Getting My Feet Underneath Myself

Getting My Feet Underneath Myself


So — this quitting my job thing has been slightly more unsettling than I’d anticipated. I’ve worked steadily since I was fourteen — even earlier if you count babysitting (really, who’d let a 10 year old babysit an infant these days?). Anyhow, I’ve always had jobs. I’ve always known where the next chunk of money is coming in from. There always has been a next chunk of money coming in. Currently, I’ve one outstanding invoice. One.

It’s been a challenge not to panic.

I wasted a couple of weeks spinning my wheels and panicking. Complete with many, many dreams in which I had to move, in some cases to return to graduate school. Dorm rooms. Strange cities. Finding an apartment on no money. It’s been like a nocturnal tour of the first 20 years of my adult life.

I have to keep reminding myself that it’s not like that. The house is paid off. The student loans are paid off. There’s money for the property tax bill next month. There’s money for the few other bills I have. No one is turning off the power. There’s food in the cupboard. It’s not an emergency, this was the plan. Getting to here has been the whole point of the LivingSmall project.

I was on the phone with my writer friend Melissa Clark last weekend — talking about the freelance thing. She’s on the verge of taking the leap as well. “I didn’t work this hard to get to where I can do this, ” I heard myself telling her, “Just to panic after three weeks and take another job.” One of those sentences you hear come out of your mouth, then write down and tack above your desk.

So, this week, a full month after I sent the Cisco computer back to them, I finally sat down, made a daily to-do list, and started making forward progress on my mystery novel manuscript again. I figure I have until the New Year before I have to really start scrambling for work (although I’ve got some work between now and then), and it’s time to step up and take advantage of this opportunity. Three months. X dollars in the bank. It’s the same time/money chunk I had for those two summers in grad school (thanks to a generous friend) that I used to write Place Last Seen. If I did it before, I can do it again.

So, here we go. I have four cords of wood out there and a pantry full of staples. I have a few bills every month, and money to cover them for a bit. How little can I spend? How much can I write?

Making and Creating

Making and Creating


So, everything is fairly terrifying right now. The election is horrific. Climate change is continuing to wreck havoc across the globe. I don’t have a job, or at the moment, even any freelance gigs signed. And the Red Sox, sigh.

So I’m making things.

I made the jacket in the photo above, from two fabrics in my stash. The blue wool is from a piece I bought on eBay a year or so ago, and has the loveliest selvage on it. I used it for the end of the sleeves, which you can see when they’re not cuffed. It’s lined with an end-piece of orange raw silk I bought a year or so ago when I was in Seattle at District Fabric, and that I’ve been trying to figure out ever since what to do with — it was too short for a dress or a skirt. I have another jacket in this pattern cut out downstairs — in heavier wool, charcoal grey color, with a grey Robert Kaufman chambray to line it with. It’ll be terrific for dog walking, and will distract me for the three or four hours it takes to put it together. I knit a Hitchhiker shawl  from a ball of ombre sock yarn that had too much space between the colors (I would have wound up with one black sock and one white sock). I’m also working up a pair of Kate Davies stranded Pawkies, which I’m doing as mittens, because winter is coming, and dog walking is upon me. I’m going to experiment with knitting a little hole for my index finger so I can select stuff on my iPhone through the mittens — I like taking Instagram shots while dog walking.

I’ve been thinking a lot about making stuff and creativity as I try to sketch out and envision what kind of freelance life I’d like to build. Sadly, I can’t retire, or tap into my savings, so I do have to find work, but my hope is to find work that allows me to write about issues I’m interested in, and in the best of all possible worlds, about people who are doing creative things.

In the meantime, I’m staving off panic by thinking about what I want to wear this winter. I have a couple of skirts I made this summer that I loved, and wore all the time. So I’ve been eyeing my stash (since I quit my job, and Can Not Buy More Fabric) and thinking about which patterns would work in which fabrics. It’s also Slow Fashion October, during which my Instagram feed is full of people who sew and knit thinking through their issues of consumption, of how clothes are made and sold in a consumer capitalist model and how, by making our own, we can strike back, even if only on small personal levels, at an economic model built on the idea of cheap, fast, and replaceable items.

