumn-colored prairie grasses, light posts tilting every which way, electrical boxes with wires ripped out, and picnic shelters with tables gone and bases smashed. It was eerie, like a post-apocalyptic world.

We set up our little nylon tent at the end of what had been a long loop of tidy paved camping spaces, each with its picnic shelter and electric plug-in. I told Richard that I was glad he was there. It was a place I wouldn't stay at night on my own.

I know just how desolate that place feels now. I've spent the last couple of years keeping up a work schedule so insane, that it's been the rare weekend when I didn't have to write straight through to keep up. And then last February, Richard began to pee blood. Not just dribbles, streams as dark as a good pinot noir, full of clots and chunks. In April he was diagnosed with bladder cancer and in July he went through his first surgery. After the second surgery, in early September, his surgeon told me he thinks they got it all. I should be relieved; I should be dancing with joy. Instead I feel empty, worn out, exhausted. Hence this dry spell, and my fear that the words - and my passion for changing the world with them - won't return.

That night by the lake that didn't happen, we ate our picnic dinner as the sun set and swatted the last few mosquitoes of fall. When the stars appeared, littering the black sky with pinpricks of light, we crawled into our tent, snuggled close, and watched the level Panhandle horizon for a silver glow. It grew brighter and brighter until the dazzling rim of an October moon edged up. Immediately, a pack of coyotes nearby tuned up, yipping and barking and howling, lifting their voices in song to that huge, round orb of light. The wind howled that night too, flapping our tent fly and whooshing through the branches of the nearby grove of trees. When dawn's light edged the rim where black sky met darker land and the silver moonlight gave way to pastel day, even the destroyed picnic shelter looked beautiful.

I can still see that moon rise in my minds' eye, and hear the wild coyote chorus rising over the stark landscape - and the dawn light, pearly and soft, heralding a new day. And I know I'll have my new day too: I just need the patience of those coyotes, waiting for the silvery orb of the moon to signal their singing, and then the stars swimming across the sky until they gutter out in the quiet beauty of the dawn.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Good bye, Bill

Last Saturday afternoon, October 14, the world of poetry, haiku, and writing lost a bright light when Bill Higginson died. He knew what was coming, says his wife and fellow poet, Penny Harter. She and Bill's daughter, Beth, were with him, holding his hands and singing "Amazing Grace."

I met Bill and Penny at the Border Book Festival on an amazing day when writers, artists, and scientists got together to testify through our work about what the Chihuahuan Desert meant to each of us. Thanks to the vision of Festival honcha and novelist Denise Chávez and the dedication of the staff of the Jornada Experimental Range, it was a magical day. We toured the desert's achingly open spaces in a big bus, stopping to read right outside in that intense landscape to an audience who sat on folding chairs set out on the dusty soil at each stop. We all came away enriched, our hearts opened to the landscape and to each other--word-artists, scientists, and audience alike.

Bill's poetry won awards and citations, his books were lauded in many ways, and he was seen as a giant of haiku, whether the writing, the teaching, or the translation. What struck me most about Bill was why he loved haiku. As he says in The Haiku Handbook, written with Penny:
Being small, haiku lend themselves especially to sharing small, intimate things. By recognizing the intimate things that touch us we come to know and appreciate ourselves and our world more. By sharing these things with others we let them into our lives in a very special, personal way.
Bill's work opened a door for many of us. And now that he's gone, I guess it's not surprising that haiku proliferate in the blogosphere in his memory. Here's one:
bird on a high wire
singing his song
so long, so long
--Andrew Burke, Hi Spirits
The week he died, I saw a shooting star, thought of Bill and Penny, and though I make no claim to poetry, haiku came to mind. I offer this for them both, with love and gratitude:
a shooting star, crisp
white as a fall frost, streaks past
then fades. Goodnight, Bill.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Local Food: Eating of the Land

I'm speaking this weekend at the Central Colorado Foodshed Alliance's annual harvest celebration, a season-end party to honors local food and those who produce it in our region. There will be a dinner made from food grown or produced locally, my talk, and then music and dancing. It's a community affair of the sort that might have been common a century ago, but is now a relative novelty.

As I've thought about what I'll say, what words I can bring to this group of people who grow or raise or harvest or process or distribute or simply are dedicated to eating the fruits of our high-country sun and soil, I've pondered the community of lives, domestic and wild, that animate these landscapes, and what it means to belong here.

