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!


Friday, December 31, 2010

WildLives: A Letter to Susan Tweit

Dear Susan ... It is New Year's Eve, a cold, wintry day and I am listening to your CD WildLives while some holiday shortbread is baking.  What a lovely surprise to receive the compilation--thank you for this unexpected gift.

A few hours ago, when I decided to do some baking, I searched among the few recipes I brought with me when I left the ranch in the Black Hills six years ago, but the shortbread recipe was not among them.  The recipe had been my college roommate's, passed onto her by her Scottish grandmother.  A much treasured thing, it was handed over to me with a certain amount of ceremony and was probably the first holiday cookie on which my children cut their toddler teeth. 

But today I had to phone a dear friend in the Black Hills to retrieve a copy of the recipe, an especially poignant reminder that sometimes we must leave behind the things we cherish most.   

As I listen to the WildLives CD, I hear your confident, soft voice speak about the pungent fragrances of juniper and piñon, yet it is the scent of of sweet butter baking that I smell, a warm, delicate fragrance--like the best of our memories, yes?  Fleeting, but intimately familiar to each and every cell of our body.

I wish for you and Richard this coming year an abundance of delicate, melt-in-your mouth experiences, served up with laughter and smiles and all the dears friends who have traveled this journey with you. 

I am reminded that though the place we call home may change, we may always choose to create a home wherever we are.  Perhaps that is the greatest gift of all.

Blessings, and Happy New Year to all of you.

Note: This is a slightly expanded version of the original letter.  To purchase WildLives: Celebrating the World Around Us, or listen to an excerpt, click here.  Contact Page for her shortbread recipe.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Giving Nature of Trees, NPR's Morning Edition, and Sexing Your Pinecones

This silence in the timbers.
A woodpecker on one of the trees taps out its story.
Robert Haight*
Each tree, too, has its own story, its own family, its own tribe. And even though we do not know if they give their lives willingly, we could not live or breathe without them. We fell them for their timber, for fuel for our fireplaces, and to grace our homes during the Christmas season.  We thin them to allow other nearby trees to mature and to help prevent insect infestation.  

In the small mountain community where I live, hundreds of 
Douglas fir and Ponderosa pines are being selectively felled for fire mitigation.  We are using the straightest of the “poles” to build a new barn for our community herd of horses, a bittersweet project because the trees must die.  
But by this time next year, the barn will be built and the horses will be able to seek shelter on the leeward side, protected from the wind and rain and snow.  I walk the dirt road where the cutting is taking place and touch the stumps that remain, inhaling the turpentine scene of pine and gather small armfuls of green branches to take home.  I am glad we are not using pre-fab metal for the barn.  Last weekend, John and I hiked the forest in search of a homegrown Christmas tree, one that we could take home and decorate.  We found a crowded cluster of saplings, each struggling for their own meager bit of sunshine.  We selected three which, when held together, formed a scrawny tree at which even Charlie Brown would have laughed. 
Standing next to the stand of saplings, surrounded by a family of older trees with crowns that swayed 75’ above us, we said a few prayerful words of gratitude, then headed home.  We used duct tape to bind the three small trunks together to form one trunk, and hoisted a few drooping branches off the rug with strands of sewing thread.  The delicate branches couldn’t support anything but the lightest of ornaments.  We wound three strands of lights and ribbon garland among the branches to fill in the bare spots.  The angel perched on the top was too heavy so we suspended her from the ceiling with more thread.  

The effort was comical.  But in the end, we were charmed by the three small saplings and what they represented— the simple strength of a three-legged stool, the thematic unity of a trilogy, the belief in the strength of a common purpose, even the spiritual message of the trinity.  And equally profound—the importance of honoring the essence inside each and every living thing.  I wish you a simple season, full of simple pleasures and simple blessings.  But most of all, I wish for you the chance to walk in the woods with a loved one, to stand beneath a blue sky surrounded by a family of trees and listen to the tapping of woodpecker or the song of the chickadee, to touch the bough of an evergreen and rekindle your faith in the innate goodness of the world.

Links of Interest
*Lines of poetry excerpted from "How Is It That The Snow" by Robert Haight, Column 193 of Ted Kooser's American Life in Poetry. Read entire poemNPR’s Morning Edition: Environmentalists encourage people to cut down holiday trees instead of buying artificial ones. Why live trees are better than plastic one. Listen to the storyDo you know what sex your pinecones are?  Yep, gender is everything.  This is a fun article on how to tell male from female trees, how to gather the pinecones, and how to harvest the pine "seeds" for planting. Check it out.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Honor Your Creativity with a Creative Altar

Coors Baseball Stadium, Denver, Colorado

We create ceremony and ritual around all other parts of our lives—baptism, bar mitzvah, feast days, confirmation, graduation, death, we even create ceremony around sports (think of Monday Night Football or the all-American baseball game), yet our culture does not have very many examples of rituals which honor the creative part of our nature.  Let me clarify, not rituals (like last night's Kennedy Center Honors) that recognize the artists of our culture, but rituals that honor the process of creating art--the act itself--rituals that set the stage for us, that prepare us as we begin our work.  

