A blog for those who desire a more creative relationship with the natural world.


"Your recent blog about the tender return of your loved ones to the earth was moving, graceful in words and inspiration. Your words always come from the heart and intellect. A rare and insightful combination." Rolland Smith, former news anchor for WCBS-TV in New York, recipient of 11 Emmy Awards

Over 175,000 pageviews. Thank you!


Tuesday, December 23, 2008


IN THE MEADOW where our dog loves to run, you'll find slash piles of deadfall - broken limbs, twigs, branches - piled in neat mounds awaiting snow deep enough to make burning the debris safe. Gathering the wood may seem like work, and for the volunteers who do it, it is. But it's also child's play, reminding us of when we built forts from discarded lumber, or pretended to be beavers, piling sticks into wigwam like structures, scrambling on our knees into the drafty bellies of these precarious dens.

DOGS, especially, love to fetch and carry sticks, chasing them, propping them up between their paws to snip away at the shoots sprouting from the main branches, peeling the bark away, sharpening their teeth on the smooth, hard grain.

And now, the stick has officially been inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame, housed at the Strong National Museum of Play. Just when parents are struggling to afford high-tech gadgets, there's an inexpensive option - even free! According to Patricia Hogan, curator at the museum, in order to be inducted into the Toy Hall of Fame, a toy must be "part of the lives of many kids, preferably over several generations." Thus quotes Allison Ross in her article posted on the Children and Nature Network site.

This morning, national newscasters reported dire predictions of hundreds of store closures during this Christmas season, an unprecedented occurrence during the busiest shopping season of the year. But perhaps this curtailing of consumerism isn't a bad thing. Less consumption of goods means less usage of the earth's resources, and hopefully MORE USE of the things we already have. Perhaps we'll see more families playing in the park, or walking in the woods. Perhaps more neighborhood kids will team up to build snowmen, gathering stray sticks for arms, snatching a carrot from the fridge for a nose, wrapping that tattered scarf around Mr. Snowman's thick white neck.

We used to have a family tradition on the ranch where in December we would hike around, looking for a straggly Ponderosa Pine that needed to be thinned. This tree would become our Christmas tree. After Christmas, we would pack away the decorations, wind up the strings of light, and take the tree out by the wood pile. The gangly limbs would be sawed off (the dog would invariably run off with one), and the trunk of the tree would be cut into logs. We would set aside these still-green logs and let them dry for an entire year. The following Christmas Eve, these were the logs with which we'd build our Christmas Eve fire. We would sit around the woodburning stove after dinner, reading a cowboy version of The Night Before Christmas, listening to the wood crackle and pop.

As I get older, I look forward to finding new ways to simplify life. Paring down possessions, spending time instead of money, rejoicing in friends instead of frills. Several years ago, I started taking along a Story Stick with me on my River Writing Journeys for Women. As we circle up in the evening to share our journaling, we pass the Story Stick around. I've taken that same stick with me to schools where children, too, have taken turns holding it as they tell their stories. Over the years, the wood has grown smooth and shiny.

Kudos to the Stick. To the trees that grow them. To the children who play with them. To the dogs who chase them. To the birds who build their nests with them. To the fires they light. To the lives they enlighten.

(Page is a Senior Associate with the Children and Nature Network.  To learn more about this grassroots nonprofit that sprung up as a result of Richard Louv's book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, go to

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Featured Author: Wendy Johnson, at work in the wild and cultivated world

"How does a gardener go about learning the raw truth of a place?" Wendy Johnson asks in Chapter One of Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate. "Every spot has a voice, a particular taste, a breath of wind unique to itself, a shadow, a presence. The best gardeners I know slow way down in order to receive the tidings of the land they are bound to work."

I met Wendy Johnson this summer through Natalie Goldberg. Wendy's friendship with Natalie goes back several decades and it is a blessing to call them both friends.

If you're a gardener, don't wait to add Wendy's new book to your collection. If you’re a writer whose work is informed by the natural world, you'll quickly find yourself immersed in the beauty of her carefully cultivated prose.

In this same chapter, appropriately titled “Valley of the Ancestors,” she writes about slowly pacing Redwood Creek, where thimbleberry and red osier grow in abundance. She writes of the ancient silver salmon that come there to spawn in the winter, “a fish more primitive even than the prehistoric redwood trees that shelter their ancestral breeding grounds.”

Several years ago, I spent five days on the BABINE RIVER in British Columbia during the salmon run. The river, 160 wild kilometers of prime black bear, grizzly, salmon, and eagle habitat, flows through the “Valley of the Eagles and Bears.” Four different ecosystems come together there. You will find Suboreal Spruce and Cedar Hemlock, tall narrow Engelmann Spruce and soft-leaved Balsam, all growing abundantly. Even Alpine tundra. Every turn of the river brought a new vista, a new adventure, and a new memory... Here is the place where we snagged salmon from the river for our supper.

How does one go about learning the raw truth of a place? We learn by breathing its essence into our being. By opening our eyes to its hidden nature. By being there, in that place, with clear intention. By honoring each moment with our attention. We also learn the raw truth of a place by remembering the stories that tie us to that place, and by telling those stories to one another. Hidden within the heart of the stories we keep is the deeper meaning of our lives.

During this season of blessings and good tidings, I urge you to walk outside, perhaps down a familiar trail, perhaps on a path of freshly fallen snow. Take a moment to inhale the turpentine scent of evergreens, the musky smell of fallen leaves, the smell of burning hardwood as smoke rises from your chimney and spirals into the winter air.

Think of the stories that tie you to the landscape where you live. Pick up Wendy’s book and discover the wild and cultivated world that is your home.

Read New York Times article and view photos and slideshow.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Women Writing West

October was a busy month. A good month. Beautiful fall colors and warm fall temperatures. Highlights included a symposium in Denver, and hosting Julia, a writer from northern Colorado, for a 3-day writing retreat here in Mt. Vernon. If you'd like more information on these private, one-on-one retreats, please send me a note.

