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!


Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Celebrating the Elders

What is an elder? That's the question a close friend asked me when I told her about the Elders Christmas Dinner hosted last week by the American Indian College Fund. "It's a blessing to help serve the meal," I said. "There were over 200 Indian elders there, from dozens of different tribes." My friend lowered her head shyly and asked, "What's an elder?" Her question made me ponder how we treat elders in the dominant culture of which I am a part. She knew, of course, what an elder was but not in the context of a special event held strictly to honor our elders.

The dinner was a special affair, but not a serious one (it's hard to be too serious with 200 adults eagerly awaiting the arrival of both dinner, and Santa). "If you're over 55," said emcee John Gritts, "please have a seat and a youngster (anyone under 55) will bring you your food."

The day after the Elders Dinner, Rick Williams, president of the American Indian College Fund, sent a thank you note to those who had helped. In the note, he shared something he had written several years ago about elders, and he gave me his permission to share it here:

"Tunkashila, Grandfather, Great Spirit. It is this way that we begin our prayers in Lakota. Tunkashila also means one's own grandfather. The reason that the words are used this way is because our Grandfathers are the Elders of the Tribe and in many ways personify the sacredness of the goodness and wisdom of the Great Spirit.

"Our Elders teach us who are ancestors were. Our Elders are our connection to everything in our past. It is with their knowledge that we understand how we fit into the World. Every Grandmother and Grandfather are sacred in many special ways. It is because of this that we will always 'Respect our Elders.' Hau, Mitaku Oyasin."

I'll bet a lot of you already have special traditions for your elders. Maybe, every holiday celebration, your family also serves the elders first? Maybe your children have been taught to wait until their grandparents are seated, before seating themselves? Maybe your children read holiday stories to their grandparents? If so, wonderful!

I think I will start compiling a list of all the literary elders who have appeared in the books I love. Maybe even a list of the literary elders who have written the books I cherish. Like the old fisherman Santiago in Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea? Or the aged Wang Lung and O-lan at the end of Pearl Buck's The Good Earth. The list is endless. If you have some favorites of your own, leave a comment here with their titles. We'll grow a list together!

I'll end this holiday note with blessings for the New Year, and by sharing one of my favorite photos from the 2009 River Writing and Sculpting Journey - Lorilyn celebrating on party night with her 80-year-young mother, Lorraine. You can't help but smile!

Thank you to Jaime Aguilar and the American Indian College Fund for use of the dinner photos.

Read The Denver Post article by Tina Griego.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Grand Design of Our Lives: Connecting the Synchronistic Dots

SYNCHRONISTIC MOMENTS - seemingly unrelated events that connect in unplanned ways.  How often do they occur?  How often do we fail to "connect the dots" that tie these moments together?  What do they tell us about the Grand Design of our lives

When the old man in John Steinbeck's collection The Pastures of Heaven stared down into the valley where he had lived his life, tears came to his eyes and he beat his hands helplessly against his hip. "I’ve never had time to think," he said.  "I’ve been too busy with troubles ever to think anything out. If I could go down there and live down there for a little while—why, I’d think over all the things that ever happened to me, and maybe I could make something out of them, something all in one piece that had a meaning, instead of all these trailing ends.”

All those trailing ends--the threads of our lives that we long to weave into something whole and meaningful.  But how do we begin the braiding?

Sometimes it helps to simply "connect the dots."  Identify points of intersection in seemingly unrelated events.  Don't try to attach meaning yet, just marvel at the places where your life comes together.  Here are some of the latest synchronistic moments in my life that connect in delightful and curious ways.  Who knows where the trail will lead?  Who knows where your trail is leading?

DOT #1:  November, 2008, I attend a keynote talk with Richard Louv (author, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder and Chairman, Children and Nature Network) at the Denver Museum of Science and Nature.  As a Senior Associate with the Children and Nature Network, and a friend of Rich's, I'm a huge advocate of the "Leave No Child Inside" initiative. Rich gave me a great blurb when Fulcrum Publishing brought out the trade paperback version of my memoir In Search of Kinship, a collection of personal stories about raising my kids outdoors. 

DOT #2:  September, 2009, I attend Fulcrum Publishing's 25th anniversary celebration and meet Kirk Johnson, Chief Curator at the Denver Museum of Science and Nature.  We talk about getting together to discuss ways to bring a more rural/ranching/children/nature component to the museum. 

DOT #3:  October, 2009, while participating in a strategic planning committee meeting for the Colorado Alliance for Environmental Education I meet Pavlos Stavropoulos, Sustainability Director at the Woodbine Ecology Center, and am immediately impressed with his passionate, forward thinking, cooperative approach to problem-solving.

Dot #4:   December, 2009, I attend the 30th anniversary celebration for The Bloomsbury Review - 30 years of publishing "the finest Book Magazine in the land." Marilyn Auer (pictured), co-founder, publisher and editor, has been gifting me with complimentary copies for my retreat participants for years. I leave with 50 copies in tow.