Rituals and ceremonies around our writing and art and song create safe atmospheres for our creative spirits, much like churches, or mountain tops, or secluded paths in the woods, create sanctuaries for our faith.  The spirit knows when we enter a temple or a kiva or a sweat lodge or a mosque that these are safe places for the prayerful spirit.

Door in Santa Fe, New Mexico
Our creative spirits need an atmosphere that tells us that it is safe to come out, to think without boundaries, to let the heart lead the dialogue our inner-selves want to have with the outer world.   Creative altars carve an opening into the inner-self, that dark mysterious place where creativity happens. Much like a door welcomes us into a new place, the altar can be a portal into the imagination. In the quiet spaces of my mind  a thought lies still, writes poet Tom Barritt in his poem "What's In  A Temple," begs me to open the door, so it can walk about.

Start a ritual around your creative practice—a special candle you only burn when writing, a special tea you only drink when penning poems, special music you only listen to when sculpting, special fetishes or mementos that are kept safely stored away until the paints come out, a special tapestry that drapes your writing table.  

Sandstone in Cathedral Wash
Our bodies love ritual, and our cells respond accordingly, awakening our inner-selves and telling us the time has finally come to dive deeply into the nether world where our creative selves dwell.  What can sometimes seem devoid of inspiration is actually an open container, waiting to be filled by our innermost thoughts.  

Suggestion: Start creating your altar by selecting a stone that has special meaning, perhaps one that has called out to you during a hike.  Think of the ancient life energy still moving within that stone and have faith in the quiet movement of your own creative energy.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Flying High with Hemispheres Magazine

November 2010 issue
EN ROUTE TO ORLANDO, FLORIDA, I spent the first 20 airborne minutes browsing the November issue of United’s inflight magazine, Hemispheres, which boasts over 7 million readers worldwide. Here’s a sampling of the pieces that caught my attention, with an eye, of course, toward nature and writing themes:

DISPATCH: Notes from All Over--a good place to submit very short, human interest tidbits. This month’s story, "Country Seats: Growing Couch Potatoes," written by Joey Rubin, came from Isleworth, England where the average British family spends an appalling 43 hours a week slouched indoors on sofas. A charity dedicated to preserving historic houses and gardens decided to literally ‘take the couch outside."  Using hay bales and grass turf, they erected giant grass living room sets in 11 different garden locations in the British Isles.  Guess that's what we've become: outdoor couch potatoes.  Reading this dispatch made me itch to get off my derriere, which wasn't easy to do flying couch--I mean coach.  Check out the story and illustration of grass-grown recliner. 
Rift Valley, Kenya from Leakey Collection

HERO—short inspiring anecdotal pieces featuring heroic people. "In the Tall Grass," this month’s story, features heroes Philip Leakey (son of famed paleoanthropologist Louis and Mary Leakey) and his wife, Katy Leakey. When a disastrous drought hit Kenya, devastating the cattle-based economy and lifestyle of the Maasai people, the Leakeys (with deep roots in Kenya) began teaching the Maasai women the art of making jewelry from grass and fallen acacia wood. Go to to buy online and help the Maasai women feed and educate their children. Thank you to Sharon McDonnell for this submission to Hemispheres. Look around for the heroes in your life, and send a query.

THE BIG TEN: What to Watch, Read, and Listen to this Month:  #6 of the big 10 features Dennis Lehane’s new novel Moonlight Mile, sequel to Gone, Baby, Gone. This one caught my eye because I heard Lehane speak in Denver about a month ago, and he was great. “A character in a novel,” he said, “should always have a question that he or she is wrestling with. The trick," according to Lehane, " is that the character knows what that question is, but the reader doesn’t."  Click HERE to go his website, and view video with Dennis talking a bit about himself and Moonlight Mile.

The November issue of Hemispheres also features the full-length article "The Long Walk" by Grant Stoddard--an interesting piece on Karl Bushby, a former British paratrooper who decided, when he was in his late 20s, to walk home to England from the tip of southern Chile--a 36,000 mile journey.  Read about this astounding journey.