The following week, I presented at the 3-day "Women Writing West" symposium hosted by Copper Nickel (literary journal for the University of Colorado, Denver). More than 500 people attended the symposium, held in Denver. Kudos to Jennifer Davis, winner of the Iowa Award for Short Fiction and assistant professor at UCD, and to Jake Adam York, poet and director of the creative writing program at UCD, for putting on such an extraordinarily well thought out and graciously run event. Co-sponsors included Colorado Center for Public Humanities, the Lighthouse Writers Workshop, and the Laboratory of Arts and Ideas.

Eight presenters, some of us old friends, some getting acquainted with each other's work for the first time, were invited to participate. How great to reconnect with Alyson Hagy from Wyoming, Lee Ann Roripaugh from South Dakota, and Pam Houston from Colorado's high country (originally from New Jersey). It was especially great to reconnect with artist, author, and friend Teresa Jordan.

Teresa grew up on Iron Mountain in Wyoming, as did a close family friend of mine, Tod Vineyard. You don't have to know Tod for long to know that he's a "real hand" - a man more at home on the back of a horse than anywhere else. Last year, my daughter did a winter internship (through Colorado State University) with Tod and his wife Vicky - feeding cows, fixing fence, building pole barns, calving out heifers, keeping her horses tuned up, and trying to keep warm. Like Tod, she was in her element and loved it.

You don't have to know Teresa for long, either, to know that she's as authentic as they come. She's also brilliant. And brilliantly creative. If you haven't read her work, start with Riding the White Horse Home. Teresa had the audience spellbound for nearly an hour as she sat perched on a stool and, in the old fashioned tradition of oral storytelling, told us a Wyoming tale rich with humor and pathos.

Acclaimed author Dierdre McNamer, and poets Maria Melendez and Karen Volkman, also presented. What incredible women! I brought home Alyson's novel Snow Ashes, Diedre's novel Red Rover, and Lee Ann's poetry Year of the Snake. Maria's love of humanity, as seen through the eyes of her work, is palpable. Karen's complex and intelligent poetry invites you to linger over each line. I've never been introduced at a gathering, or heard other authors introduced, with such care and attention as Jake and Jennifer afforded us. Thank you again, you two. You're amazing.

The symposium culminated in a launch party held at the Denver Press Club - a gala celebration of the publication of the 10th issue of Copper Nickel, literally hot off the press. The night was balmy, especially for the Mile High City in October. The Press Club (upstairs and down) was packed with UCD students, professors, and friends and fans of the contributors. Eight contributors gave readings. I read "Weaving the Web," a hybrid piece I'd written a few years ago while sequestered at a cabin in the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming for a month. I start the piece out with a quote from poet Mary Oliver:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with this one wild and precious life?

It's a thought provoking question, one I often use as a writing prompt during retreats. Life is both wild, and precious. The three days spent with these other women writers, and with the students who attended the event, were treasured days - precious in the very real meaning of the word. When the symposium was over, I headed back up into the mountains - a bit richer for the experience but glad to be returning to the wilder edges of life.

For a complete article on the symposium, go to the University of Colorado's Network online publication.

Monday, October 13, 2008

A "Country Club" or a COUNTRY community?

When people ask me where I now live, I usually tell them I live in a rustic mountain community west of Denver. Which I do.

Sometimes I tell them I live in Mount Vernon Country Club, which is also true. But the term "country club" can be misleading.

I love this place. I love the people who live here. The old stone club house, though it's been remodeled many times, still sits perched atop Lookout Mountain and looks east across the city to the Great Plains, and west to the white-tipped peaks of the Continental Divide.

The wild onions that I used to eat as a child still grow in the rocky soil. Wild harebells still bloom along the trails. Ponderosas, once saplings, tower over the old picnic ground where my father used to pitch horseshoes. The original remodeled cabin where I live and where I host one-on-one retreats, was built in 1910.

A couple of weeks ago The Denver Post published an article I wrote about Mt.Vernon. Writing the article was a labor of love. I'm proud of this community.

You won’t find many paved roads in Mt. Vernon. Narrow dirt roads still wind in and out of the trees that surround the homes. We live here along with the elk, mule deer, bobcat, fox, coyotes, wild turkeys, golden and bald eagles, hawks. Even the rare tassel-eared Abert’s squirrel and the occasional bighorn sheep, mountain lion, and bear. Wildlife corridors still meander between the homes, much as they did a hundred years ago.

You also won’t find manicured hedges and mowed lawns in Mt. Vernon, nor private wells. A carefully monitored, gravity fed groundwater system developed by the residents serves all our needs.

The buildings are clustered on a few hundred acres, and it’s this “clustering” that marks Mt. Vernon as a pioneer in land use planning and preservation. Instead of 100 homes sitting on 10-acre plots, leaving no open space, the community has 100 homes sharing a few hundred acres, leaving nearly a thousand acres of land as communal, natural habitat for people and wildlife.

Mt. Vernon is a neighboring community. Appreciation of open land, and volunteerism, are two of our uniting principles. Land acquisition, conservation, and stewardship have been community priorities for decades. Mt. Vernon is a long-standing “preservation partner” of the Clear Creek Land Conservancy, part of the Colorado Conservation Trust. The CCLC, along with their partners, is responsible for preserving over 10,000 acres.

We have volunteer committes that take care of everything from keeping our history records up-to-date, to long range planning, to weed control and stewardship. We even had an informal covey of neighbors that helped my mother during the fifteen years she struggled with cancer so that she could remain living at home.

All, labors of love.

When I awoke this morning, a skiff of snow covered the wild grasses around my home. The branches of the native ponderosas bend toward the white roofs of the houses. A single set of elk tracks cut through the yard. The sun is shining now, and as the snow melts from the tree branches, silver tear-shaped drops catch the light and glisten on their way to the sodden ground.

What a beautiful day. What a beautiful place, this country club community.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Kindred Spirits, and Why We Should Know a Few Who Aren't

Sometimes we meet kindred spirits face to face. Sometimes we meet them between the pages of a book. And we almost always recognize it when we do, because usually they share a similar vision of the world, maybe even how we wish the world could be.

