ALL THINGS LITERARY. ALL THINGS NATURAL.

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

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Thursday, January 29, 2009

Kids, Chores, and a Sense of Purpose

Word is out that the Obama girls will continue making their own beds and doing chores at the White House, just like they did back home in Chicago. Maybe they’ll take turns feeding the family dog and taking their new pet for bathroom breaks on the White House lawn. I hope so. I hope they even have to scoop a little poop.



Kids need outdoor chores. We all do. The only time I didn’t have outdoor chores was when I moved to Santa Fe for a year and a half in 2006. Within a few months, I started volunteering weekly at the Santa Fe Horse Shelter. I loved the sense of purpose that came with pulling on my “chore clothes,” getting in the car, driving out of town and into the high desert, then arriving at the Shelter. Lilly, the bay mare I worked with, greeted me with a nicker and suddenly all was right in my world. Hers too, I like to think. That's my daughter with her in the round pen.

I made it a point to visit with some of the youth exhibitors at Denver’s National Western Stock Show last weekend. “Do you like 4-H?” I asked young rancher Jade as he was waiting to show his glossy black Simmental calf. He nodded and told me that he does chores every morning on the family ranch.


Young Ky, too, has chores. He helps take care of the Tibetan yaks on his family ranch near Elbert, Colorado. “They’re pretty fun,” he told me, petting a cow. “She’s kinda protective,” he said, pointing to the calf next to her. “She’s still nursing.” According to the Grunnien Ranch website, the family got started raising yaks when, “Grandpa and I were driving through the country and he saw some sort of beast standing on the back of a trailer and tossing hay to his friends. Turns out they were YAKS! Grandpa wanted some...” Within a month, the yaks were on the ranch and the family’s journey had begun. In yak circles, Ky might someday be a good enough handler to be called a Yakalero.


When I met Katlin Hornig, an 18-year-old from Alamosa, Colorado, she was holding the reins of two Heston Brabant Belgians. We visited while she was waiting her turn to compete in a driving competition. She told me that the Brabant is the foundation horse for the American Belgian. She’s been driving teams since she was in third grade and plans on attending Colorado State University this fall as a pre-vet student. I was impressed with her confidence around the big horses and was reminded of what it felt like to watch my own daughter drive the old Ford tractor when she was harrowing the fields on our small family ranch in Wyoming.

Chores not only give us a sense of purpose, but when chores involve animals, they also give us a sense of belonging to something larger than ourselves. A child welcomed each morning by the nicker of a horse, or the bawling of a calf, or the eager yipping of a puppy waiting to be fed, is a child grounded in what it means to matter. And matter, as defined by Random House, means to have substance.

Substance, and grounding, are important. Especially for the children of a movie-star President and his First Lady. Maybe, on days like this when the schools are closed, Sasha and Malia will be able to venture outdoors and return with a little dirt on their boots, the kind that grows grass, and flowers, and trees, and character. Hopefully, they won't be "fertilizing" the new White House rugs installed by designer Michael S. Smith. But I hear he likes to mix casual with formal -- fancy furnishings with dog-friendly fabrics.

Which reminds me, I've been wanting to do a blog on public parks and anti-dog ordinances. It won't be pretty.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

How Lisa Genova Slew the Publishing Dragon

Yesterday's Entertainment section of Time.com features the article "Books Unbound" (by Chris Jackson/Getty). The story starts with a true Cinderella-like parable about unknown author Lisa Genova's novel Still Alice.

Unable to interest an agent or publishing house in the novel, Lisa finally forked over $450 and had iUniverse publish it. Like Cinderella, Lisa's story has a happy ending.

"Genova wound up getting an agent after all," writes Jackson, "and an offer from Simon & Schuster of just over half a million dollars. Borders and Target chose it for their book clubs. Barnes & Noble made it a Discover pick. On Jan. 25, Still Alice will make its debut on the New York Times best-seller list at No. 5."

I have a friend in Denver who has a similarly amazing story - a self-published book picked up by a major publishing house for an outrageously obscene amount of money.

What's interesting about these stories is the light they cast on the contradictory transformations happening within the publishing industry.

Never before has publication seemed like such a daunting challenge.

Never before have writers had not only "the power of the pen" at their fingertips, but can now wield the mighty power of the electronic sword.

Read more about Genova's incredible story, the current state of the publishing industry and why 2009 may be an empowering year for authors in Time's online article, "Books Unbound."

Saturday, January 17, 2009

How Animals Make Us Human; Field Work; Grassroots and Obama - Connecting the Dots


Dot #1. Last night, I went to hear Temple Grandin (university professor and autistic animal behavior guru) speak to a packed crowd at the Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver. She's on tour for her new book, Animals Make Us Human, just released by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Dot #2. In response to a question from the audience about the meaning of "organic" meat, Dr. Grandin posed an interesting question: Should the designation "organic" take into consideration not only take what the animal eats, but also the animal's lifestyle? Grandin thinks it should. “It's not enough to say that beef cattle are on pasture, but 75% of that pasture must have a root system. The animal must be on that pasture at least from the last hard frost to the first hard frost."