A NOTE ON SUBMISSIONS:  If you contact Hemispheres regarding a submission, they’ll want to know if you’re a PR professional, or a freelance writer. No guidelines were available online, other than what I found at Freelance

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Spinning like Rumi: Confessions from a Writing Coach about an Unsettled Life

When our bodies and minds are in motion, writing can be difficult

And I've been in motion the entire spring, summer, and fall -- to galleries and tea houses in Santa Fe, to the Heard Museum and Gila River in Phoenix, to conference centers and family gatherings in Oklahoma, to the piers and missions and merry-go-rounds of Santa Barbara where I celebrated my sister's 60th birthday, to the mountains of Wyoming and the high sagebrush country of Nevada, to the forests and grasslands of South Dakota's Black Hills.  

Then to the canyons of Utah, then to the dust bowl panhandle of Oklahoma, then flying over the river I'd just floated to land among the palm trees of San Diego.  

When this fall arrived, I was exhausted and yearned to sink my energy back into the roots of home.

But it was not the traveling that exhausted me.  It was not having time to absorb and ingest the experiences, as if I were a vessel filled with swirling sensations that had never had time to settle to the bottom of the glass.  I had written barely a word in months of traveling and teaching.

The famous 13th century Sufi poet Rumi, whose son founded the Order of the Whirling Dervishes, wrote thousands of poems.  Many of them he created while dancing.  A scribe followed on his spinning heels and transcribed them onto parchment.

Imagine!  A personal scribe to follow us wherever we go, writing down our every uttered thought, capturing our epiphanies the moment they occur like nets flung over a flutter of butterflies whose wings have just unfurled.  

What luxury!  To commit our body and mind to each experience with such devotion of the senses that we stay entirely engaged in the moment without feeling the need to stop, interpret, or filter the experience through the sieve of intellect.  To stay totally conscious to the experience!

But how then do we capture the experience for posterity's sake?  How do we journal after the experience and still capture the immediacy of the moment, rather than a reflection on the moment?  How can we make our writing as adventurous and immediate as our travels?

"Adventure is what you see out there in the landscape," says Craig Childs, an author who is always on the move.  "It's you, out there in the world."  He also says, "I'm not really a purpose-driven traveler.  I just want to get into the middle of it."

This Oklahoma college saddle bronc rider was in and out of the middle of "it" so quickly, he hardly had time to remember being in the saddle.  But I'll bet he relived every moment of it when he rinsed the arena dirt from his mouth, and for the next 48 hours as his aching bones and sore muscles recalled the experience at a cellular level.  

Writing is an odd duck.  It is conceived through experience yet born of contemplation.  It is often about something that has already happened, yet written with the intent to fool the reader into believing that it is happening right now.  Good writing is moving what our cells know onto the page so the readers can know it too.

The few notes I did jot down these last few months are scattered about in three different journals, and in various files on my computer.  They are as disorganized as the flurry of memories that have yet to settle down in the rampant waters of my mind.  

"We are literally carrying stories within us," author and professor John Calderazzo tells his writing students at Colorado State University.  And of course, we are.  Like the land carries the rivers.  

The Gila River (pictured) used to naturally flow through the area that is now Phoenix and was, in some places, 5-6 miles wide.  It was the lifeblood of the Pima and Maricopa tribes.  In the late 1800s it was damned, causing devastating starvation.  But the stories of the people did not die, and 118 years later the Gila River Indian Community won back their rights to the river and the ecosystem of the river is once again thriving.  

If I'm lucky, when I settle down and start browsing through my notes, I'll rediscover the flow of energy that can turn my travels into stories.  It is this flow, this forward movement of energy, that I must recreate if my memories are to become more than nostalgia.  And it will be through the senses that I bring these memories to life -- through remembering each scent and sight, each touch and taste and sound -- like merry-go-round music with notes that rise and fall in unison with the prancing horses and bubbling laughter of a sister who has ridden beside me all my life.  

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Brain "on" Nature: out of reach on the river, then back in the rim world

It was tempting to stay--to keep our rafts pointed downstream and our oars in the water--at peace with each other and with life on the river.  How simple to spend one's days floating, contemplating water dappled by sunlight, molding palmfuls of river clay with our fingers, writing unhurried thoughts into the pages of our journals, sharing morning coffee and evening stars.  How simple, this temporary life on the river.

The red cliffs and black rocks of Westwater Canyon on the Colorado River are surprisingly accommodating. Nooks and crannies provide cool hiding places. Wind and water carve curvaceous armchairs into shiny black schist boulders. Sandstone crumbles and forms river beaches soft enough to sink one's toes into, or to sculpt one's face upon. These are simple joys. One discovers that comfort is a relative term, much easier to find on the river than expected.