I recently had the opportunity to read an advance copy of Susan J. Tweit's new book, Walking Nature Home: A Love Story (forthcoming March, 2009, University of Texas Press). I met Susan a few years ago and have been familiar with her work for a long time, but it wasn't until reading Walking Nature Home that I realized how many passions we share, and how many similar challenges we have faced.

In this new book, which won't be released until next March, Susan intimately merges science with heart and spirit. She writes about what it is to be human with the precision of a scientist, yet with the eloquence of a poet. If you’ve ever searched the night sky for the bright shape of Orion, or tenderly lifted the mangled body of a rabbit from the road, or had to move from a place you loved, or trekked alone across a mountain range, or fallen in love, you will be at home within the pages of this book.

Another thing about kindred spirits, is that they frequently reappear. Yesterday an email from High Country News appeared in my inbox. When I opened it, there was Susan's name, front and center, featuring a link to an online version of one of her recent "Writers on the Range" articles (this one on roadkill). Kindred spirits not only often read the same books, but we often share the same subscriptions.

Which isn't always a good thing. Pyschologist Jonathan Haidt, speaking on about the difference between liberals and conservatives, challenges us to listen to people who don't share our values. If our goal is to seek a deeper understanding of the world, we need diversity, he says. "When people all share values, when people share morals, they become a team. And once you engage the psychology of teams, you shut down open-mindedness."

I'm not sure how that relates to the teams we're most familiar with - football or baseball or basketball -but I think Haidt is telling us that it's good to listen to those who don't agree with us. It's healthy to have friends with political views that don't match ours. It's good to challenge ourselves to think beyond our own opinions by trying to understand the opinions of others.

And it's good to read books, and magazines, and newsletters that challenge us. I faithfully read Orion Magazine, and especially find their articles on sustainability and stewardship hopeful, but just to make sure I keep my finger on the pulse of the aching hearts of small family-owned ranches, stewards who are also trying to live sustainably, I also read the Wyoming Livestock Roundup, edited by Jennifer Womack, who was reared in the same ranching country where I reared my son and daughter.

I also belong to and read the publications of the Quivira Coalition. Founded by a rancher and two environmentalists in June 1997,their initial mission was to offer "common sense solutions to the grazing debate,' principally by broadcasting the principles of ecologically sensitive ranch management." Their current mission is to foster health on western landscapes through education, innovation, collaboration, and land stewardship.

Courtney White, one of the environmentalists who founded the Quivira Coalition ,and its current executive director, also has a new book out. Revolution on the Range: Rise of a New Ranch in the American West. The inside flap quotes Wendell Berry: "The only possible result of the human effort to 'conquer' nature and one another is human defeat. The longstanding conflict between ranchers and conservationists is not only hopeless but ruinous for both..."

Both Courtney White, and Wendell Berry, whom I had the pleasure of meeting a couple years ago at Quivira's 6th annual conference, are kindred spirits - men who share similar visions. The audience at that convention symbolized the West at its best. 450 people filled the chairs in the large room when Berry spoke - ranchers and farmers, environmentalists, federal land managers, state land managers, students, and educators - all of them conservationists in their own right. They wore cowboy hats and Birkenstocks and tennis shoes and steel-toed boots.

Like Susan Tweit, they were at the convention because they loved the West, and each held a personal vision of how to restore the land and heal the communities. You might say all of us were there walking the land we love home. And we weren't walking alone. That was the beauty of it. We were walking together.

If you don't want to wait until next March to read Susan's forthcoming memoir, check out this best-seller, Colorado Scenic Byways: Taking the Other Road Home, a collaboration with photographer Jim Steinberg. Colorado's Governor Ritter thought the book was so good, he gave a copy to Obama and other dignitaries when he was in Denver for the DNC.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Top 10 Blogs for Writers 2008

Michael Stelzner, author of the book and blog by the same name, Writing White Papers, has named his selection of the top blog sites for writers.

White paper, according to Stelzner's book, is a kind of hybrid for the business market - not truly a persuasive essay, but far more than a dry "justs the facts, Ma'am" kind of document. Essentially, it's a literary sales pitch, somewhere between a magazine article with a strong op-ed persona and a sales brochure that doesn't pretend to be anything else.

Companies love 'em, and well-written ones, white papers that play it straight with the consumer, serve a need. They identify a challenge in the consumer's life, and fairly present an attractive solution. If you've got the talent for this kind of writing, it can be a lucrative profession.

So, that's a bit about white papers. More about Michael at Michael Stelzner. He's an impressive kind of guy. Which makes me more apt to take seriously his TOP TEN choices of blogs for writers. Here they are - commentary is Stelzer's:

1) Copyblogger: As the undefeated champ, this blog has held the number-one spot for three straight years! The baby of Brian Clark, this blog keeps winning because of its excellent and educational articles.

2) Men With Pens: James Chartrand and Harry McLeod are the dynamic duo who continue to deliver rich content and community discussion.

3) Freelance Writing Jobs: Founded by Deb Ng, this site is the first stop for freelance writers seeking new work and great articles (and it remains a top winner since this contest began).

4) Write to Done: This blog delivers a steady stream of excellent articles for all writers and is the product of top blogger Leo Babauta.

5) Confident Writing: Looking for encouragement? Joanna Young will help you take your writing to the next level.

6) The Renegade Writer: Linda Formichelli and Dianna Burell, authors of a book by the same name, help freelance journalists find inspiration.

7) Remarkable Communication: One part writing, one part marketing and one part selling, this excellent blog by Sonia Simone will help any writer succeed.

8) Writing Journey: Looking for a great stop on your writing journey? Bob Younce’s blog will refresh and energize you.

9) Freelance Parent: Two moms, Lorna Doone Brewer and Tamara Berry, provide excellent perspective on writing while balancing time with little ones.

10) Urban Muse: Susan Johnson covers a wide range of excellent topics that all writers will enjoy.

