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.)