Dot #3. Well, Grandin will tell you that's pretty much the way good ranchers have been doing it all along, taking care of the roots that literally feed the family. Not only are the cattle on "rooted" pasture 75 days out of a 100, but the rancher (and the kids) are out there too, kneeling to get a closer look at the gnawed grass, digging a finger into the soil to gage the moisture, riding through the herd, keeping an eye on the weather. Up close and personal.
 Dot #4. In response to a question from the audience about the time Dr. Grandin took a bunch of executives from McDonalds and Burger King out to actually see the slaughter plants where company burgers come from, she told us, “I call it opening the eyes of executives.” She went on to say, “We have people making policy in every area of our lives who don’t go out into the field. It’s a problem…extreme views tend to come from people who have no field experience. Views are usually more moderate coming from people who have had hands-on experience.”


Dot #5. A special section in yesterday’s Rocky Mountain News featured an article by reporter Lisa Ryckman about four high school kids from a tiny Colorado ranching town (pop 330) who are heading to the Presidential Inauguration in Washington, DC. Charlie’s parents talk politics a lot, except when there’s ranch work to be done, which is “16 hours a day, 7 days a week.” According to Ryckman, when Charlie, 18, invites his friends to come hang out with him for the day, they know they’ll probably be “helping me put up fence or vaccinate cows.”

Connecting the Dots. Developing a holistic view requires first looking at the parts, which for me means asking a lot of questions. What does a rancher out on the land doing “field work” have to do with the election of President Obama? How did Barrack inspire such an unprecedented grassroots movement? Is it surprising that a nation, fed up with politicians and CEOs who have no understanding of the average American’s lifestyle, find Obama’s thoughtful and intelligent demeanor appealing? Is it surprising that young people rallied around him in unprecedented numbers?

“We need to hear from the young people out there doing field work,” Temple Grandin told the audience.

When Charlie heads to DC for the inauguration, he’ll be taking with him a deeply rooted, organic understanding of the grassland-economy of eastern Colorado. He knows what it takes to keep a cow healthy, what it takes to keep the grass growing, and what it takes to put food on the table.


There isn’t much opportunity for young people raised in small towns to create careers at home. And that’s a shame, because with all the effort many of us expend to reconnect kids with nature, we aren’t spending much time figuring out how to keep those kids who are already on the land, on the land.

According to Ryckman's article, Charlie plans to attend the University of Colorado, where he’ll be studying aerospace engineering. He hopes to get a job which will make enough money that he can put some of his earnings back into the family ranch.

I hope he makes it. And I hope that when he gets to Washington he’ll share a little bit about his grassroots lifestyle with some of the city folk. Our nation needs to hear from young people like Charlie who were raised watching the sun rise and set on the far horizon. The future of the land may depend on it.

Page Lambert reared her son and daughter on a small family ranch in Wyoming and is a Senior Associate with the Children and Nature Network. More about the relationship between grazing animals and the land at Holistic Management. More about the movement to reconnect children with nature at Children and Nature. More about autism diagnosis at the National Autism Association.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Jeremiah the Bullfrog, Little Fishes, & Joy to the World

National and local media may be focused on dire predictions for 2009, but last night at the Boettcher Concert Hall (Denver Center for the Performing Arts), Three Dog Night, accompanied by the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, sang to an enthusiastic if not slightly grey crowd.

Their final song, "Joy to the World," had us all standing, clapping, and "dancing to the music." Well, at least as much as one can in such a fancy venue. But the point here is not the age of the audience, but the fact that we were all eager to embrace lyrics both hopeful and innocent.

"The world is black, the world is white, it turns by day and then by night, a child is black, a child is white, the whole world looks upon the sight, a beautiful sight..." I'll bet Barrack Obama's mother grew up listening to Three Dog Night, and if so, hats off to Three Dog.

And then there's Jeremiah. When I was a kid, I had bullfrog friends too. There was a pond down by the river where I used to hang out. I called it "the frog pond." Frogs perched on the cottonwood logs and lilies that floated in the water, basking in the sun, sending their throaty ribbets rippling across the water, hoping to attract a fat-bellied, dimpled mate.

It's been a while since I listened to a symphonic orchestra playing background music while six musicians sang about little fishes in a deep blue sea. Some folks in the audience paid as much as $75 to be there. "Celebrate, celebrate, dance to the music..." Good advice, don't you think?

So, next time I get discouraged about the economy, or the environment, or the darkness of war (which Einstein might say, were he alive, is nothing more than the lack of light and love), I'm going to put in a Three Dog Night CD and wrap my mind around simple pleasures, which is often the best way to come up with simple solutions. And we sure could use some of those.

"Joy to the world, all the boys and girls, joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea, joy to you and me!""