And, of course, you're reading this on my blog, which is a good thing. I hope you'll take the time to also visit my website - who knows, maybe someday you or I will make the "top ten" list.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Going with the Flow

Twenty-one women just spent five days floating down the Colorado River through Westwater Canyon together. Artists, writers, sisters, river guides, friends, cohorts. We were the lucky ones.

I say that every year, when one of my River Writing Journeys for Women launches and I enter the world of water and rock - red canyon walls, brilliant blue skies, smooth green water, ancient black rocks, dark star-filled nights. If rains fall, upstream or in the desert where tributaries drain into the river, the water turns cocoa-red and silt as soft as cornstarch settles on the bottom.

The nights were cool, the days sunny and just hot enough to entice us to cool off in the river. We swam, floated actually, alongside our four rafts as our women guides, Brenda, Annie, Jamie and Brie (Sheri Griffith Expeditions), maneuvered us through the canyons - Horsethief, Ruby, Westwater. We took turns playing in the inflatable duckies - small yellow kayaks that follow the motherships, two women paddling, or snubbing up behind the big yellow rafts for a free ride.

We camped beneath grandfather cottonwoods. Saw great egrets, band-tail pigeons, whiptailed lizards, spotted sandpipers, great blue herons, bighorn sheep, mule deer, river otters, ringtailed cats, hawks and bald eagles. Warmwater catfish and chum and carp hugged the dark holes close to shore. We never really saw them, but they were there. Like the sisterhood of river women that grew during our five days together - an invisible bond, as strong as the desires that brought us together, as undeniable as the coolness of the clay we sculpted. Not something to be seen, only to be felt.

We sculpted with grey Colorado River clay, dug up by Roxanne and Rose. Two amazing women artists, mother and daughter, from the Santa Clara Pueblo in New Mexico, who were my featured guests. They brought red clay from Minnesota with them, too. And drawing paper for contour drawings of the curvaceous black schist rocks, and the layers of Entrada sandstone and the spires of the Wingate sandstone.

We swam, floated, wrote, sculpted, drew, laughed, ate outrageously delicious meals, laughed some more. Circled under the stars and shared our stories. We honored the morning silence and allowed the landscape to speak to us...

Our feet stir the sand and wisps of ancient earth rise, spiraling into the air like miniature dustdevils. Roxanne brings pinch pots to the circle. We hold the sand in our hands, ooh and aah at its solidness, marvel when she polishes its belly with a stone as smooth as the bottom of a baby's foot. Our feet stir the sand and our hands hold the pot and the black rocks stand witness. Overhead, young eagles ride the wind. In the morning, not even the tracks of our feet remain.

"Sculpt your face in the sand each morning," suggested Roxanne. "See how it changes each day."

That is the purpose of a trip like this - to change. Back into a deeper understanding of who we are - creatures of nature, at home on the edge of the river, at home with each other, at home with ourselves. Yet, even as we experience this change, this reawakening of our senses, we are comforted by the ancientness of this place. Life endures. Life thrives. Life is joyful. Life is good. Life, at its best, is simple. Nature is our home.

More "River Writing and Sculpting" photos!

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Exploring Steamboat Springs, Colorado

Last weekend in Steamboat Springs I appeared on a local television station, Steamboat TV18, and then at the local bookstore for a reading. One of the best things about Steamboat Springs is Erica, owner of Epilogue Book Company, an independent bookstore with a great collection of western literature. Erica, thank you for welcoming me to Steamboat!

I also met a few of the local personalities and visited with some wonderful folks from Deep Roots, a newly formed group dedicated to the growing and raising of local food. They were intrigued with my stories of rearing my son and daughter on a small family ranch in Wyoming.

After the TV interview, John and I headed over to the Fairgrounds. Steamboat hosts a great rodeo during the summer months. Though we were too late in the season for a performance, we were lucky enough to stumble onto the facilitities where Sombrero Ranches keeps some of their horses. Randy, one of the wranglers, eased up on his morning chores and took time to visit. Sombrero is the largest outfitter in Colorado, having between 1600 and 1800 horses in their remuda. That's a lot of horses. During the off-season, the horses are moved to winter range, with the exception of the older ones, who spend their winters in milder, lower-altitude pastures.

We had fun watching "Biggen" (nickname for one of Sombrero's big wranglers) fit some new shoes to Wonder, a large palomino draft horse. The two didn't quite see eye-to-eye, so it had its interesting moments and reminded me of a book I'm reading right now - Horses: From Our Side of the Fence by Sandy Lagno. She relates, in a respectful way, "what horses show her telepathically." It's a fascinating read. Chapters include the "visual" impressions she has received from brood mares, stallions, wild horses, slaughter houses, training horses, etc.

Later that day, we hiked up to Fish Creek Falls, only a short drive from town. This spectacular waterfall cascades down over nearly 300 verticle feet of rock. You can hike close enough to feel the spray on your cheeks. Fish Creek, located in Routt National Forest, is fed by several small lakes near Rabbit Ears Pass in Colorado and drains an immense area. We had our choice of several trails from moderate to more difficult hiking. Though we didn't take it, there is a trail that leads up past the falls, then along the creek and eventually to Fish Creek Reservoir, which sits at about 9800' altitude.

Next time you visit this beautiful old ranching town, make sure you stop in at Erica's, and then walk across the street and poke your nose in F.M. Light & Sons. Four generations of the same family have run the store, outfitting the West for over a century. I bought John a black and white paisley "wild rag" for his birthday, and unless he's reading this blog, it will be a surprise.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

In the Velvet

Yesterday morning, as the sun crested the high, snow-frosted mountains to the west, I hiked to my favorite meadow. No one else was on the trail that meanders uphill through the ponderosas and spruce. As I came into the clearing I heard the rattling of antlers. Seventy yards away stood nine bull elk, making their way from the meadow up into the higher country. One stood on an uplift of rocks, polishing the tongs of his antlers on a chokecherry bush. Two others stood facing each other with hooves planted, their antlers locked in an age-old battle of strength. Two others were sparring nearby, clacking their racks, backing off, then clacking again. The meadow reverberated with the sound of their rutting behavior. A week ago, I had seen this same bachelor group out in the horse pasture, their antlers a tender throbbing red then. Now, their six and seven-point racks shone in the morning sun, polished and lethal. They whistled into the daybreak.