First what is eating locally? It means doing your best to get your food - whether apples or salmon or eggs or hamburger or corn or melons or squash or bread or this pumpkin from our kitchen garden - from your local area. How you define your local area is up to you, but I like the word that Gary Paul Nabhan coined in his book, Coming Home to Eat, a chronicle of a year in which he ate only foods from his desert region: foodshed. It's a variant on watershed, a geographic unit based on a particular river or stream and all of its drainages. A watershed describes a coherent geographic region in which all the parts are related to each other by drainage; a foodshed is a geographic region in which food is raised and produced without being shipped such long distances that its quality suffers and/or it requires huge expenditures of energy.

So, for example, those raspberries that look so tempting in produce departments in January? They're from Chile, and that is most definitely not "local food" for me in southern Colorado by any stretch of the imagination. They don't even come from the same continent. Food that must travel thousands of miles is clearly not local.

Why eat locally? First there's the health reason: Food that comes from nearby is fresher and thus healthier. Food that must be shipped long distances or heavily processed in order to prevent it from spoiling in transit loses lots of its nutrients, from vitamins to cancer-fighting antioxidants. Then there's the taste thing: Those raspberries shipped from Chile had to be picked way before they were ripe in order to make the journey from hemisphere to hemisphere without spoiling. So they may look pretty, but the raspberry flavor is, well, not so great. If you've ever picked a sun-warmed tomato off a vine, you know what I mean. Those plastic ones picked green and shipped from California are not really tomatoes! And then there's the "green" reason: in the United States, we waste a lot of energy we can ill afford shipping food an average of 1,500 miles before it ever reaches our plates. That is just plain stupid.

Those are all important points. But for me, eating locally goes deeper: it's about rooting in place, belonging. It seems to me that eating locally is coming home in a literal and metaphorical way. Here's part of what I'll say in my talk:

When we eat from our foodshed, our food comes from the landscape we share with our fellow human beings and also with the thousands of other species, large and small, whose interactions animate the places we live in and love. It means that we participate in that community of the land on an intimate basis, literally being nourished by the same soil and sunlight that also nourishes elk and aspen trees, sagebrush and American goldfinches. It means that we share the landscape in a more intimate way, the way we did when our species began, a sharing reaching as deep as the microscopic level.

We literally are what we eat. The molecules in our food are the materials we use to stoke our metabolisms and to replace the continual loss of cells, those building blocks of our bodies - of skin, hair, synapses, organs, muscles and bones. Food nourishes us at many levels: it fills our guts, quieting the physical and mental pangs of hunger; it provides the molecules that build healthy bodies and minds; it brings us flavor and texture and a feeling of well-being and pleasure. What we eat thus makes a substantive difference in who we become. Nurturing our bodies with fresh food helps us grow healthy selves, inside and out.

As much as I can, I cook with food I know intimately, where it comes from, how it lived, and what sunlight, water and nutrients nurtured its cells. That’s part of why I’m a gardener. I know the food I grow and it knows me. I’ve raised these vegetables and fruits with my own hands (and without pesticides and herbicides, relying on insects and birds, nature’s partners, instead). They grow in the same soil I walk on, nourished by the infrequent rain - much too infrequent this year! - and the high-desert sun that blesses my skin, too. Their flavor describes this very landscape, what the French call gout de terroir, literally “taste of the soil” or “taste of the earth.”
What it comes down to for me is this: I believe that food is an essential form of connection. It binds us to the places where it comes from, restoring our bonds to those places as we ingest the molecules of our food and make them part of who we are. To eat of our place is to join its community at the deepest level, to belong in every fiber of our being.

A shout-out to spinner, writer, and publisher Deb Robson, whose blog post on an effort to match backyards with small farmers looking for cultivatable space inspired some of my thinking on local foods. Thanks, Deb!

Friday, October 3, 2008

Finding comfort in the garden

Driving home from Denver on Wednesday afternoon following Richard's second round of surgery for his "beautiful carcinoma" (the tumor that revealed his bladder cancer), I was numb, so exhausted after nearly eleven hours at the hospital the previous day that I couldn't even get excited about the good news: his surgeon reported no sign of tumor regrowth, meaning July's surgery may have removed the entire carcinoma. I knew that was good news, I knew I should feel relieved, but I couldn't. I just didn't have relief in me.

The weather was blue-sky balmy, the aspens were glowing in the shafts of light slanting through the gathering cumulus clouds, and the dotted mosaic of shrubs, the wild roses, currants, sumac, raspberries, chokecherries, and thickets of shrub oak had tossed off their summer green pigments, revealing the season's accumulation of sugar-synthesized colors in burnt gold, scarlet, rust, crimson, lemon yellow, burgundy, bronze, and orange.