Ed Warner, director of the Sand County Foundation, introduces himself and we strike up a conversation.  The Foundation started back in 1965 as caretaker of the 120-acre Aldo Leopold Memorial Reserve.  A community-based conservation network, they are a vital tool for reconnecting people and the natural world,  "harnessing the experiences of rural people and policies in Africa and North America." 

Here's Ed's favorite photo of himself kneeling and taking a wild rhino's pulse while administering oxygen (taken at the Save Valley Conservancy near Chiredzi, Zimbabwe).  Ed has a contagious enthusiasm for life with a non-jaded abiliity to allow life to surprise him, and to share that surprise with others.  It's delightful.

Dot #5:  It turns out Ed and I know many of the same people, including Richard Knight (professor, Warner College of Natural Resources at CSU) and co-editor of Home Land: Ranching and a West that Works and the Quivira Coalition director Courtney White.  It also turns out that Ed is a Trustee of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science (see Dot #2), and knows Kirk Johnson.  It also turns out that Ed has spent hundreds of volunteer hours reconnecting children to the outdoors.

Dot #6:  After Ed and his wife leave the Bloomsbury party, I talk more with Pavlos of the Woodbine Ecology Center.  Woodbine is guided, in part, by the Seventh Generation Principle, an Iroquois belief that the decisions we make today should be based on how the next seven generations will be impacted by those decisions.

Pavlos speaks about his own indigenous and migratory Greek roots. "We are all indigenous," he says, "even if we're descendants of slaves, or indentured servants, or refugees, or voluntary immigrants.  We find ourselves—people of all colors and nations—here to stay. This is now our home and the home of our children and great-great grandchildren." (read more at Woodbine's Vision). 

I tell Pavlos of the six generations of ranching roots that tie my grown children to Colorado, how their great-great-great grandparents migrated to the healing high country air of Colorado to save their asthmatic son's life.  "I wrote In Search of Kinship," I say, "because I believe these roots can be transplanted; that they do not need to shrivel and die.  Our stories keep them alive."  Pavlos nods his head in agreement.

Dot #7:  The next day, I browse the history page on Woodbine's website and learn that the Center is located on Indian Creek, in Sedalia, Colorado.  I smile at the synchronicity.  This photo is of my son Matt with his grandmother, Edie Lambert Higby.  The Lambert Ranch was homesteaded in 1862 in the heart of Indian Creek Valley.  It was on this creek, in the heart of Chief Colorow's Ute country, that my children's father grew up.  "Colorow was reported to have traveled to Sedalia," the history page states, "where he attempted to trade a horse and some beads for the baby of the Manhart family, one of the founders of Sedalia..." 

My daughter is named after Sarah Manhart, and it was with her great-grandmother's uncle that Chief Colorow tried to trade.  I tell the story in the prologue of In Search of Kinship.  "'I remember pulling on Mother's skirts,' said the baby's older sister, 'and begging her not to make the trade.'"  In the photo on the right, I am standing at Sarah Manhart's grave marker in Sedalia.

Though we no longer live on the Lambert Ranch in Sedalia, when my daughter Sarah has a child, and my son Matt, these children will be the seventh generation to carry on this legacy of the land.  (photo on the left: Sarah riding her mare Magpie)

Are these simply synchronicities?  What do they reveal about the Grand Design of my life, and the lives of my son and daughter?

What “dots” can you connect in your life?  What will they reveal about your journey?

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Farm City, Deeply Rooted, and Each Featherless Wing