A month ago, The New York Times published an article by Matt Richtel about five neuroscientists who spent a week rafting the San Juan River in southern Utah. They were "Outdoors and Out of Reach, Studying the Brain," doing a field study on the river to better understand how heavy use of digital devices affect how we think and behave.

During our pre-trip dinner the night before my women-only trip launched, I talked with the women about the sense of relaxation that seems to flood the body by the second day.  "I think it's because, when we're sheltered by the canyon walls and the electromagnetic waves that bombard us every moment on the 'rim world' can't reach us, our bodies can let down their defensive shields. And when we let down our defenses, we remember, at a cellular level, that we are made of the same stuff from which the cliffs are made--the same rhythms that move the river, move us."

I haven't researched the science behind this theory, and the theory differs from the one the neuroscientists were out to either prove or disprove--that the constant use of digital devices are psychologically unhealthy--but my instincts tell me that when the electromagnetic spectrum reaches a certain intensity, the human body recoils from it. On the last day of our five-day river trip, I told the women, "You might find that you're dizzy when you get off the river--like the world is spinning, or you've got vertigo, or your senses are being bombarded. Re-entry can be difficult, so be gentle to your body.  Seek quiet places.  Seek natural lighting.  Surround yourself with the sounds of birds and the rustling of leaves."

It's easy to forget that we, too, are organic--made of all natural ingredients, that our brains do best when fed a diet more akin to the sounds of a forest, than the sounds of a 60-second sound-bite.            Sand sculpture by Roxanne Swentzell, featured guest artist from the Santa Clara Pueblo.  To view more of Roxanne's art, go to 

The 2010 5-day River Writing and Sculpting Journey for Women took place in Westwater Canyon, Utah.  Contact Page to have your name added to her mailing list in order to receive news releases on the 2011 river trip.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Orion Magazine Brings Back The Place Where You Live

WHEN Orion Magazine announced recently that they were bringing back their popular department, "THE PLACE WHERE YOU LIVE," I thought of a zillion things I wanted to share about the landscape I call home, and the people with whom I share it.  I also thought of the ranch in Wyoming, which my grown children still call home.  A large part of my heart still lives there - will always live there.  But there is also a part of me that is even more deeply rooted to this place, to Mt. Vernon.  Read this essay online at Orion

IN THEIR CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS, the Orion editors describe the department as a space for us to exercise our sixth sense.  "Tell us about your place," they invited.  "What history does it hold for you? What are your hopes and fears for it? What do you do to protect it, or prepare it for the future, or make it better?"

AH, MAKING IT BETTER. That credo has guided the small mountain community where I live for 100 years.  Our homes, nestled in a mixed ponderosa pine forest, started as summer cabins. Narrow dirt roads wind in and out of the trees, and wildlife corridors still meander between the houses. Instead of a hundred homes sitting on 10-acre plots, leaving no open space, our homes are clustered on 200 acres, leaving nearly a 1000 acres of land as communal, natural habitat. From my neighbors’ decks, you can look east over Denver to the Great Plains, or west to the peaks of the Continental Divide.  Or sometimes, as close as the wildlife in your own backyard.

WE LIVE IN PEACEFUL PROXIMITY with elk, mule deer, bobcat, fox, coyotes, wild turkeys, golden and bald eagles, hawks, bighorn sheep, mountain lion, bear, and even the rare tassel-eared Abert’s squirrel. We don’t have manicured hedges or mowed lawns in Mt. Vernon, nor city water.  A carefully monitored, gravity fed groundwater system serves the needs of our residents, the club house, swimming pool, tennis courts, community garden and horse pasture, and fire suppression hydrant system,

Dick and Judy moved here fifty years ago.  “The people have always taken responsibility for creating and maintaining the hiking trails,” says Dick. “A short walk from your home, and you are in open space.

"THIS WAS A FREE AND SAFE ENVIRONMENT FOR CHILDREN,” recalls Judy, “and it still is. I love seeing the young people who were raised here moving back in and raising their own children.  When you live in a community like this, you understand that with freedom comes responsibility.  It’s the volunteers who take care of the land.”

MT. VERNON'S VOLUNTEER COMMITTEES include Community Activities, History, Long Range Planning, Mediation, Open Space, Renewable Energy, Roads, Weeds, and Stewardship.  A long-standing preservation partner of the Clear Creek Land Conservancy, we have also helped preserve over 10,000 adjacent acres.

Beloved Mt. Vernon icon and senior Olympian Gudy Gaskill, founder of the 500-mile Colorado Trail system, can still be seen teaching neighborhood children to cross-country ski, or pulling her grandkids up the sledding hill by the picnic grounds. 