This has been the most glorious fall for leaf color in recent memory, and our route home took us through some of the classic leaf-peeper drives at the height of the season. And I didn't care. Oh, I went through the motions. I looked, I exclaimed; I pointed to particularly picture-postcard perfect mountainsides. But I couldn't muster the energy stop the car, get out and collect a few leaves, listen to the sounds and sniff the smells, compose and shoot a few photos. I just wanted to get home to my garden.

I usually spend our two-and-a-half-hour commute to and from the urban part of Colorado delighting the wildness: watching eagerly for red-tailed hawks and golden eagles spiraling high overhead on long wings, scanning for antelope, prairie dogs, and migrating long-billed curlews in the high-elevation prairie, and searching for bighorn sheep on the rocky cliffs and wildflowers the whole way.

Not Wednesday afternoon though. I just wanted to get home to the reclaimed piece of industrial property near downtown in the small town where we live, unload the car, put away the groceries, and go outside to the kitchen garden. I needed the company of the plants I've nurtured from tiny seed to sprawling adult, the lives I tend every day and whose leaves, seeds and fruits nurture us in our daily meals.

As I moved among them, watering the sun-dried soil, discovering that the deer gate had blown open in the prints in the gravel path and the downed tomatoes that bore the unmistakable marks of mule deer teeth, finding a striped Romanesco squash ready to pick, a golden beam of pumpkin nestled among dark leaves, and sweet strawberries, I began to settle. I don't know what it is about the company of the plants that calms me, but it does. It as if being at home in my garden returns me to myself, slides my fretting mind back into the familiar case of my brain, my troubled emotions back into the soothing pulse of respiration and heart-beat, and returns my restless spirit to the comforting embrace of muscle and and skin. Back at home with my plants, I am once again at home in me too.

As I watered, Richard came outside with a bowl to help harvest. We picked up half-eaten tomatoes, plucked more ripe ones from the vines, gathered strawberries and squash, and went inside, holding hands. I took a deep breath, and let the air out slowly, feeling myself relax. I smiled.

Home at last in the familiar community of our own landscape - and best of all, home together.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

A Community of booksellers, writers, and readers

Last week while promoting Colorado Scenic Byways: Taking the Other Road, I spent an afternoon at the Mountains and Plains Booksellers Association's trade show in Colorado Springs. I didn't just sit in Portfolio Publications' booth and greet passers by, I grabbed a handful of brochures and walked the trade show floor, inviting booksellers to visit the booth and check out the actual books, as well as to take home the good swag Portfolio was giving out.

I'm not a sociable type. I do best with long stretches of solitary time--or at least time in the company of the only person I love to be alone with, my husband Richard. So walking a trade show floor and buttonholing strangers in order to sell them on my new book is something akin to the seventh level of Hell for me.

Except at Mountains and Plains. Booksellers are a community in the best sense of the word: they share common attitudes ("Eat. Sleep. Read." says the new promotional material from the national booksellers association), common interests (see the previous parenthetical remark), and common goals (well, yes, you could add "Sell books." to the litany above). And they're welcoming to anyone who shares their passion for words and stories.

I've been to Mountains and Plains' annual meeting in other years, usually to schmooze booksellers about whatever is my latest book. So as I wandered among the booths being set up, I not only saw familiar faces, I felt at home, among people who understand and love what I do. That's heady stuff for a loner practicing writing, a quintessentially solitary art that involves a heck of a lot of time spent in your head talking to yourself.

I had only been at the show a few minutes when Meg Sherman, regional book rep for W.W. Norton, spotted me and launched into the story of how she had been at The Book Train in Glenwood Springs the day after Jim Steinberg and I had our signing there for Colorado Scenic Byways. The store staff she said, had pulled out a copy of our two-volume set to show off the books. She recalled turning the pages and admiring the photographs, and then she said she looked at the cover and saw my name:

"Susan Tweit!" she recalled exclaiming. "Oh, I love her work!"

"It's such a brilliant idea," she said to me and to her companion, who I learned later was Susan Bhat, of Books West, Denver's indie book distributor, whose own booth prominently featured--you guessed it!--Colorado Scenic Byways. "The photos are gorgeous of course, but the atlas and road guide you can put in your car--it's just a brilliant idea."

What a great affirmation of our hard work and Jim's great ideas from someone who knows books, and sells a quality line--and doesn't make her living from praising or selling my books!