Part of the pleasure in making clothes, for me, is thinking about it beforehand. What do I want to look like? And how do I want my clothes to feel? And then, can I make that happen? I have to say, three years into making most of my own clothes, I love getting dressed. I was never fashion-y, but now, I look in my closet, or more likely at my clothesline after doing wash, and it’s just so pleasing. Clothes I like, that fit me, in colors I wanted, that go together most of the time, which last, and that I made myself.

I had a friend visiting about a week ago. Months ago he convinced me to propose my first ever academic paper, nearly 20 years after I finished my Phd, for the Western Literature Association conference which was over at Big Sky this year. It was nearby, and seemed like a good idea. It was fine — I wrote about it in more detail over at my TinyLetter (subscribe here). He was amazed the whole weekend at the way the Montana writers all seem to know one another, and how, for the most part, we’re all pretty supportive of one another. And then, driving around town the next day, showing him Livingston, with our old school buildings repurposed as artist studios and theater spaces, our community garden and used bookstore/reading space, our funky little shops which exist because rent is cheap, it did strike me that we’re a pretty creative bunch of folks around here.

You can forget how important it is to live embedded in a community of creative people until you have to leave it for a while. I’m not slagging on the academics, but that conference, along with the one I went to a year ago, both confirmed for me that I was right to leave academia when I did. And my buddy who came to visit, and who is marooned in the Midwest, in a town where he doesn’t have a circle of people to help feed his own creative work, well, it just drove home for me that even if I sometimes roll my eyes when the local creative types get a little woo, I’d rather live among folks whose first response to most things is “what can I make from it?” or “how can I fix it?” or “can we use this somehow to improve our community?” It’s a small town, and like most small towns we sometimes get kind of fed up with one another, so it was a good reminder of just how fortunate we are. it’s not perfect, goodness knows, but it is creative. And for that I’m deeply grateful.

Sign up for my TinyLetter

Sign up for my TinyLetter

Hi everyone — I’m starting a TinyLetter called “Is This It?”

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I’ll send you an essay every two weeks about life in Montana on the cusp of the Anthropocene, with recipes.

First recipe — Peach Jam with Aleppo Pepper, which I made this past weekend.


Apocalyptic Skies in Montana

Apocalyptic Skies in Montana

There are mountains out there, mountains you can’t see for the smoke of burning forests.

It’s apocalyptic in Montana tonight. On the flanks of Emigrant peak, a place where we can usually see the Crazy Mountains 60 miles or so to the north, the skies are orange and grey with smoke. Wildfires are burning in Yellowstone National Park, closing off the south entrance altogether, and threatening the West one. The Yellowstone River has turned belly up like the thousands of dead whitefish that litter its shores, and the Governor has declared it a state of emergency. The US Fish and Wildlife Service is about to delist grizzly bears despite record numbers of grizzlies killed by poachers and automobiles last year , and allow the states to sell trophy licenses to further decimate a population endangered by climate change, while visitors to our national parks and wild areas, continue to do unbelievably dumb things because they can’t recognize actual nature when confronted with it. And through the smoke, drive the RVs. Rig after rig after rig, hauling overstuffed Americans around the country entombed with their carpet and reclining chairs and big-screen TVs, burning fossil fuels as they drag ancillary vehicles behind them.

I’m usually fairly immune to environmentalist gloom, but tonight, despite writing this from the cabin porch, the kind of spot I dreamed of for decades only to find myself gobsmacked by the good luck of getting to live here, tonight in the smoke and the heat and the apocalyptic light, I’m on the edge of despair.