This morning, hiking that same trail, I encountered a young spike mule deer. He stepped onto the trail, then froze as he saw my movement. I stopped in my tracks, then glanced to his right. Just off the trail, fifty feet ahead of me, stood five more bucks - larger, and thick-necked, their antlers branching out like the limbs on the saplings that sprouted from the forest floor. Still in the velvet, these mule deer were as tawny as mountain lions.

We stared at each other, none of us moving, until finally the young spike tiptoed across the path. The older deer followed, stopping to stare, waiting for the telltale movement of a predator on the prowl, then moving into the trees and up the slope of the hill. Every once in a while, one would turn and we would lock eyes. They had more patience than I did. I looked down at the purple harebells growing on the path. A staredown and I had lost.

Finally, I moved on - down the trail, then out across the meadow where the elk had been. I found elk droppings scattered among the lavender lupine and the white yarrow. I walked to the rocky uplift and touched the chokecherry bush where the bark had been rubbed bare. The meadow was quiet, except for the call of a redtail hawk as I turned to go.

Cowboys in the Boardroom

Two weeks ago I met a stranger for lunch. I had come across a link to his site on the American Cowgirl magazine site and was intrigued. A few years ago, Jim Owen wrote the book Cowboy Ethics: What Wall Street Can Learn from the Code of the West. I sent Jim a note and the next day he picked up the phone and called. As synchronicity would have it, he was flying into Denver the next day and offered to buy me lunch. Jim's a happily married man - this was not a rendezvous, but a reaching out of like-minded souls.

Life is often a journey of trust, where we make a conscious decision to "go with the flow" and trust the unfolding of our lives. When I met Jim, the first thing he said to me was, "I'm not a cowboy." Obviously, he wasn't. That was immediately apparent. James P. Owen is the Managing Director of Austin Capital Management and serves as the firms Director of Corporate Values. At the restaurant, he set a copy of Cowboy Ethics on the table and started telling me about himself. As I flipped through the beautiful photographs, I quickly found a stunning one taken by my friend Kathleen Jo Ryan (photographer and producer of Writing Down the River: Into the Heart of the Grand Canyon). It's a small world out there in ranching country.

Listed on the back of the business card Jim gave me is the Code of the West. Live each day with courage. Take pride in your work. Always finish what you start. Do what has to be done. Be tough, but be fair. When you make a promise, keep it. Ride for the brand. Talk less and say more. Remember that some things aren't for sale. Know where to draw the line.

I thought of the ranchers with whom I had spent so much time in Wyoming, and the old-timers in Douglas County whom I had gotten to know when I was a young wife and mother. I thought of the upcoming election and wondered how McCain and Obama would measure up against this Code of the West. I thought of my own life - the stories left unwritten, the promises broken, occasions when I didn't know when to draw the line. The times I talked far more than I listened.

Jim may not be a cowboy, or a rancher but he is a maverick, an original and generous thinker. And for that, I admire him. We had a great lunch and he gave me some sound business advice. We shook hands when we parted and if he'd been wearing a hat, I'm sure he would've tipped it as he said good-bye.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

News from the Publishing World

I was in Santa Fe a couple of A few weeks ago speaking at the “Writing Women’s Lives” conference and had the chance to hear Leigh Haber give an hour-long update on what’s happening in the world of New York publishing. I was impressed enough with Leigh to want to share what I learned. My notes were hastily scribbled, so I apologize in advance for any inaccuracies. They are mine, not Leigh’s. Leigh, an extremely experienced editor, started out I believe as a news aid for The Washington Post Book World, then worked as a New York publicity director for Harcourt Brace and other publishers. She was also with Hyperion Books, and then with Rodale Publishing until spring of 2008. The illustrious authors she has worked with include Al Gore, Steve Martin, Peter Jennings, Alice Walker, Terry Gross, and Tess Galligher. The highlights of her talk included:

  • Blogs and Blurbs - why they're important
  • Why Interactive Books are the Wave of Now
  • Author Platforms - how to get one
  • Author's Passion for the Work -why quality still matters
  • Book Scan - how editors use it to track sales
For a copy of my notes from Leigh Haber's presentation, email

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Watching Beijing with a Tibetan Guest

Last Friday night, Dolma Kyab came to our home in Mt. Vernon to watch the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympics. Dolma is from Tibet. Seven years ago, he sought political asylum in the United States, leaving his wife, children, and family in Tibet. In his homeland, he had been a high school teacher and was enrolled in law school. Now, living in a small town in Utah, he works for a landscaping company.

In Tibet, he was called Dolmakyab. All one word. When he came to the U.S., he was told that he must have two names - a first name, and a last name. So his name was split in two. Calling him Dolma is a reminder that his life, too, has been severed.

Just before Dolma left Tibet, he told us there had been a riot between a group of Tibetans and Mongols; more than 200 modern warriors threatening to attack. Dolma and four other teachers thrust themselves between the warring factions and, miraculously, violence was averted. This modern confrontation, fueled by generations of hate, lit a literary fire under Dolma. For the last seven years, since coming to the U.S., he has been writing a story about this ancient feud set in the Lake Kokonor region. He hopes to find a producer interested in turning the story into a movie.

Just before Dolma came to our home, he had been in Aspen listening to the Holiness the Dalai Lama speak. Tickets for the event were $1200. But Dolma had friends among the volunteer monks and was allowed into the room where His Holiness was speaking. Later, he met the Dalai Lama and shook his hand.

"We come from the same place in Tibet," Dolma told us. "We lived only two mountains apart." In a land of 471,700 square miles with mountain ranges that rise 15,000 feet above sea level, they were nearly neighbors.