Later, zipping past the registration table, I spotted a tall blonde who looked familiar, except that I hadn't seen her in years. In fact, we only just reconnected via email a few weeks ago.

"Lisa?" I said, and when the woman turned around, her face lit up.


We hugged. It was indeed Lisa Dale Norton, author of Shimmering Images: A Handy Little Guide to Memoir, just out from St. Martins/Griffin. Lisa and I took a few minutes to catch up and appreciate the serendipity that had brought us together at Mountains and Plains, which could be described as a professional book love-fest.

After that, the show definitely felt like old home week. As I prowled for booksellers (easy to spot, as they wore green ID tags) and chatted them up about Colorado Scenic Byways, I felt less like a sales person and more like I was greeting old friends--or new ones in the making. Many remembered me from previous years, and even those I'd never met were generous in their responses to my pitch. And it was great to see Haven Stillwater, proprietor of my hometown indie bookseller, The Book Haven, in the context of this wider community.

I also got to see publishers I know, like fellow members of Women Writing the West, Nancy Curtis and Gaydell Collier of Wyoming's High Plains Press (check out their new book on women homesteaders, Staking Her Claim), and met other publishers, like Sam Wainer of Canyonlands Natural History Association, who was displaying The Illuminated Desert, a mouthwateringly gorgeous new desert alphabet book by Terry Tempest Williams and illustrator Chloe Hedden. If you love illustrated books and love the desert, get this one! It's a picture book for kids of all ages. And I ran into Andy Nettles of Arches Book Company and Back of Beyond Books in Moab, and he not only remembered my visit to his stores last spring, he thanked me for mentioning them on my blog. (You're very welcome, Andy. Thanks for selling my books.)

By the end of the afternoon, I was worn out. Schmoozing is hard work, no matter how you cut it. But I remembered what I love about this community of writers, booksellers, and publishers. At our best, we act like we really are all in this together. We join in support of stories and words, in the belief that when we write with thoughtfulness, love, and care, our words can indeed change the world.

What a great community to belong to! Thank you all--booksellers, distributors, publishers, fellow authors, and especially readers--for welcoming me and my words into your minds and hearts. I am honored to belong.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Finding beauty along the way

On the two-and-a-half hour trip home from a book signing Denver's Tattered Cover LoDo Bookstore, my fifth signing for Colorado Scenic Byways: Taking the Other Road in the previous ten days, I was exhausted and eager to just get home--the sooner the better. But by the time we topped 10,000-foot elevation Kenosha Pass, the first of the three mountain passes we cross on our way home from Denver, I had relaxed. And I remembered something worth pausing for.

"Let's stop to see if the fringed gentians are still there," I said.

"Okay," said Richard.

I sat up straight as we sped down the pass into the wide expanse of South Park, a bowl-shaped basin surrounded by peaks, scanning the short-grass prairie intently. The low turf was turning straw-gold with autumn already, shot through with wide bands of sedges in bronze over copper wherever creeks cut through. But I was searching for another color, a shade of blue so deep it was almost purple, a hue so intense it is rare and not easily forgotten.

Past the tiny town of Jefferson, I spotted what I was looking for.

"There!" I pointed into the grassland east of the highway.

Richard braked and turned off on a gravel county road to park. I grabbed my camera as I got out of the car, shrugging into my pile vest as I dashed across the two-lane highway, scrambled down the steep road verge, and trotted through the rough grasses next to the three-strand barbed-wire fence.

When I drew about even with the patches of blue in the grassland, I looked for a gap under the bottom wire and tucked myself up small the way I've often watched pronghorn do and scooted under the fence.

I straightened up on the other side and picked my way over to the nearest clump of flowers. Then I squatted for a closer look. Each plant was no more than a foot tall, but bursting with blossoms shaped like narrow bottles, that is if a bottle could open into five silky and fringed petals, each the size of my thumbnail, at its neck.

What had me breathless though was their color, a shade so intense that it seemed to vibrate in the gray light misted with passing rain showers. Richard came up behind me and I leaned back against him, just breathing in the smell of the damp soil, the feel of rain hinting at snow, the grasses gone gold--and the miracle of these impossibly blue fringed gentians opening their blossoms just as all other life was shutting down in anticipation of another harsh high-country winter.

We stood there for a few minutes, and then turned and picked our way across the grassland, through the fence, and back up the road verge to the car. As we drove on home, the rare blue of those fringed gentians lingered in my mind's eye, reminding me of the blessings to be found when we take the time to stop along the way. Life really is about the journey, not just the destination!