I got into it today with an out-of-work fishing guide, who was ranting about irrigation continuing when the river is closed. The fish kill is exacerbated by low water, he was saying. Maybe there’d be more water if they weren’t draining the tributaries to spray on alfalfa fields. He’s not wrong, but he apparently didn’t know anything about water rights. Water rights, I tried telling him, are entirely separated by history and law from natural resource protection. The river has no rights. The river, its fish, its beauty, its value as an economic driver of the economy in this county (a county for those of you not in Montana, about the size of the state of Delaware) — none of those things have any bearing on water rights. None of those things are considered “beneficial use” — for which water rights are claimed on a historic first-come, first-get, basis.

The fish have no rights to water. The cattle and the ranchers who grow hay to feed cattle have rights, but the fish have no rights.

(Neither do the Native Americans, as evidenced by the current protests at Standing Rock. But in Livingston, fish matter more than Native Americans, as they do in most of the country).

He wasn’t wrong, we would have more water in the river if the ranchers weren’t irrigating. But what got to me wasn’t even his ignorance about such a basic fact of Western historical and political life. What got me was, again, the notion of beneficial use. It’s defined as beneficial to humans, particularly humans involved in the agriculture, timber and mining industries. Along with Manifest Destiny, it was the excuse for white people claiming vast swathes of western land, this notion that by “improving” it for extractive use, they could claim ownership. This is the idea the Bundy clan and their ilk were defending when they occupied the Malheur Wildlife Refuge last winter — the notion that the land exists for human use, that it exists solely for human use. This is not a fringe belief in the West (or, in the East, as evinced when an environmentalist writer friend from the Carolinas posted on Facebook about how mountain lions are showing up in Tennessee, and even his friends commented that they wanted them all killed, because they scared them). While the Bundys taking over the wildlife refuge because they believe setting aside any land for wildlife threatens their historic claims, there are plenty of folks out here who believe that while wildlife is important, it’s only really important for the uses we put it to. These are the folks who think, for example, that the point of the Endangered Species Act is not to save species from extinction because biodiversity is important in and of itself, but that the act exists to bring species back in order that we can hunt them. The Grizzly Bear for example. There are plenty of people commenting all over the intertubes this very minute who think the entire point of protecting the Grizzly all these years was so that we could hunt it again. (To be clear, I have no gripe with hunting or fishing for meat on a non-industrial scale. I’d almost always rather eat clean organic game than even the nicest grassfed local domestic meat. My gripe is with trophy hunting of predator species. And no, I’m not buying your “scientific game management” arguments, because if this essay has any idea at its core, its that “the wild” is, a self-regulating system that is not in need of our interference).

In essence, my guide friend wasn’t being any less anthropocentric than the ranchers or the guys who want to hunt trophy grizzlies. He wanted the water in the river, not for the fish themselves, but so he and his buddies and the rich guys who hire them could get back to pestering the fish for fun, as if nothing had changed.

While I am more than happy to see the outdoor recreation and tourism industries surpass the old extractive mining and timber interests economically, and while the fact that they’re catching up to agriculture is going to make for some interesting legislative opportunities, I’d also like to take a moment to point out that outdoor recreation and tourism are not without environmental impact. We’ve literally flogged the Yellowstone into a state of exhaustion this summer.

So perhaps while we’re in this enforced time out, it might be time to take stock. It might be time to rethink the consumerist mentality we’ve had toward the river — that it exists primarily for our pleasure, and that all our fishing, and boating, and rafting, and SUP paddling, and throwing balls for the dogs, and driving trucks and trailers on 20 and 30 and 40 mile river shuttles are not extractive uses. Maybe we could use a little of that most un-American trait, restraint.

And maybe we could go back to some of our core writers on the subject — Aldo Leopold comes to mind, who noted that: “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”

Because what I’m seeing off this cabin porch is a disaster, and one of our own making. We’re can’t continue the way we have been. We have to change.

Climate Change is Here: Yellowstone River Closure

Climate Change is Here: Yellowstone River Closure

Yellowstone River, August 2016, Closed to Recreation

So, for anyone who hasn’t heard yet, the Yellowstone River has been closed to all recreational use due to a massive fish kill. 

This photo was taken from the bluff overlooking the Mallard’s Rest fishing access. On a normal August Saturday, there’d be boats and rafts and tubes and SUP boards launching and taking out by the dozens here. August is the peak of the season — kids are still out of school, tourists and fancy anglers are all on the river, fishing and floating.