As we watched the Opening Ceremonies together, sitting in our living room, I was struck by how much Dolma seemed to enjoy them. Often, in halting English, he would provide commentary. "What they are wearing," he told us about some of their elaborate costumes, "is from the 6th or 7th century China." When a group of colorfully dressed children representing more than 200 different ethnicities appeared, Dolma leaned forward, smiling. "There," he pointed excitedly, "there, that young girl, she is Tibetan."

The next morning we sat outside on the deck and, during breakfast, visited about the story he has written. He explained the legend of the sixth-century monk who traveled to Lake Kokonor from Lhasa. The monk, upon arriving at the lake, found the water too salty to drink and, losing his temper, he cursed the lake. "Even a monk is not perfect," Dolmakyab explained. "The root of anger is in all of us."

Known in China now as Qinghai Lake, more than 23 rivers and creeks drain into this salty body of water, the largest lake in China. According to Dolmakyab,the root of anger continues to pollute the water.

His story of Lake Kokonor, which I read in the translated version, gives the reader a "glimpse of the vanishing lifestyle of the nomads of Tibet and Mongolia. It is a tale of brutality, of courage, of compassion and of the transformation from societies of warring tribes to people living together in peaceful coexistance."

Let's hope that this year's Opening Ceremonies lead us closer to an understanding of how to reach the deepest tendrils of that root of anger so that some day, Dolma can once again be known as Dolmakyab.

POSTSCRIPT: More about Dolma....

I just had a great phone visit with James Navé who co-produces (internationally) The Writing Salon with Allegra Huston and I want to add a postscript to yesterday's blog in the hopes of building even more buzz around Dolma's story, Lake Kokonor. So, here's the rest of the story...

I've been presenting at the July Taos "Writing from the Imaginative Storm" salon for the last three years and love going back. It's always a great group of people, and Navé and Allegra provide a fun and laid-back but professionally stimulating environment (see my favorite links).

Dolma and I first crossed paths at Navé's place this July. Navé had offered Dolma a place to stay, and a chance to check out the Salon. Dolma hopes, of course, to snag the interest of a movie producer who might be willing to take a chance on Lake Kokonor. Dolma and I shared a cup of tea and a halting conversation (his English is much better than my Tibetan, which is non-existent).

A few hours later, I had to take off for Santa Fe to speak at the "Writing Women's Lives" conference. Apparently, Dolma stayed on in Taos for the rest of the Salon and, despite the language barrier, he charmed everyone and the group has also taken a personal interest in the story he has written. Now, he's got several of us cheering him on.

Perhaps we can be the hopeful pebbles cast into these difficult waters, creating ripples that will eventually help illuminate the vanishing lifestyle of the nomadic Tibetans and the Mongolian Buddhist nomads in Dolma's story, and by doing so, shine a light on (in Dolma's words) "a more compassionate and peaceful way to coexist."

Friday, August 8, 2008

Predators and Prey

Last Monday, in a small community about 15 miles southwest of Denver, a man and wife left the French doors to their master bedroom slightly ajar with their two dogs sleeping on the floor beside them.

At about 4:30 in the morning, a mountain lion walked into the bedroom. The woman woke at the sound, got out of bed, and in the darkness made out a shape. "There's an animal in here," she said to her husband, and she didn't mean the dogs.

But the lion already had the couple's 12-year-old yellow Labrador in its jaws. Predator and prey disappeared into the grey dusk. The next day, wildlife officers found the partially eaten remains of the dog buried beneath some pine needles. With the couple's permission, a trap was set. When the cougar returned to finish the meal, the cougar was caught, then euthanized.

I found this story, about a mountain lion who had lost its fear of humans, buried on page 10 of the newspaper next to an ad for a climate-control company and below an ad advertising replacement windows. On the flip side of the page was a brief story about a teen-age boy charged with animal cruelty after allegedly running over a raven with his car.

A month ago, the first night my new horse Farside spent out with the herd on 300 acres of mountain pasture in the rustic community where I live, a predator attacked Farside, leaving four distinct but superficial claw marks on the left hip and four minor wounds on the right hip. None of the rake marks cut deeply. The animal, most likely a cougar, must have leaped from a tree, but missed its mark on this newest, and thus most vulnerable, member of the horse herd.

Last year, a mountain lion wandered into the Plaza in downtown Santa Fe and leaped through a jewelry store's plate glass window, setting off the burglar alarm. (The journalist who reported the story resisted the temptation to call him a Cat Burglar.) The animal was anesthetized, then relocated to a more remote mountain range in New Mexico. The jewelry store owner had to replace the safety glass, which had fallen like crystal webbing to the floor beneath the display cases.

Three years ago, driving down the dirt road near home about 10:00 o'clock at night, a mountain lion disappeared across the road and into the trees between the rustic mountain houses. A few days earlier, a neighbor had been walking at the bottom of this same road when two mountain lion cubs tumbled down the steep hill above the road, landing at her feet.

Four years ago, I spent a month on a solo-retreat near the Cloud Peak Wilderness area in Wyoming. I hiked the elk trails through the forest, watched for bear sign, inspected cougar scat, and listened to the cooing of blue grouse. I watched my back trail, keeping my gaze both ahead and above. If I had any trepidation, it was more about encountering two-legged predators, than four-legged ones. Luckily, I walked the trails unharmed.

My heart goes out to the couple who lost their beloved yellow Lab. We once had a black Lab named Hondo whose death came less dramatically, yet it still took me over a year to muster the courage to write about the weekend he died, and how we buried him beside the oak draw he loved to explore. My son, grown now, has a yellow Lab named Durango who, until a few weeks ago, did not know how to swim. Matt had to teach him.

Nature is not flawless. There are water dogs who can't swim. Trees that grow sideways. Cougar cubs who can't quite learn how to negotiate the trails. Adult mountain lions who forget their shyness. Humans who hunt for fun but not food, and humans who prey on their own kind.