Monday, September 8, 2008

Four book-signings, four towns, four days

"So much for the glory life of a writer!" said artist Sherrie York when I described my book event schedule for last week.

Here's the sum of it: Richard and I left home last Wednesday and drove to Grand Junction, where Jim Steinberg and I spent three hours charming strangers at the Barnes & Noble and selling our new book, Colorado Scenic Byways: Taking the Other Road. We started at five and finished up at eight-thirty (and Jim was on the five o'clock news that night in a two-minute, eleven-second segment that involved three hours of being filmed!). The next day Richard and I drove to Glenwood Springs, where Jim and I did our gig again at The Book Train in the heart of old downtown near the river and the railroad station. On Friday it was Steamboat Springs, Jim's hometown, at Ron and Sue Krall's wonderful Off the Beaten Path Bookstore, where we had the luxury of a glass of wine while we chatted with Jim's many fans. That event was part of Steamboat's First Friday Art Openings, so the crowds were lively and we got to listen to cellist John Sant' Ambrogio while we schmoozed and signed. Saturday it was the Denver Art Museum during Free Saturday, with a pow wow and fancy-dancing going on outside. That one was a long three hours of hailing passing strangers and being charming in hopes of selling our book.

So four days, four towns, four book signings, and 915 road-miles. By the time Richard and I got home Saturday night I was exhausted. My smile is still recovering along with my spirits (and both had better recover quickly, as tomorrow night we're back in Denver for a signing at Tattered Cover LoDo, as part of the wonderful Rocky Mountain Land Series). So much for the glory life of a writer, indeed.

But there were beautiful moments along the way. After the Grand Junction signing (and after Subaru of Grand Junction quickly found and fixed the reason "Young Forester," our trusty 2008 Subaru wagon was overheating), Richard and I drove west to Colorado National Monument in the night with a silver crescent of new moon setting over the dark bulk of the Uncompahgre Plateau. We wound our way up onto the red sandstone mesa and found a campsite at Saddlehorn Campground. After Richard set up our tent in the light of the car headlights (apologies to neighboring campers!) we crawled into our sleeping bags and a meteor streaked by overhead, right by the diaphanous silver ribbon of the Milky Way.

In the morning, we saw the sun rise in a Sunkist orange glow over Grand Mesa off to the east and watched blue-gray plain titmice skitter among the sagebrush and rabbitbrush, searching for seeds to eat.

Instead of taking I-70 to Glenwood Springs, we decided to go the scenic route - literally, following the Grand Mesa Scenic Byway (and is it ever scenic!) up Plateau Creek on Colorado 65 and winding over Grand Mesa, then down to the North Fork of the Gunnison River where we picked up the West Elk Scenic Byway, which we followed up the North Fork and Muddy Creek to McClure Pass, and down to the Crystal River through Redstone and Carbondale to the Roaring Fork River, and thence downstream to Glenwood Springs.

Highlights that wonderfully meandering, outrageously scenic drive that took us on two official scenic byways? The hour we spent at Lands' End, out the dead-end road to the very point of Grand Mesa, overlooking the Grand Valley 5,000 feet below, with a view of almost all of western Colorado, from the peaks of the San Juans 80 miles to the south, to the long roll of the Uncompahgre Plateau to the west (with the clustered peaks of the La Sal Mountains sticking above Moab), to the high forested mesas beyond the Book Cliffs rising above the desert to the northwest. We sat in the sun on a sandstone ledge at the Lands' End Observatory, a 1930s building constructed of local mesa-edge basalt by Civilian Conservation Corps crews. The place was peaceful, with just a handful of people stopping by while we sat there, the sun was warm, and the view flat-out inspiring.

Another highlight? A stop at Surface Creek Winery and Gallery to visit co-proprietor Jeanne Durr, who with her husband Jim has transformed a neglected Odd-Fellows Hall into a charming and welcoming art gallery offering a delicious selection of the wines they produce.

Friday we decided (no surprise there!) to take the back road from Glenwood Springs to Steamboat - even though it is not a designated scenic byway. We headed up through Glenwood Canyon with its chestnut-brown-stained layers of dolomite and limestone on I-70. At Dotsero, we turned away from the rush of that highway onto the Colorado River Road and followed the Colorado upstream through massive layers of gray and ochre shales and rust-red sandstones. The river ran clear and gently with only hints of rapids here and there - not yet the mighty desert river, nor yet colorado, or "colored" by the orange and red sediments it picks up later in its journey.