LIKE ASPENS, THE ROOTS Mt. Vernon residents are interconnected.  And when we squabble, like any family does, we’re gracious enough to forgive each other's shortcomings.  We are, after all, in it for the long haul. We each, in our own way, protect this place that we love, envisioning its future, knowing it is as intrinsically linked to our children's future, as it is linked to our past.  


Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Liquid Spirit of Water

THE LIFE FORCE that moves through us, and through every drop of water and layer of slick rock, is as familiar as our own breath, yet as hard to grasp as the wind that rustles the cottonwoods.  We are told that the elements of science are kin to the elements of human nature: that those with Fire in their souls possess a radiant energy, an enthusiasm that brings color and vibrancy into the world; that those with Earth in their souls are well grounded and have enduring and nurturing qualities; that the currents of thought and spirit flow most freely through those with Airy dispositions. 
YET MODERN SCIENTISTS of ancient astrology believe that our deepest emotions – our most fervent passions – are expressed best by those with the liquid spirit of Water, the formless potential out of which all creation flows. 
Waterfalls overwhelm us with the power of their sensual – and yes – female natures
SPRING AFTER SPRING, they seem to hurl themselves over the edges of their own fast-flowing desires.  They rush wantonly toward the prairies, carving canyons into stone, reminding us of our own restless natures.  We feel their power especially during the melt of winter snow, when they rush full-boar over cliffs, tumbling over boulders made slick by their urgent passage. 
IN SUMMER, they dress themselves in sheer liquid gowns, revealing silver hearts, mossy tendrils grown long in the clear pools gathered at their feet.  Wildlife drink from their ponds, nest in the boughs of the trees that flank their beds.  Yet, come fall, they seem to pause, waiting for the coming winter in the clefts where the cliffs meet, teasing him with their lazy autumn meanders and slow seeping springs.  If we’re lucky, fall lasts long past the dying back of dogwood, long past the gold guilding of verdant fern. 
SOMETIMES WINTER COMES SOFTLY to the waterfalls, like a shy suitor – his knocking can be heard in the creak of willow branch, or in the cry of kestrel leaving, or seen in the gentle dusting of snow on fur tree.  The waterfalls seemed wrapped in winter’s icy blue arms, as if spreading their feathery water wings, dreaming of flight.  Hungry deer come to feed on the lichen that clings to nearby stone and bark.  Chickadees find shelter in the branches of the pines that grow on the stone slopes beside their chilled waters.  Crystallized droplets hang suspended like diamonds. 
SOMETIMES, IN THE DARK OF A BLUE MOON, winter’s coming is not so subtle.  He storms over mountain and prairie, staying long past the kestrel’s leaving.  He kisses the wetness from the waterfalls with frosted whiskers, slowing their passage over rock and stone, turning their bodies into sheaths of ice.  His snows bring their deeper natures to the surface, the bitter-cold bite of his breath forcing them to look inward at their own ever-changing ways. 
WATERFALLS IN WINTER have the power to slow the passage of our own busy and hectic lives.  Now is when we can reach out and touch their mysterious natures, feel life manifested within their frozen spirits.  We breathe deeply, let winter fill our lungs, feel awed by the raw power held in timeless abeyance, like pure energy sculpted in marbled ice. 
IF WE WAIT FOR THE TURNING OF THE EARTH, the heat of the sun, wait until the air in our lungs no longer chills our bones, we can once again hear our own familiar breathing.  We can watch the sheaths of ice melt, watch rivers come to life as streams and creeks fill with mountain flow.  Life will once again rush past us in a watery frenzy.  And once again, we’ll find ourselves longing to reach out and grasp the illusive beauty.
Note:  Red Room's topic of the week is Fire, Air, Earth or Water.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Shining a Light on Ted Kooser, American Life in Poetry, and Two Women Poets from Wyoming

I’ve been spending the day with two poems—both written by western women (both over 40, by the way), both published, both about a man and a woman—but both paint very different portraits of the relationship between a husband and wife. The first poem, “Denial” by Pat Frolander, just appeared on TED KOOSER'S COLUMN American Life in Poetry and is included in Pat's chapbook Grassland Genealogy (Finishing Line Press, Kentucky, 2009).  These poems are, to quote past Wyoming poet laureate Robert Roripaugh, filled with the "subtle strands of heart and mind that tie humans and animals to each other and the grasslands they share." Please click HERE to read Pat's poem.  Ted Kooser, a Pulitzer prize-winning poet and one of our nation’s esteemed poet laureates, is from the Great Plains, the heartland of America. He is widely praised for his "plainspoken style, his gift for metaphor, and his quiet discoveries of beauty in ordinary things.”  To listen to an NPR interview with Ted, click HERE.