I don't know what the lesson is in all of this, except that perhaps we should be more concerned about our place in the scheme of things, than controlling the climate within that place. But like the lions who roam the lands where we build our houses, we are predators, walking that fine line between loving and fearing nature. Perhaps that line, if we had to name it as we do our streets, would be called Respect.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Our Connections to Each Other - A Renewable Energy

When the ancient Greek hero Hercules engaged in mortal combat with Antaeus, the son of Neptune and Terra - Ocean and Earth – he almost lost the battle. Every time the body of Antaeus came in contact with the Mother Earth, his strength was mysteriously renewed. Mighty Hercules slew Antaeus only because he managed to wrestle the giant’s body from the land, lifting him away from his source of strength, his very source of life.

When I moved from our small ranch in the Bearlodge Mountains of Wyoming, I felt as if I, too, had been torn from the earth. Severed by a Herculean destiny from all that sustained me – from our beloved Border collie, from the horses and white-tailed deer, from the raucous blue jays and red-tailed hawks. For me, like for Antaeus, the loss of emotional, spiritual, and physical strength was sudden and dramatic.

Human beings have historically been strengthened and renewed by an intimate connection with the earth – in sync with its rhythms, regenerative power, and instinctive wisdom. For many women, our deepest sense of feminine energy comes from this connection, from knowing that we are an inseparable part of this grand, chaotic design.

So why do many of us lead lives where we feel estranged from this source of renewable energy? Why do so many of us feel estranged from the earth, from the feminine? Why do we so readily adapt a competitive paradigm when crossing the threshold between our personal lives and our professional lives, instead of a cooperative paradigm more intrinsic to our nature?

We are a part of the natural world. The natural world gave birth to us, just as it gave birth to the gazelle and the giant sequoia. Our businesses evolved from natural prototypes. We feel this connection when we stand barefoot at the edge of a river with a coffee cup in our hands, or when we bury our fingers in the cool, coarse hair of a horse’s mane in the early morning. We even feel this connection when we grind our coffee beans and inhale the deep aroma of the rich soil that grew the beans. Perhaps that is why it feels so natural to rise in the early morning and sit beside a river, or gaze at horses grazing in a meadow. Even the feel of pen sliding across paper rekindles this organic connection.

“I often think of the warm brown river;” wrote Barbara Bolin, “the silty water soft on my skin, moon light shedding shadows across the campsite, voices undulating with laughter and tears, the incredible power of written words flung into the space beyond the canyon walls. Women need to be more the challengers and change agents for the world, such as we were on those rafts floating down that powerful river.”

Women have, for thousands of years, been gathering at the river. This is where we bathed our children, washed our clothes, gathered our cooking water, and shared our intimate stories. This is where we gathered wisdom for decision-making. This is where the seeds of the future were born.

I love to bring women on retreats – whether to an ancient river, or a gentle mountain, or a ranch in the wide-open spaces of Wyoming. Grand vistas encourage grand thinking. I love to watch a woman run her hands over a mare’s muscled chest in the shade of an old barn, or watch us wind our way up a meandering path. How amazing – to relax into our passions! I love this falling back in love with ourselves, and back in love with life. I love how this renewed Sense of Self goes back out into the world.

What a blessing – to be part of this transcendence, to feel myself transformed each time by the women I meet, to be engaged in a hopeful future. What a blessing to create opportunities where we come together and reconnect with our own innate wisdom.

Fun links to Horse and River Writing Retreats

Impromptu Sharing. Here's a few fun links to check out if you want to view some photos and read a bit more on June's "Saddle Up! Horseback Writing Retreat" in Wyoming, and some of the past "River Writing Journeys for Women."

American Cowgirl Magazine (a great magazine and a short blog from me - scroll UP to see photo the handsome little BLM mustang I rode)

Giving You a Voice (scroll DOWN 'til you get to that fabulous photo of Maggie on the river)

Slide Show from the "Saddle Up!" retreat (Elspeth Nairn's cool photos from our June '08 time at the Vee Bar Guest Ranch in Wyoming (Literature and Landscape of the Horse retreat)

Nicki Ishikawa's Slide Show from the Vee Bar Guest Ranch retreat (June '08 Literature and Landscape of the Horse retreat)

Check back in October for photos from the September "River Writing and Sculpting trip" with amazing Santa Clara Pueblo artists Roxanne Swentzell and Rose Simpson. It's going to be an amazing 5 days on the Colorado.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Silk Shoes, Chinese Amahs, and the Olympics*

Today, with the Olypmics in Beijing only four days away, I think of China, and my mother's love of this mysterious and exotic land. Her childhood memories cloaked her during years of debilitating cancer as an adult. Often times, they were the only protection she had.

I have just painted the dining room in the mountain cabin that used to be my mother's, but which is now mine, a Chinese cherry red. She would have approved, and perhaps - even now - is casting her blessing like peonies petals blown down from heaven.

On the living room wall of every one of our homes – from this mountain home in the Colorado Rockies, to our Kew Gardens apartment on Long Island – my mother hung a tiny pair of Chinese shoes. The thinly layered soles of these shoes are protected by rawhide, which forms a thick cushion meant to protect one’s feet from the overflowing gutters of China’s crowded cities. The upper shoe is cotton, decorated with colorful, hand-embroidered silk made during the nationalist years of Chiang Kai-Shek.

These shoes were brought to her when she was just a child by Cousin Walter, who lived in Shanghai during the years preceding World War II. These were also the years of Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth, Sons, and A House Divided – rich years for my mother, brimming with tales of worldly travels and foreign cultures, for cousin Walter returned to the States each summer, always bearing gifts from “the Orient.” My mother loved these exciting summer visits not just because of the gifts, nor Pearl S. Buck’s exotic stories, but because her cousin’s entourage always included his children, and their nannies, the Chinese amahs.

As a child, years later, in each new home we inhabited, I would stare at the colorful shoes decorating the wall and ask my mother to tell me stories of Cousin Walter’s visits.

“Tell me about the amahs again, please?”

“Well, the amahs were supposed to do everything we asked of them, and were never to lose sight of us.”

“So you would tease them and hide in the rose gardens!” I blurted. “Tell me about the breakfasts!”

Mother always laughed, and then she would take the shoes down from the wall and we would each hold one in our hands, and I would trace the delicate embroidery with my fingertips as she continued.