At Burns, a "town" comprised of an old church and a post office by the railroad tracks, we turned uphill on the Pump Creek Road, a gravel county road that climbs up and up and up and up until it crosses the divide between the Colorado and the Yampa River south of Steamboat. The highlight of that day's run, which included some two-track that might have been challenging if it had been wet was the large black bear that we saw bounding over the sagebrush about a quarter of a mile away. We had stopped the car to admire the view back over the Colorado River Valley and the distant peaks of the Gore Range to the southeast and the West Elks to the southwest, when I spotted what I thought at first was a huge and shaggy black dog.

"Is that a dog?" I asked Richard.

He looked in the direction I was pointing, suggested it was probably and quickly raised his binoculars.

"It's a bear!" he said, watching in amazed delight. I watched too as the bear loped smoothly over the tops of two-foot-tall sagebrush, making tracks for the shelter of the stunted piñon pine woodland downslope.

By the time we set out from Steamboat Springs to Denver on Saturday morning, we were too worn out for adventuring. But how could we not appreciate the procession of landscapes on our route, from the snow-streaked alpine mesas of the Flat Tops rising over the still-green Yampa Valley to the Middle Park's brooding volcanic buttes above the Colorado River and the spiky peaks of the Eagles Nest Wilderness beyond?

Driving home from Denver later after the final book-signing in this grueling four-day, 915-mile swing through Colorado, we found one more gift: a sward of deepest purple fringed gentians blooming in an autumn-amber wet meadow along a tributary of Tarryall Creek in South Park. The color of hundreds - or perhaps thousands - of massed gentian blossoms was so intense that the meadow almost seemed to pulse.

The best gift of all though: getting to share the exploring with Richard, who holds my hand as we drive, who knows the value of silence, and whose company brings me joy.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Eating from the garden

That's part of the harvest from our kitchen garden from yesterday, the first of September. Beginning from the top left, there's a handful of sugar snap peas (peas in September?), some Fort Laramie strawberries, and then two 'green fingers' baby cucumbers. Then the tomatoes, again from left to right, Chianti rose with that yummy pink blush, yellow pear in the center, and persimmon, the two orange globes in front. (Except for the strawberries, all of my garden seeds come from Renee's Garden Seeds, to my mind the best purveyor of seeds for home gardeners who love flavorful varieties that aren't finicky to grow.)

It's a strange year in our garden at 7,000 feet elevation in the southern Rockies when sugar snap peas overlap with cucumbers. But this has truly been a year of unusual weather oscillations: last winter was colder and snowier than any winter in the past few decades, followed by a spring that was windier and drier than any in perhaps a century, and a summer that alternated cold and hot and was constant only in delivering very little rain.

So little rain, in fact, that we're approaching the end of the gardening season having received a total of just 3.82 inches of precipitation since January 1 (snow included). That's less than half of what is "normal" for this time of year, at least according to the last century of record-keeping. Nor is it enough precipitation to grow a bounteous kitchen garden, even with our raised beds, great soil with plenty of organic manure added each year, and varieties that perform well in this chronically arid and high-altitude climate. I've watered the garden almost every day since early June.

And thanks to that watering, in spite of the various vicissitudes of the weather, from wind and the occasional hailstones to days and days without rain, the garden has produced bountifully. It's a treat to go out the kitchen door in the evening, pick whatever is ripe, and come inside to invent dinner from the plants I raised with my own hands.

Tonight it was Tortellini with Garden Vegetables:

1 pkg cheese tortellini
5 medium-sized beets (golden or chiogga are best for their milder flavor)
3 medium-sized summer squash (I used two yellow crookneck and one romanesca)
1 cup sugar-snap peas
3 T olive oil (I used Stonehouse Olive Oil's tangerine-infused olive oil)
1 1/2 T balsamic vinegar
2 oz Manchego or other hard Spanish cheese, grated
fresh-ground black pepper

Quarter the beets (leaving ends and roots on) and steam them in a microwave-safe container for ten minutes. Cool and then cut off ends and roots, and slip off skins. Set aside. (The beets can be cooked in advance and refrigerated.) Cook the tortellini according to package directions. Steam the summer squash until nearly done, then add the peas (whole, with the ends snapped off) and finish steaming. Toss the warm tortellini with the olive oil and balsamic vinegar, then add the vegetables and toss. Cover with the grated Manchego and grate fresh black pepper to taste on top. Serve warm. (Serves four and makes yummy leftovers!)