Turkey bones and veges for soup According to The Wall Street Journal, 46 million domestic, farm-raised turkeys were devoured this week (including the 13 pound turkey whose bones have been stewing in my soup kettle until an hour ago).  It’s probably fair to say that none of us ever saw “our bird” fully feathered, or heard it gobble, or knew whether a “hen” or a “jake” was gracing our dinner platter.  I haven’t had this kind of intimate relationship with a Thanksgiving turkey since leaving our Wyoming ranch a few years ago, and I miss it. 
7J Outfitter Wild Turkey The picture below was taken by Seven J Outfitters on land adjacent to our ranch. I do not know these hunters but no doubt I’ve seen this turkey’s brethren foraging on our hay meadow. These are the same turkeys my son and daughter watched through the seasons when growing up, including hunting season.  “If they’re too many jakes,” my son once told me, “they’ll harass the nesting hens, and not enough eggs will hatch.”  He used to spend days out in the woods, studying the bands of wild turkeys. If this photo stirs you in any way, I hope you’ll respond by posting a comment.
In the fall, the wild turkeys that I used to share this land with loved to graze the acorns that gathered beneath the bur oaks.  They also loved the hay meadows, where it was harder for a coyote or bob cat to sneak up on them. I imagine they still do. 
Had the 46 million domestic turkeys eaten this week been born wild, like the Merriam’s wild turkey of the ponderosa forests of the West, only 25 percent of them might have survived beyond their first few weeks of life.  Those that did might have lived for a year or two, maybe three, but it’s the rare and wise wild turkey that could escape both disease and predation to see a tenth birthday. 
Like the coyotes who prey on the turkeys, I find myself mostly at peace with the role of predator.  My eyes, like the coyote’s or the eagle’s or the mountain lion’s or the fox, are located in the front of my head. My teeth, too, are designed for tearing flesh.  I trust nature’s grand design.  What I am not at peace with are the insidious and mutated forms of predation that now seem to define our species. 
Farm City Yesterday, with the taste of Thanksgiving still lingering on my tongue, and memories still stirring my heart, I read an article on the New York Time’s book editors’ top 10 reads for 2009.  Dwight Garner’s selections included the memoir Farm City:The Education of an Urban Farmer by Novella Carpenter. “A moving meditation on urban life versus the natural world,” wrote the publisher Penguin Press, “and what we’ve given up to live the way we do.”
The intersection of anything rural and urban intrigues me.  Here was a memoir about a young woman who grubbed out a small garden plot from a dirt lot in a drug-infested ghetto in Oakland and started growing not only herbs and vegetables, but ducks and rabbits and even two Red Duroc pigs.  I clicked on a link to Garner’s June 11 book review:
“At heart,” he writes, “Farm City is more about Ms. Carpenter’s experiences with livestock than it is about growing plump tomatoes. In fact Farm City is a serious, if tragicomic, meditation on raising and then killing your own animals. She wants to have “a dialogue with life,” she writes, and realizes she can do that only by also having a dialogue with death.”
Bravo, Ms. Carpenter!  We Americans shy away from death, or at least from hands-on death.  We shy away from admitting that nothing lives that something does not die.   We rarely anoint our own dead, and rarely wonder about the lives of the things we eat to nourish our own bodies.
DeeplyRootedYesterday I was also reading High Country News.  I came across Andrea Appleton’s review of Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness by Lisa Hamilton. (November 9, High Country News).  “In this narrative nonfiction book,” writes the publisher, “Hamilton tells three stories, of an African-American dairyman in Texas who plays David to the Goliath of agribusiness corporations; a tenth-generation rancher in New Mexico struggling to restore agriculture as a pillar of his community; and a modern pioneer family in North Dakota…”  Click here for a SLIDE SHOW of the people in these three stories.  Click here to read Appleton’s REVIEW, “For farmers, small is beautiful.”
This year’s turkey carcass has been simmering on the stove for two days.  When I took the pot out of the refrigerator this morning, the broth was a thick, protein-rich gelatin.  The meat is now  stripped from the bones and I’m about to dice the celery and chop the onions and shred the carrots.  Making this soup feels like an act of gratitude, a prayerful way to spend a few hours regardless of whether the turkey lived a wild life, or a confined one.  But I will miss the slight taste of wild acorns that used to grace the Thanksgiving soup I made back at the ranch.  I will squeeze all the intimacy from these bones that I can—each leg bone, each rib, each featherless and flightless wing.
Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness, Counterpoint Press, May, 2009.
Farm City, Novella Carpenter, The Penguin Press, June, 2009.

Friday, November 20, 2009

NEWS FLASH! Colum McCann Wins National Book Award

I met Colum 4 years ago (please see previous post below) and am thrilled Let the Great World Spin has won.  Go to NPR to learn more and read about it from the Associated Press News Release.  Here’s an excerpt:

Colum McCann Let the Great World Spin “McCann won the fiction prize for "Let the Great World Spin," a novel about daring, luck and mortality in the pre-digital world of 1970s New York.

“He has called his book an act of hope written in part as a response to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Accepting his prize, McCann praised the generosity of American fiction and of the American people.”

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Colum McCann. Luck of the Irish? Or just a fine, fine novelist?

Everything in This Country Must “A summer flood came and our draft horse got caught in the river.  The river smashed against stones and the sound of it to me was like the turning of locks.  It was silage time and the water smelled of grass.  The draft horse, Father’s favorite, had stepped in the river for a sniff maybe and she was caught, couldn’t move, her foreleg trapped between rocks.  Father found her and called Katie! above the wailing rain.  I was in the barn waiting for drips on my tongue from the ceiling hole.”

These are the opening words to Colum McCann’s short story “Everything in This Country Must,” first published in The Atlantic in 2001 and later published in book form (along with another short story and a novella) by Macmillan/Picador.

I met Colum McCann in June of 2005 at the Aspen Summer Words Literary Festival in Colorado.  Colum was part of an impressive lineup of Irish authors, including Robert Boswell, Grande Dame Edna O’Brien, Polly Devlin, Nuala O’Faolain, Paul Muldoon, and Marie Ponsot.  (Photo of Colum by Brendan Bourke.)  I knew that I was in the presence of a writer

Column McCann by Brendan Bourkewhose greatness was as apparent as his magnetism.  Colum, (born in Dublin in 1965), was approachable, handsome, and sensual (with a lovely wife). A few minutes later, as he began to read the 14-page short story, “Everything in This Country Must,” we were quickly enfolded in the charm of his Irish voice.  Afterwards, we watched the short film based on the story, which had won 16 top awards at major film festivals and was nominated for an Academy Award Oscar.