Ted's book The Poetry Home Repair Manual (University of Nebraska Press) is one of my favorites, especially the section "At a window on the world" (pg. 31), where he talks about the presence of the poet in a poem.  It applies to memoir writing as well.  "While choosing your words it is as if you were at a window looking out into the world," writes Kooser. 

"The poem is the record of a moment at that window, but for once the author – not time nor weather – gets to control the amount of light outside. For once, you are in charge of the sun. If you want to write a poem about yourself, you turn down the light on the world and thus brighten your reflection in the glass. If you don’t want to appear very prominently in your poem, you brighten the light on the world until your reflection all but disappears. But there is always this double image, made up of the poet’s reflection in the glass – perhaps vivid, perhaps faint, perhaps somewhere in between...."  This silhouette photo, which illustrates Ted's "window on the world" so well, is by photographer, producer and friend Kathleen Jo Ryan (copyright 1989). The photo appears in her book Ranching Traditions and was taken at dawn at the Sombrero Ranch in Colorado.  Kathleen deserves an entire article just on her, so check back in.  Meantime, click HERE to learn about her fascinating documentary project, Right to Risk.  In Pat Frolander's poem "Denial" the light shines most brightly, though sadly, on the ranch wife. And Pat's presence, as the narrator, is barely felt at all (see the 2nd to last line).

The second poem that has captured my attention today I first read in Teresa Jordan's anthology Graining the Mare.  In "Timothy Draw" by SUE WALLIS, the light shines brightly and intimately on the narrator of the poem.  Sue was gracious enough to let me share it here.  The photo, (copyright Kathleen Jo Ryan 1989) is of ranch woman and cow boss, Kim Smith, of the Cottonwood Ranch in Nevada, and also appears in Ranching Traditions.  I just had the pleasure of spending a few days with Kim at the ranch.  She shines a bright light on the world too.  Here's Sue's poem, "Timothy Draw."

We pause at the top of Timothy Draw
Look down the country for stray cows
He cocks his head
Stands in the stirrups
Hands on the horn
Relaxed and easy and graceful
He moves with a horse
Like few men can

In one brief, quick space
I love him more
Than I will ever love again

Like passion, but not of sex
Like Life without death
Like the nudge and the tug and the sleepy smile
Of a too-full child at your still-full breast
Something that explodes from your toes
But flows through your bones
Like warm honey

More powerful than violence
          I lift my reins
          Our horses sidestep
          ... and we slip on down the draw

Two men.  Two women.  Both husbands and wives.  Both living their lives on land they love.  Yet such differerent experiences.  Both poets capture the human experience.  One, by standing at a distance.  The other, by entering the intimate terrain of the poem.  Both have much to teach us about life.

Sue and her husband raise grassfed beef on their Wyoming ranch.  Click HERE to find out more.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010


According to The New Yorker's Summer Fiction issue, the odds of anyone writing anything of substance after they turn 40 are not good. That's disheartening, since I haven't seen 40 for more than a decade and in 2 days I'll be one year closer to 60. Sam Tanenhaus, editor of the The New York Time's Sunday Book Review, expands on that theory in his essay "How Old Can a Young Writer Be?" According to Tanenhaus, Herman Melville was 32 when he wrote Moby Dick. But Virginia Woolf didn't enter her prime until she was in her 40s. Pearl S. Buck was only 39 when she wrote The Good Earth, but she was 46 when she wrote Peony, the same year that she received the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Should those of us in our 50s, 60s, 70s, and beyond, content ourselves with literary obscurity?  Who are your favorite "over 40" authors?  What substantive piece are you working on? ANSWER THE POLL and help me compile an IMPRESSIVE list to fuel our over-40 ambitions!

Ambition. It's the one thing the writers featured in The New Yorker's Summer Fiction issue seemed to have in common, which I find ironic because I've been trying to learn these last few years to be less ambitious, less driven, to be less about striving and more about thriving. So this summer's newsletter is dedicated to things that help us thrive. Not the least of which is one another. Wishing you a brilliant summer solstice season!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


THE WYOMING GLOW I brought home with me after this year’s Literature & Landscape of the Horse Retreat at the Vee Bar Ranch lasted for days. I literally beamed. Not surprising after a week immersed in some of the things I love the most—horses, stories about horses, other writers and artists, and the wide-open western landscape.

“I missed you all so much the minute I got on the plane, it nearly broke my heart,” wrote Cat, a guest from Massachusetts. “I'll never forget my week at the ranch, and your kind heart that made it possible for all of us to know each other.” Cat fell in love with landscape, the people, the horses, and most importantly, back in love with life.

