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

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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,