The story is about a work horse that gets caught in the roaring creek, the farmer who can’t save his prize Belgium, the teenage daughter who’s trying to help, the British soldiers who rescue the horse, the same soldiers who, two years prior, had accidentally crushed the car in which the farmer’s son and wife were sitting. It all comes full circle. The farmer is in such deep dark place of grief and impotence and anger and fear that in the end, after the soldiers are gone, he goes to the barn and kills the horse he loves because, perhaps, he cannot bear the thought that he must forgive the country,and the soldiers, who took his wife from him.  An entire, exquisitely wrought and painful world is contained in this short story. 

Colum McCann Let the Great World Spin Colum’s sixth novel, Let the Great World Spin, (Random House) is a 2009 National Book Award Finalist, and was called “One of the most electric, profound novels of the year” by The NY Times Book Review. It was also just picked by as Editors’ #1 Pick of their Top Ten for 2009.  Colum’s novel Dancer (Picador, 2004), received the prestigious Irish Novel of the Year award.  CLICK HERE for dates of Colum’s November and December, 2009, New York and Amsterdam appearances. 

NOW, I’d like to take a moment to pay homage to Nuala O’Faolain, who also spoke at the Aspen Summer Words Festival in 2005.  Known as Ireland’s female counterpartNuala O'Faolain to Frank McCourt, her  memoir Are You Somebody?  was on the NY Times bestseller list for 17 weeks.  Nuala was bold, outspoken, funny, had no fear, and was passionate about the rights of women in Ireland. She sat down to write her life story with no intention of publication – and thus “told all” in the book.  She was hilarious and impassioned and took over the panel discussion in Aspen in a way that thrilled all of us in the audience.

“I was only writing my life story,” she said, “with no intention of it being read by anyone.”  One day, she was walking down the lane and a tall woman came toward her and congratulated her on the book.  “I told her, I’d never intended to get all this attention, and the woman said to me, ‘Stand by it. It’s your life. Stand by it.’”

I was so moved by her belief in the importance of women’s stories that I gifted her with a copy of In Search of Kinship, which now seems like a presumptuous thing to do.  A week later, I received a note from her.  She told me that she read my memoir on the return flight, cover to cover.  And when she finished, “I left it on my seat in the plane, so that it would gift the next traveler in the same way it had gifted me.”

Nuala died three years later, in 2008, of lung cancer.  Her message to us, even now, is to stand by our lives, to recognize that each emotion we experience ties us more deeply to all of humanity.  We do not need to destroy that which we love the most because we fear our own vulnerability in the face of that love.  We only need to move more deeply into what it means to be a human being. 

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Elk Velvet, Begging Bowls, and Rumi: Unexpected Gifts

Each fall, I search the woods forbull elk #1 antler velvet, like other women might browse catalogs for good sales on winter coats.  It’s an odd habit, I admit. During the last few weeks of August and into September here in the rustic mountain community where I live, bachelor herds of bull elk congregate in the meadows and woods surrounding our home.  Even from a distance, you can see their engorged antlers grow thick with velvet as their bodies flesh out from rich mountain grass. 
As the color fades from the brilliant Indian Paintbrush, Brilliant Indian Paintbrush the elk begin scratching their antlers on the trunks of sapling aspens and pines.  One day, while hiking with our Border collie Trixie, I followed four big bulls who had strips of velvet hanging from their tender, bloody tines.  I searched the ground beneath the trees where they stopped to rub their antlers, searching for a strip of shredded velvet, each time thinking this will be the place.  But it never was. I found shredded pieces of bark and fresh droppings beneath their rubs, but never that coveted bit of velvet.  I felt like I was searching for the end of a story which remained forever just beyond my reach – close enough to see, almost to touch – but as elusive as the mythical powers of the elk.
Elk Velvet & bark After following the four bulls for an hour, I turned around to head back home. Trixie scampered ahead of me on the trail, stopping to sniff around the trunk of a ponderosa.  Dejected, I sat on a granite rock to catch my breath before climbing the final steep leg of the hike home.  Within a few minutes, Trixie returned to my side carrying something in her mouth.  She sat down next to me, nudged my empty hand, then dropped a soft strip of fur into it.  I rubbed my fingers along its edge, then turned it over and saw the bloody underside.  Antler velvet.  I was holding a piece of antler velvet.  “You crazy dog,” I said, and then I rose and let Trixie lead me back down the path toward the ponderosa.
Sue Bender, in her book Everyday Sacred: A Woman’s Journey Home, writes: “All I knew about a begging bowl was Everyday Sacred that each day a monk goes out with his empty bowl in his hands. Whatever is placed in the bowl will be his nourishment for the day…”
For writers, every time we venture into the metaphorical world of story and face that blank computer screen, or blank journal, we are seeking nourishment. We are also, ritualistically, practicing faith. Faith that if we offer our metaphorical empty bowl to the gods, we will eventually be gifted with a story. 
Massive Bulls in the backyard Each hike into the woods is, for me, also a journey of faith.  Sometimes, usually, I return home empty-handed.  But not always.  Sometimes, like that day following the elk, I return with a story to tell and renewed sense of wonder.  Sometimes, I don’t even have to leave home.  Sometimes, the wonder comes to me, like the morning a few weeks ago when these slick-antlered bulls showed up in the back yard.  John and I filled our coffee cups, put Trixie on a leash, tiptoed outside, and sat in our lawn chairs and watched as they browsed and snorted and parried. 
Gifts.  They are all around us. 
In Rumi’s poem “The Gift of Water” he tell us that every object and being in the universe is a jar overfilled with wisdom and beauty.  “Do you see?” he asks. 