Life HAPPENS on a ranch—life, and birth, and death, and renewal. The warmth and generosity of families like Kari and Brent Kilmer (co-owners and managers of the Vee Bar) does not happen by mistake. It rises up from life on the land as organically as do the wild spring irises. Kari’s grandpa ranches only a few miles up the road, at the base of the Snowy Range Mountains. This landscape is Kari’s homeland, the place where she was born and reared. Her husband Brent was raised in Wyoming, too—on a ranch near Lusk. His family has been living on that same piece of ground for over a hundred years.

Laura Bell’s new book, CLAIMING GROUND, (which I haven’t yet read) is intriguing for all the same reasons. “Her story is a heart-wrenching ode to the rough, enormous beauty of the western landscape,” writes the publisher, Random House/Knopf, “and to the peculiar sweetness of hard labor, to finding oneself even in isolation, to a life formed by nature, and to the redemption of love, whether given or received.”

I’m not just drawn to Laura’s story because she herded sheep in Wyoming's Big Horn Basin, or because she was, for a time, a cattle rancher, forest ranger, outfitter, and masseuse. But because she yearned to create a home and to find solid earth in which to put down her familial roots.

In the opening few pages of my memoir IN SEARCH OF KINSHIP, I write, “These stories are linked to the land—stories of our children, of aborted foals and orphaned calves, of summer fawns in the meadow, and of their fathers, the bucks, in the fall.”

How can we NOT yearn for a deeper connection with the things we love? How can we NOT fall back in love with life when we slow down long enough to actually live it, moment by moment?  Watch the horses. They show us how. They lift their heads and flare their nostrils at the morning breeze. They pivot their ears at the sound of our voices. They lower their necks at the pleasing strokes of our curry brushes. They let us ride on their backs and carry us on the wind. And then, when day is done, they reclaim their wild roots, kick up their heels and gallop across the tundra and into the sunset.

Yes, it’s true. It’s not just a cliché. It’s why we love them. Because they remind us that life is meant to be lived. With gusto. With a snort and a buck. With heads high and few regrets.

Scroll up to watch the 2010 Literature & Landscape of the Horse slideshow.  Hats off to Alice Liles and Jenny Wehinger for providing some of the slideshow photos.  To read Alice's blog about the retreat, please go to The Bright Lights of Muleshoe

Friday, May 21, 2010

COPPER NICKEL AND BLACK DIAMOND: It's not too late to enter Copper Nickel's Literary Contest!

OKAY, so the connection is a stretch.  But when COPPER NICKEL (the journal of art and literature published by the University of Colorado Denver) announced their first fiction and poetry CONTEST, I had to check it out.  The term copper nickel was originally applied to the Indian Head cent coin.  From 1913-1938, U.S. mints began producing the Indian Head nickel. The front side of the coin features the profile of an iconic Native American man, said to be a compilation of features from 4 prominent Native American men: Iron Tail, an Oglala Sioux chief; Two Moons, a Cheyenne chief; Big Tree, a Kiowa chief; and possibly John Big Tree, a member of the Seneca Nation.
The model for the bison on the back side of the coin is believed to have been BLACK DIAMOND, a bull from NY's Central Park Zoo.  He lived a long life but died a rather humbling death.

Now, let's talk about the literary Copper Nickel.  This impressive journal isn't just a publication for student writing.  It also features the poetry and prose of professional authors, like Pattiann Rogers and Lee Ann Roripaugh, or Alyson Hagy and Mary Clearman Blew.  "Weaving the Web," a short fiction piece of mine written while I was sequestered for a month in a mountain cabin, appears in Copper Nickel 10.  If you'd like a PDF of the story, send me a note.

Here's the low-down on the competition:  DEADLINE EXTENDED TO MAY 31!  Ten days away!  It's a two-part competition: poetry, and fiction.  Fiction submissions will be judged by RON CARLSON, author of one of my favorite writing books, Ron Carlson Writes A Story, published by Greywolf Press.  The winner will receive $1000 and publication in Copper Nickel 15 in Spring 2011.

The poetry contest will be judged by NATASHA TRETHEWAY, Pulitzer-Prize Winning author of Native Guard.  Her first poetry collection, Domestic Work was also published by Graywolf Press.

So don't wait.  Check out Copper Nickel's first literary competition now.  SUBMIT YOUR WORK.  When you do, think about what inspired your story or your poem and take a moment to honor the history of your words. 