Two smidgens of rain last week were enough to send the native plants in our restored bunch grass-wildflower front yard into blooming ecstasy, especially the scarlet gilia. Those tubular red blossoms are designed to reward the long, brush-tipped tongues of hummingbirds with sugary nectar if they hover and reach way down into the base of the flower. Our explosion of scarlet gilia came at just the right time to feed the southward migrating hummingbirds.

So as summer winds down here in the southern Rockies, we're still feasting on the garden's bounty, and even in this extraordinarily dry year, the hummingbirds are still getting their sugar rush to fuel them on their long flight south.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Datura flowers, perfuming the night for love

This morning, Richard and I went out to the garden before the sun rose over the hills to check on the datura flowers. These night-blooming plants, also called Jimsonweed, sprout tall buds that stick straight up above their leafy, blue-green canopy like fat green fingers. Over several days, a bud case splits at the top in a star-shaped pattern and a pale yellow-green and tightly pleated datura flower grows its way out, pushing above the green case.

On the day that flower, still tightly closed, gradually turns white, it is ready to bloom. That evening it unfurls, the pleats opening and flexing back into a moon-white flower shaped like a funnel rising from a narrow throat and flaring as wide as twirling circle skirt at the top.

As the datura flower opens, the day fades. The blossom, sometimes tinged with purple, shimmers in the dusk. It emits a sweet lemon and vanilla scent on the cooling air, a fragrant advertisement of its treasure, the sugary nectar produced in glands at the base of its narrow throat. Night-flying moths follow that intoxicating scent right to the datura blossom, hovering on wide wings above the shimmering skirt.

As a moth hovers over a datura blossom, it unfurls its long tongue, like a wire-thin straw with a brushy tip. The moth lowers itself, still hovering, toward that shadowy throat, and its furry body, dusted with pollen from other datura flowers it has visited, brushes this flower's pistil. The pistil's sticky surface catches pollen grains from the moth's body. Lower still, the moth's tongue begins sipping nectar from the glands deep inside the blossom, and the moth now picks up pollen from this flower's anthers, a yellow dusting which it will carry on as it flies away into the night, a sexual messenger traveling from datura plant to datura plant, laden with genetic material.

Once those pollen grains adhere to the sticky stigma surface, each one grows a tube down the inside of the fleshy pistil all the way to the ovary, where it fertilizes the plant's ovules. That's pollination: the datura plant, rooted in place and unable to wander around and chose its sex partners, depends on a mobile courier like the hovering moth to bring sex to it, by transporting genes from other plants of the same species.

The whole point of flowers, especially large and scented ones like datura, is pollination with another plant's genes. The pollinator brushes first past the sticky stigma, depositing pollen from other flowers it has visited before picking up a new dusting of this flower's genetic material. The flower's aim is to infuse its seeds, the next generation, with new genetic tools. It's all about survival.

When I watered the kitchen garden the previous morning, I had noticed the datura plant that grows at the end of the winter squash bed had four buds that looked like they might open that very evening. I intended to go out and see them that night, but I forgot. So when I woke the next morning and looked at the sky, still pale blue before dawn, I remembered the datura flowers. After doing yoga, when the sun had not yet crested the hills to the east, Richard and I went out to the kitchen garden and looked over the wall. There were four huge, moon-white flowers, still open wide, still emitting a trace of the night's perfume.

I looked at each one closely, but their pristine appearance betrayed nothing of the night's activities. Whether they were visited by their moth partners or not, I won't know for several weeks, until long after those shimmering blossoms faded with the morning sunlight. If their ovaries swell into capsules the size of small, green apples armored with hooked prickles, I'll know they were successful in their one night of perfuming the air to attract a partner.

(The photo are mine, from my garden. Note that datura, while ethereally beautiful, is also poisonous. The plants protect themselves - especially their flowers - from being eaten by flooding their tissues with powerful psychoactive compounds. I allow them to flourish only in the parts of our yard out of reach of children and pets.)

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Signing books for Hillary and Barack

Yesterday I signed copies of Colorado Scenic Byways: Taking the Other Road, my new book with photographer Jim Steinberg for Hillary and Bill Clinton and Barack and Michelle Obama. No, not in person. Still, it's exciting to write those names on a fresh copy of a book I've written and know that it'll be in their hands next week.