You knock at the door of reality,
shake your thought-wings, loosen
your shoulders,

                   and open.

Do you see?
More about the analogy of the begging bowl. 
More about Jelaluddin Rumi.
News Item: On November 21, Page is teaching a one-day seminar at Mt. Vernon Country Club on “Writing the Personal Essay.”  Details at

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Why Vultures Lie in Wait, and Deepak Chopra’s Law of Least Effort

I grew up believing that STRIVING towards goals and feeling DRIVEN in one’s passions were necessary components of success. They can also be exhausting components of success.  The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success

Deepak Chopra, in his book The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, talks about the Law of Least Effort. “Nature’s intelligence functions with effortless ease…this is the principle of least action, of no resistance.”

But what of all those long tedious hours of writing and rewriting? What of all the hours spent networking, following up leads, peaking under every stone for missed opportunities?

The carrion-eating vultures I encounter on early-morning hikes got me to thinking that maybe Deepak Chopra is right. “Grass doesn’t try to grow, it just grows,” he tells us. “Birds don’t try to fly, they fly.”  Turkey Vulture Unfurlling Morning Wings

Vultures are “least effort” opportunists, willing to watch and wait, poking their bald red heads into putrefying places and coming up with enough to feed themselves and their not-too-picky young. Patient enough to wait—yet dedicated enough to spend long hours in the sky, catching updraft after updraft.

Vultures are also creatures of habit. The vultures that live on my home mountain wake up early, fly to their favorite granite outcropping, and patiently wait for the sun to rise so that they can dry the dew from their wing feathers. This patient ritual pays homage to the sun. They stand still as statues, slowly spreading their 6-foot expanse of wing, looking prayerful as the sun’s warmth sinks into their bones. Turkey Vulture warming wings

But stories don’t write themselves. Writers can’t just sit and wait. So what can we learn from Deepak’s Law of Least Effort?

“Think of your physical body as a device for controlling energy,” Chopra writes, “it can generate, store, and expend energy.”

Maybe the vultures aren’t just drying the dew from their wings, maybe they’re storing sun power. Have you ever arisen early in the morning and gone outside with a book you’ve been meaning to read for years finally tucked under your arm? Basked in its warmth for an hour or two, soaking up every beautifully described scene, every graceful turn of phrase?

When we SIT WITH ANOTHER AUTHOR’S WORK, fully present, still as a statue, we are gathering up the energy we will need to write our own story. Think of every beautiful book you’ve ever read as energy stored within you, patiently waiting to be reshaped into a new story, a new truth. Gratitude for the work of others releases this stored energy and allows it to flow almost effortlessly into our work.

Dedicate at least ten minutes a day to standing in awe of what someone else has written. Feel the fullness it brings. Then spread your wings and get out there and find your stories.  

Turkey Vulture Taking Flight cropped

Soaring is an important part of scavenging, and dedication to one’s goals is not the same as exhaustive striving or feeling driven. Dedication is more like prayer, a product of the heart, not the head. 

Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Wind in the Willows & Love of Place

Kathleen Cain begins her review of Standing in the Light by Sharman Apt Russell (Bloomsbury Review, May/June/July 2009; this way: “I’ve been waiting for this book all my life…I am urged to awe that equals spiritual fervor in the presence of Nature.”
What is it about Nature—Nature with a capitol N as depicted in Sharman’s new book—that moves us so? How can the physical world cause our spirits to have such passionate responses?

On May 4, 2009, Time Magazine chose The Wind in the Willows as its “Book Pick for the Week.” This classic children’s novel, a compilation of stories told by the author Kenneth Grahame to his four-year-old son, was first published in America in 1909. One hundred years ago! Yet here we are today, still falling in love with Mole and Rat and Badger and Otter and yes, even arrogant Toad—creatures great and small who live charmed lives full of missteps and dangerous escapades at, or near, the River. Not just any river, but THE River. As in NATURE. All caps. It is the River that forms the landscape of their lives and serves as metaphor for ours. It teaches them, and us, about the hospitality of community.

A couple of years ago, I attended the annual conference of the Quivira Coalition in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I was there to do a book-signing for Home Land: Ranching and a West that Works (Rocky Mountain Land Library). Renowned writer Wendell Barry was the keynote speaker. The Quivira Coalition was formed in 2003, when “twenty ranchers, environmentalists, and scientists met for forty-eight hours to figure out a way to take back the American West…”

A community of people seeking to “find a way to make ourselves worthy of the land we all love” evolved from this initial gathering. And though these individuals were as different from one another as were Mole and Rat and Badger and Otter and Toad, their love of place, of the landscape where they lived their lives, was greater than the divisive issues that had, in the past, kept them apart.