And the next time you see an old Indian Nickel with a bison on the back, think of Black Diamond and the four nations that Iron Tail, and Two Moons, and Big Tree, and John Big Tree represent. Unlike Black Diamond, these nations, and OVER 500 OTHERS, are still alive and well.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

8000 Writers Descend on Denver - AWP, Second Installment

Please scroll down to April 15 to read the first "8000 Writers Descend on Denver" installment about the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference in Denver last weekend.

"What is to give light, must endure burning."  This is the motto that has, for 36 years, fed the brave editorial direction of The Sun magazine.  I wasn't able to attend the INTO THE FIRE reading by Sun authors Sy Safransky, Ellen Bass, and 5 other notibles, but I heard it was fabulous. 

Instead, I attended WHEN FORM INVENTS FUNCTION: THE CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN INDIAN PROSE POEM, in part because Sherman Alexie was supposed to be on the panel (a stand-up comedian who brilliantly disguises himself as an author, so brilliantly in fact that War Dances just won the 2010 Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction), but in greater part because my frend, Choctaw author LeAnne Howe was on the panel.  If you want to know who invented baseball, read LeAnne's novel Miko Kings, and check out her Miko King blog.

Part of the panel discussion revolved around genre, a hotly debated topic for more than 10 years in LeAnne's academic circle at the University of Illinois, where she is a professor of English and American Indian Studies.  "Hey, we're Indian," LeAnne told the audience (in her charming, radically intelligent way), "we don't need no stinking genre."  She went on to say, "Let the work teach you about the process...let the work find its own genre."

Her advice makes sense.  Find the fire, let it burn (fuel the writing with passion), then let the writing inform the genre.  Most of the time, we do just the opposite.  We sit down and say, "I'm going to write a poem."  Then, even though the writing might unfold as something different, we try over and over again to fit it into the genre in which we thought we were going to write.  "Sometimes," said LeAnne, "we discover what a piece of writing is by discovering what it's not."

Several panels explored the western landscape as both character and genre: Western Myth Busters, Women Writing the West, To West or Not to West, The First Next Place: Montana Writers Take on Regionalism, and The Transplanted Writer (mentioned in my first AWP installment). The idea of remythologizing the West has been a favorite (and tiring) topic at conferences in the West for decades.  I found myself writing in my notebook I LOVE THE WEST out of shear self-defense because many of panels did a good job of exhausting the topic. 

Do women write the West differently?  This question was posed several times.  Are women more apt to allow myths, our own and others, to live side by side without feeling the need to prove either one true or false?  What are your thoughts?  Perhaps the "woman's" West is a more diverse landscape.

During the conference, a moving tribute was paid to Standing Rock Sioux author VINE DELORIA, JR,  Controversial author of twenty books about the Native American experience, he wrote in an op-ed article in The New York Times in 1976, "We have brought the white man a long way in 500 years. From a childish search for mythical cities of gold and fountains of youth to the simple recognition that lands are essential for human existence."  Mitakuye Oyasin.  The Universe is alive, and we are all related.  Much of the career of this esteemed scholar was devoted to diversifying our beliefs about the West.

On the final night of the conference, Terry Tempest Williams (photo credit Ted C. Brummond), author of 15 books including the beloved memoir Refuge, joined Rick Bass, author of 20 books including the memoir Why I Came West, for a final keynote presentation.  When I said hello to Terry earlier that day, she shared with me that she had had mysterious health concerns and that the doctors had discovered a small vasculer mass in the language part of her brain.  She opted not to have surgery, so the mass was still there.  Each day seemed suddenly a rare gift, not to be squandered.

A few hours later, during the final event with Rick Bass, Terry told the audience of hundreds that she was going to read something very raw, something that required courage.  "I shared a draft with Rick last night," she said, "and he cared enough to be critical.  To preserve my dignity, I won't repeat what he said." The audience laughed, then quieted as she began to speak of the vascular mass, of the visions that came, of the birds that appeared, and reappeared, bringing both beauty and a sense of otherworldliness.

When Rick took the stage after Terry, he quickly shared with the audience that the sponsors of the event (University of North Carolina Wilmington) had wined and dined him to excess, plying him him with coffee to sober him up before he spoke.  I'm glad the coffee didn't work - he was charming in this slightly inebriated state. 

Perhaps Denver's Mile Hi thin air was partly to blame.  The air here is intoxicating, even when you're born and reared along the Front Range and grow up in the shadows of Colorado's rocky, white-capped peaks.  The conference, too, was intoxicating - almost too much of a good thing.  But taken one panel at a time, one speaker at a time, one idea at a time, well worth the satiated feeling that followed.

Apply to present at the 2011 AWP Conference in Washington, D.C.