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.