“Every morning we hid in our bedcovers until the amahs came in to ask us what we would like for breakfast. ‘Strawberry shortcake!’ we all cried out. ‘Chocolate tortes!’

The amahs giggled and bowed slowly backward out of the room, nodding their heads, pretending to agree. ‘Yes, Missies. Yes, Missies.’”

Even though I’d heard the stories many times, I would clutch the shoe to my heart, urging my mother to continue. “But you never got tortes for breakfast, did you?”

“No, never tortes, or shortcake. When the amahs returned with our breakfast trays; they always held such boring things as porridge and eggs, toast and juice. Yet we always pretended, just the same.”

“And then you dressed and hid in the rose gardens?”
“Yes,” she laughed. “Each morning we hid from the amahs, and each morning they pretended to be worried sick.”

“Tell me about the pink jade elephants,” I would implore.

Mother would smile, taking the shoe from me and returning the pair to their place of honor on the living room wall. “Perhaps tomorrow morning, after your chores are done.”

And thus the stories, and my fascination with China, continued.

China became my Shangri-La, and Pearl S. Buck my heroine. Because Ms. Buck lived in China during some of the same years as my mother’s cousin Walter, I loved to imagine that they knew one another, perhaps even shared tea in the afternoon. Maybe even tossed story ideas back and forth. Perhaps Cousin Walter contributed a thought or two which wove its way into one of Ms. Buck intriguing stories.

I enjoy these musings, especially now, for the shoes no longer hang on the walls of my mother’s homes, but on the walls of the home where I live alone. Like Pearl and Walter, my mother is now gone, and I have become the caretaker of the shoes, and the stories. Like the amahs, far from home, I am learning the joy of pretending.

Perhaps these tiny silk shoes hold within their tattered fabric the stories of many exotic lives. Perhaps they were even worn by poor Peony, the Chinese bondmaid reared in a Jewish household in the province of Honan. Ah, but wait…Peony was a figment of Ms. Buck’s abundant imagination. She would’ve had no need for shoes to protect her delicate feet. Yet Peony was my first love story, and as real as all the loves and lives that followed.

“Nothing is lost,” Peony mused in her old age, contemplating the family she had grown to love.

“Their blood is lively in whatever frame it flows, and when the frame is gone, its very dust enriches the still kindly soil. Their spirit is born anew in every generation. They are no more and yet they live forever.”

I wonder how many of the Chinese citizens of Beijing have ever read Pearl S. Buck - if they would consider my mother's romantic memories foolish in these modern times - an anachronism belonging to a bygone era.

*A slightly different version of this story appears in the anthology In the Shadow of the Bear Lodge: Writings from the Black Hills (Many Kites Press, 2006,

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Babies in Church on Mother's Day? What to do with them...

Since living in Santa Fe, my partner John and I have been attending a very friendly, small church, the Center for Spiritual Living. Last Sunday was Mother’s Day. Our handsome, boisterous and intelligent Reverend Bernardo was taking a much-needed weekend off and so a guest speaker had been appointed. As always, the opening session included an invitation for visitors and guests to stand and introduce themselves. A beautiful young couple, with a brand new baby, stood. The handsome young father, in a suit jacket and tie, turned to his wife and, placing a hand gently on their baby girl’s head, said, “We are looking for a community for our new baby daughter.” They were welcomed with a warm burst of applause.

But then, sadly, the guest speaker, about ten minutes into his rather self-centered talk, admonished them because their baby was whimpering. Clearly, he wanted to remain the center of attention. A few minutes later, he shook his head, “tisked, tisked,” them, and asked them to leave. “It makes it very hard for me to speak,” he said.

The baby had not been howling, not even crying, truly she was barely whimpering. The couple left immediately, feeling embarrassed, chastised, and thrust out. John and I were aghast. This was Mother’s Day, after all! Several other people also left. I walked out the door at the back of the room and met them as they were leaving the building. I apologized profusely, asking them, “PLEASE come back when Reverend Bernardo is here.” Several of us assured them that the guest speaker’s attitude did not reflect the congregation’s. The young father said to me, “It’s such a contradiction – talking about this being a safe and sacred space.”

My heart aches for this couple – the young father, who had dressed with such care and respect, wanting to make his wife’s first Mother’s Day such a special occasion; the young mother, in tears, feeling humiliated and unwelcome. Even the baby’s face was anguished. I could not help but think of Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus trying to find “room at the inn” in Jerusalem.

I regret that the entire congregation didn’t rise immediately to their defense. I regret that John and I didn’t leave with them and offer to treat them to breakfast. I regret that I didn't get their names and address so I could be sending them this letter.

When my own daughter Sarah was barely walking, I regularly attended a small, intimate Episcopal church in South Dakota. My own mother was hundreds of miles way in Colorado. I had no immediate family to help shoulder the responsibilities of motherhood. But Father Pete was quite liberal, in both thought and action, with Reverend Bernardo’s same warmth and intelligence, and he believed that church should be a “home away from home” for everyone, including the tiny children. If a toddler fussed during service, he encouraged the parents to put the child down and let them wander the room unrestrained.

Once in a while, Sarah would want down from my lap. She would quietly toddle around from pew to pew. Occasionally, someone would hold out their arms to her and she would climb up and settle in for a few minutes. But more often than not, she would be drawn to Father Pete’s deep melodious voice and would wander up to the alter area, where she would sit quietly at Father Pete’s feet while he talked, gazing up at him without uttering a sound. Usually, within a few minutes, she would toddle quietly back to the pews and find her way back to my lap.

Shouldn't we be able to make room in our hearts for young parents whose own families may be hundreds or thousands of miles away? If Reverend Bernardo had been there, he would have found a way to ease this young parents' dilemma. But no reverend or minister can tend to the flock all the time. We must be willing to rise to the occasion when the occasion warrants. Next time, I will not quietly leave. I will take the whole congregation with me, outside among the sprouting spring trees and the rosy breasted finches building nests in preparation of the coming of the next generation.