While in Albuquerque at the Quivira Conference, I also had a chance to visit with Peter Forbes, founder of the Center for Whole Communities. “How is it that those of us who care about people and those of us who care about the land, have ended up divided from one another?” the Center asks. “What might we achieve if movements for environmental and social change worked together for healthy, whole communities?” The Center poses this question on their website, where you can view an 8-minute presentation on reweaving people, land, and communities. “Story is the way we carry the land inside of us,” writes Peter Forbes in his book, What Is A Whole Community. “We tell stories to cross the borders that separate us from one another.”

In this same spirit of reweaving, Sharman’s blog, “Love of Place,” celebrates and promotes a “greater relationship and intimacy with the natural world.” She does not advocate a natural world without human beings, though she often writes passionately and with firm opinions about how we interact with the land. (Her perspective and mine on public land grazing probably differ greatly, in great part because she writes about the arid southwest, while my experience is with the forests and grasslands of the Black Hills of Wyoming—much different ecosystems.)

In Standing in the Light, when writing about the environmentally threatened Gila River, Sharman asks who cares about a dead river, what does it mean to care? She tells us of sitting in a meeting packed with men and women who had come to watch a slide show about saving the river. “Outside, the soft August night still smells of rain,” she writes. “The clay in the soil has released compounds like those found in urine, a distinct acrid odor. Walking back to my house, I hear an owl hoot, and I click off the flashlight, letting my eyes adjust to the darkness.”

I cherish these points of intersection, where Sharman’s world and mine come together—where I hear the owl hoot as if I were there walking with her, because, on the ranch in the Black Hills where I reared my children, I, too, listened to the hooting of owls and smelled the acrid odor of clay soil.

When Wendell Barry gave the keynote talk at the Quivira Coalition’s annual conference, more than 500 people attended. I could not help but smile when I scanned the room. The audience was filled with men, women, and children, as different looking from one another as the critters in The Wind in the Willows. Some wore cowboy hats. Some wore Birkenstocks. Some wore Forest Service uniforms. Some wore Park Service uniforms. Some wore Wranglers and denim jackets. Some wore microfleece and Sahara pants. Here was a true gathering of people from all walks of life. But they shared one thing in common—their love of Place.

I hope Sharman and I can sit down soon and talk about the issues we hold close to our hearts—those that lead us closer to the Divine and about which Sharman speaks so eloquently in Standing in the Light. “How should I live in the world,” she asks. “How can I face my death?” “How can I be more joyous?” These are intimate questions, soul-piercing questions to ponder while walking on a favorite trail at dusk, as the evening light draws near, or perhaps while floating down a sunlit river with someone who was, only moments ago, a stranger.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Mushrooms, Growing Our Writing, and Parabola Magazine

Wine kept cool in dark cellars. Whiskey aging in oak barrels. Bread dough set out to rise on the counter. A chicken breast marinating in soy and ginger. The lacy white filaments of a mushroom root buried in damp compost. A poem fleshed out, then tucked away in a drawer. The germinating seed of a short story. The landscape of a novel unfurling after a dormant winter. All these things do better given time to ripen.

We’ve had abundant moisture this spring and early summer. The Rocky Mountains are awash in wild flowers. And wild mushrooms. They’re everywhere. Sprouting stubborn caps in gravelly soil. Pushing up through needle-covered ground beneath ponderosas. They’re in the sun. In the shade. Under logs. Next to rocks. Growing in between the bunch grasses and among the penstemons.

Several years ago, the Wyoming Center for the Book asked many of the Wyoming Arts Council literary fellowship recipients and a few other notable authors living in Wyoming to write essays for the anthology Deep West: A Literary Tour of Wyoming (Pronghorn Press, 2003). They asked us to explore how our work had been influenced or not influenced by life in Wyoming; what our views were on regionalism in literature; and what issues of Place interested us.

We were given almost a year’s advance notice. Plenty of time to let an idea percolate. Of course, writers as accomplished as Annie Proulx probably didn’t need much time. But I did. I felt deeply rooted to the landscape where I lived, but also felt deeply rooted to the Colorado landscape from which I had come. When I spent fourteen days in the depths of the Grand Canyon and felt totally at home, I ventured to ask myself: What is this thing called Place?

One of the writer’s resources that I keep on hand, and have been subscribing to for several years, is Parabola, published by the Society for Myth and Tradition. What I love about the magazine is that each issue explores a single theme from a multi-cultural perspective. Want to know more about humanity’s place in the cosmic order? Read the “The Tree of Life” interview with Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai in the Fall, 2007 issue Holy Earth. Want to know more about knowledge? Read Mara Freeman’s Celtic essay “Eating the Salmon of Wisdom” in the Spring, 1997 issue Ways of Knowing.

Several months before the essay was due, I sat down with Parabola’s Summer 1993 issue, Place and Space, and began reading. I highlighted passages and quotes from essays. I savored epicycles and reread poems. I fell gratefully into the responses of Robert Lawlor in the interview with him “Dreaming a Beginning” in which he talks about the Aborigines of Australia. “In a sense we are all indigenous people in that we are all of the earth,” he said.