How did I get to sign books for Hillary and Bill and Barack and Michelle? Colorado's Governor Bill Ritter picked Colorado Scenic Byways as his personal gift to "selected" attendees of the Democratic National Convention in Denver. (That he and his staff knew about the book is a tribute to Jim's persistence and vision, and to his pr team, Regan Petersen and Debbie Fitzgerald of Fitzgerald Petersen Communications.)

The Governor's Office ordered copies of the book before it was even delivered from the printer in Korea (it's not out officially until September 3), which they planned to give to the governors of other states attending the DNC and other dignitaries. At the last minute, they decided to give one each for Hillary and Bill and Barack and Michelle. (For you trivia fans out there, etiquette requires that they be addressed in writing as "President Bill and Senator Hillary Clinton," and "Senator and Mrs. Barack Obama." If I were Michelle, I would hate that!)

Colorado Scenic Byways: Taking the Other Road is a book I'm proud to have written. The slip-cased, two-volume set pairs Jim's gorgeous photographs and my words to portray the heart of the state through its 25 designated scenic byways. The pair of books--a coffee table book of full-bleed photos and lyrical essays and an atlas & road guide--explores Colorado's sights and stories from the wide-open plains to the nosebleed heights of the high peaks and the technicolor canyons of the plateau country. It's an invitation to take to the road and see the real Colorado--taste a peach ripe off the tree, smell the prairie in spring, hear the marmots whistle from alpine ridges, and watch the stars wink on in the evening sky.

And yesterday, I got to sign a copy each for Hillary and Bill Clinton, and Barack and Michelle Obama. How cool is that?!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Taking notice of a heavenly fireball

Last week when we were out yurt-camping with my parents, I scanned the dark skies over the Never Summer Range each night for meteors from the annual August Perseid showers. I saw one streak across the sky in the wee hours after a sprinkle of rain, but that was all.

Then last night, after having guests for dinner, we cleaned up the kitchen and watched the moon sail high into the night sky.

"Let's go outside and watch for meteors," Richard said.

We went out into the kitchen garden and sat on the edge of the asparagus bed, where we could look toward the northeast, where the greatest concentrations of Perseid meteors seem to originate. We had just sat down when Richard spotted the first one, a bright white star streaking past us before burning out.

I reached for his hand, and we grinned at each other in the silvery moonlight.

We picked out the constellations we could see over the house: the large ladle shape of the Big Dipper, and following the curve of its handle, Arcturus, the bright orange star in Bootes. We picked out the three bright stars that form the Summer Triangle, Altair in Aquila, the Eagle, on one side of the Milky Way, Vega in Lyra across the way, and Deneb, the tail star in Cygnus, the swan that flies along the Milky Way.

I had just located Polaris, the pole star in the Little Dipper when a brilliant meteor appeared in the black sky just over the roof of the house. I pointed, and Richard swung his head in that direction. As it sped by us in the western sky, it flared magenta, brighter than any falling star I have ever seen.

Richard uttered some exclamation, but I was stunned speechless.

The meteor streaked by, the magenta blazing into white, and then brilliant emerald green before disappearing into the dark sky, trailed by a shimmering tail that lasted what seemed like forever, but was probably only two or three seconds.

Meteors, astronomers say, are debris left behind as comets whiz through our solar system. As earth passes through these plumes of detritus, like dust clouds trailing after traffic on dirt roads, the bits of debris collide with our atmosphere and ignite instantly as they streak across the sky tens of miles above Earth's surface before burning out. The brightest of meteors rival bright stars, those that surpass them are fireballs. Most meteors are the size of grains of sand; only larger bits of debris form fireballs.

It was a fireball we saw last night, a meteor flaring magenta, hot-white, and then cool green before it incinerated in the friction generated by its trip through our upper atmosphere. Its shimmering tail lasted long enough for us to burn the sight of that spectacular falling star into our memories.

When I was a child and saw a meteor, we always made a wish - quickly, before the ephemeral bit of flaming debris burned out. Last night, I was too dazzled by the streak of color burned across the dark sky by that Perseid fireball to make a wish.

If I were to wish though, it would simply be that I never lose the desire to stop and look for meteors, and to be rendered speechless when one streaks across the sky overhead. And to wish that we all have the wonder of shooting stars - those miracles of ephemeral light created as our planet crosses the dusty trails of comets orbiting our solar system. For a moment, meteors streak across the heavens and into our consciousness, pulling us with them as they break through the routines that dominate our daily lives.

(The photograph of elegant asters comes from our yurt-camping trip. I don't have a photograph of meteors - I can't think that fast!)