In a sense we are all indigenous people in that we are all of the earth. What a comforting thought--that each of us is indeed native to the earth. I let that thought simmer for several weeks, perhaps for a few months. Not in a preoccupied way, but in the quiet way evening shadows have of creeping over the land. What I read crept over me and the essay began to form itself, even though I hadn’t yet written a word. It was gestating in the dark chambers of my heart and mind.

I was preparing the writing. Not procrastinating, but preparing--garnering wisdom so that I would be wise enough to write.

“What is this thing called place?" I eventually asked the reader. "How can we be so deeply rooted to it, yet so easily transplanted from it? If a sacred place is where two worlds intersect, can it also be a place where two stories meet?”

In posing these questions for myself, and the reader, I came closer to understanding what I did not know--an important step in growing stories, and wisdom.

Writing, and preparing ourselves to write, allows us to unearth hidden knowledge, hidden meaning, and hidden purpose. It’s best not to rush these things. When we plant our ideas in the compost of time and allow some distance from them, they often rise fully formed, and perhaps if we’re lucky, even with a touch of brilliance as breathtaking as a mushroom pushing up from the earth.

Mushroom photos by Page Lambert, taken near Mt. Vernon in the foothills west of Denver, Colorado. If you would like a copy of Page's essay, "This Thing Called Place," please leave a comment here on the blog requesting one, along with your email. Or contact Page directly at To subscribe to Parabola magazine or check their submission guidelines, go to

Monday, May 25, 2009

Cultivating a Literary Garden

Plant the Seeds of Intention
The dog days of summer, when Sirius, the “dog star,” rises and sets with the sun, will soon be upon us. Hot sultry weather. Balmy nights. Screen doors and porch swings. Iced lemonade and fresh peach ice cream. The long sagas of our lives lived at a lazy pace.

Sound like the summer of a by-gone era? For many of us, there is nothing slow or lazy about summer. Fall arrives and we glance back over our sun-burned shoulders wondering why we didn’t read more books, or work on that novel, or fill at least one journal with poetic prose. Our writing aspirations, along with the dog, were left to languish on that figurative summer porch.

Cultivating a literary summer garden doesn’t have to be hard work, but it won’t flourish unless you plant seeds of clear intention. Identify your goals, scatter them among your other activities, and fertilize them with attentiveness. Here’s a two-pronged tool to get you started.

Explore Your Literary Neighborhood
There are more reasons than ever to stay close to home this summer, to travel the literary back roads of your neighborhood, your state, your region. The West is abundant with authors of award-winning books. Since 1971, the Colorado Center for the Book has been recognizing with annual awards the best novels, poetry, works of nonfiction, anthologies, biographies, histories, children’s books, fine press, and pictorial publications. (A list of the Colorado Book Award winners is available from Kris Rabida at Colorado Humanities, (303) 894-7951, or If you live in Wyoming, check out the Wyoming Center for the Book, or think about attending the Wyoming Book Festival in Cheyenne. Or go to the National Center for the Book website, click on your affiliated state organization, and search their site for literary events in your area.

Here's another way to begin planting your literary garden. This summer, set aside a few hours each week. Pluck one book each week (preferably in the genre in which you write) from the list of award winners in your state. Take that book with you to your local café or nearby park. By the end of the summer, you will have harvested a working knowledge of your genre at the regional level, and you will have a much better idea of which books are winning these coveted awards, and why. I plan on picking up a copy of Bruce Decker's Home Pool: Stories of Fly Fishing and Lesser Passions (a 2009 Colorado Book Award fiction/literary finalist) and taking it with me on my River Writing and Sculpting Journey for Women in August.

Explore Your Physical Neighborhood
In 1985, Johnson Books of Boulder (Big Earth Publishing) published the quiet little book Seven Half Miles from Home by Wyoming author Mary Back. For twenty years, Mary, an artist, left her home each morning before breakfast and took a one-mile walk, a half-mile out, and a half-mile back. “The record of her observations became a conscious immersion in the body of life,” wrote Library Journal in their review. “She began to study seven different ecological communities including thickets, desert, swamp, forest, and river.”

Explore the terrain within a half-mile of your home. Explore what it means to be a westerner. Learn the names of the plants, trees, animals, and birds that share your neighborhood. Create a character sketch of them. Are they native to the area? Deciduous? Nocturnal? Do they mate for life? Where do they spend their winters? Sit with your journal among your favorite family of lichen-covered boulders and ponder their history and genetics. Pick a few characters from the novel you’re writing, or the memoir you’re crafting, and learn about the flora and fauna in their neighborhoods.
Start a list of your favorite regional poets. Commit to buying 3 books of poetry this summer from that list. Begin a dialogue with your favorite poems from those books. Each week, pick a poem, read it twice, then write a response to it (no rules, anything goes, just write). You might enjoy Open Range: Poetry of the Reimagined West (Ghost Road Press) edited by my friend Laurie Wagner Buyer and her husband WC Jameson, or Tamped: Loose Enough to Breath by Mark Todd, an exploration of the interaction between man and nature.

Pick up a copy of Susan Tweit’s award-winning book Colorado Scenic Byways, enjoy the gorgeous photography by Jim Steinberg, then plan a road trip. Or get a copy of Candy Moulton's Roadside History of Wyoming, take a journal with you, stop at all the greasy spoons and hidden hideaways, and pilfer as many tidbits of overheard dialogue as you can. Then, just for fun, sprinkle a few of these tidbits into the mouths of your characters and let them take over the story for awhile. You might be surprised at what you’ll glean from this playful scattering of seed, fresh from the tongues of locals.

This article first appeared in the May 2009 issue of InPrint, the official newsletter of the Colorado Authors' League.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Walking Nature Home: Are We Our Mothers' Daughters?

In some ways, choosing to write only about the few times in Walking Nature Home where Susan Tweit writes about her mother is like describing a single sea shell when the entire ocean stretches before you. So I urge you to journey on your own into the tide-deep waters of this memoir. You will find an intimate world inhabited by much more than a single shell.

Explore her author's notes. You'll appreciate the sources she references and the useful way in which she categorizes them. Astrology and Star Lore. Astronomy. Autoimmune diseases. Community of the Land and Ecology. Gardening. Health and Healing. Quakerism. Science. These are the myriad, sometimes turbulent, but always thoughtful waters inhabited by her memoir.

"To my eyes," writes Susan, "my mom is beautiful, with large blue eyes, a cap of wavy silver hair framing her tan face, and a ready, charming smile. The notes in her health log, though, reveal the pain of swollen and distorted joints, the debilitating curve in her spine, the digits frozen or twisted into unnatural angles, her stick-thin arms and legs."

Both our mothers suffer(ed) from debilitating and chronic disease. Susan's mother, married to a scientist with a doctorate in organic chemistry and still alive, has great faith in western medicine. My mother, married for twenty-five years to a visionary but complicated man who founded the financial planning profession, followed dual paths of healing while she was alive. Susan's mother wrote of the "disappointment when each drug, so promising at the start, became less and less effective; of days when her body felt like a battleground.”

I remember standing in front of the bathroom mirror with my mother after her fifth surgery, this time for breast cancer. The lymph pump was still connected to the red, swollen tissue in the caverns where her right breast and lymph glands had been. She smiled, rather wistfully, as she stared at her battered body. But as always, she was pragmatic and positive. Much to her doctors’ amazement, she rallied again and again, and continued to take mega doses of IP-6.

“Before arthritis,” Susan writes, “my mother wore three rings: her engagement diamond, a slender gold wedding band, and an antique Italian cameo passed down from her mother’s aunt. When Mom’s finger joints became so swollen that her rings had to be cut and bridged, she gave the cameo to me.

“One afternoon, I was trimming her nails… As I cradled her cold and bloodless hands gingerly in mine, I was struck by the juxtaposition of our fingers, hers swollen, crooked, and painful, mine still slender and relatively straight… I felt the stiffness in my joints and fear stabbed by gut: I saw my mother’s hands in mine. And I swore that I would not allow my body to become a battlefield.”

Take it back, this living will that condemns us both.

That line is from a poem of mine, written when my mother was still alive. I understand Susan’s fear. It is mine, too. And my sister’s. Must we inherit your diseases? we asked silently, even as we knelt to rub peppermint oil on her swollen knees.

But Susan’s book is not about fear. It is about channeling fear back into the river bed where the waters of life flow. Like the waters that flow through the industrialized banks of Ditch Creek in Salida, Colorado, which Susan and her husband Richard live. Susan has transformed her fear into fertile soil, fertile enough to grow strawberries and eggplant and sugar snap peas and summer squash, enough to feed them for months, enough to share with neighbors.

Are we are our mothers’ daughters? If we are, then we must remember to claim all of them, not just their frailties and illnesses. Susan inherited “luminous fibers” from her mother, who was born and raised near San Francisco Bay. “’For some people,” Susan quotes Barry Lopez in her book, “what they are is not finished at the skin, but continues with the reach of the senses out into the land….Such people are connected to the land as if by luminous fibers….’”

Susan’s mother had a “feel for sea cliff, wave form, and beach sand” that “was honed on the central California coast, her affinity for desert shaped by visits to her grandparents in Tucson….” My mother was raised by a deaf mother in the Mohave Desert, and as a young woman moved to Berkeley, California, where she met my father. They later moved to Colorado, where I was born, and where Susan lives.

My mother grew to love the mountains of Colorado. She chose to live the last twenty years of her life in these mountains. And now I live here too, in the same home where she died. I sleep in the same bedroom where I last held her in my arms as she grasped my hands. I look out at the same gangly Ponderosa pines and at the occasional deer walking the same backyard trail. Susan watches a muskrat burrowing along the creek and a red fox hunting amidst the Indian ricegrass.

To find yourself engaged in a beautiful book written by a kindred spirit is one of life’s greatest gifts, especially a book with as many layers as Walking Nature Home. “Susan Tweit has written a glorious love story,” writes Kathleen Dean Moore, “to her Rocky Mountain sage meadows, to her husband Richard, to her own unreliable body. I read this book long into the night, lifted by the beauty of the story….”

To read more about mother/daughter health connections, read Mother-Daughter Wisdom: Creating a Legacy of Physical and Emotional Health by Christiane Northrup, M.D., available from Random House.