The problem is that the river is at a historic low flow during the hottest summer ever recorded planet-wide. There are flow records going back to 1872. The river has never been this low, ever, at this time of year.

Climate change is here. This is what it looks like. A river we all think we know, a river we all think we can just float and fish at will, has turned over like the thousands of dead whitefish littering its shores. We beat up the river we claim to love to the extent that when someone put in with a boat they hadn’t cleaned, a boat that had been somewhere over on an infected river in Idaho or Washington, the river didn’t have any resources left to fight off the introduction of a parasite.

Two weeks in, the parasite load is so enormous that the fish are dying of septic shock. They’re not living long enough for the parasite to kill them through it’s normal means (or to hope to fight off the parasite). Eileen Ryce, the FWP hatchery chief, said the parasite bloom is most likely so enormous because of the high water temperatures and low flows.

I can’t help wondering why anyone is surprised. It’s been insane around here this summer. The tourist season has been manic, and I don’t think that it’s just because of the 100th anniversary of the National Park System. Every morning when I walk Hank-the-dog, I watch traffic fly past on the main road between Livingston and Yellowstone National Park. Both local and tourist traffic is almost entirely made up of enormous trucks, sometimes pulling a boat trailer, but just as often driven by one lone person, flying down the highway at 75 mph alone in a 150 or 350 pickup. And then there are the RVs — huge RVs that are bigger than the first railroad flat I lived in in Manhattan (with a roommate), also flying down the highway at 70 or 75, often trailing a car, or a trailer full of 4-wheelers behind them.

This is madness. This is a collective action of denial on all our parts.

We cannot keep burning fossil fuels the way we have been if we intend to survive.

We probably cannot keep abusing the river with the levels of recreational and fishing use we’re used to.

This is a tourist economy, and figuring out ways to save the river we love, is going to take some real creativity, and probably some regulation. But if this summer makes anything clear, it’s that application of a consumer capitalist model to outdoor recreation, that is, one where tourism and recreation are marketed as an unlimited resource, and where increasing tourism numbers are only ever interpreted as being good for the local economy, is as flawed an application as any other model. No matter what the resource, it’s not infinite. The river has told us in no uncertain terms that it has a carrying capacity for humans, and this summer, it reached that capacity.

Montana Saturday Night: Watching Grizzlies

Montana Saturday Night: Watching Grizzlies

©Tom Murphy Photography
©Tom Murphy Photography

Himself called from the cabin yesterday evening. “I have an idea,” he said. “Let’s drive up to Tom Miner and see if we can see bears.”

I was in the middle of a project — I took on some freelance work that overlaps with the job-I’ve-quit-but-am-still-working-out-my-notice. I wasn’t at a great stopping place, and today is going to be a crunch, but when your person calls to ask if you want to go bear watching, you say “Great idea!” and “I’m getting in the car.”

So that’s what we did. We loaded up the binoculars, a cooler, the dog and headed up Tom Miner Basin, which is one of the most spectacular places on earth. It’s almost all private land, which makes it not much of a resource for those of us who like to hike, but it’s managed really well, and we’d been hearing rumors that folks were seeing bears from the road.

And there were bears. In one meadow, we watched two young-ish bears grazing on something. The Tom Miner Basin Association website says it’s caraway, which is invasive in some of those meadows, but which also provides good tubers for bears. They were lovely bears — maybe three or four years old, silvertip coats, distinctive humps and dished faces. And they were just right over there — maybe 50 yards away — grazing peacefully despite the four or five cars of us watching.

A car came by and asked us if we’d been “up to the top” yet? They said there had been nine bears up there the night before, in a meadow. Which is pretty astonishing. Tom Miner is known for bears, but as Himself said when we saw those first two hanging out, “I didn’t think it’d be this easy.”

We stuck around and watched the two juveniles for a while, and glassed the basin up behind them, and generally were just glad to be there. It’s a stunning basin any time, but the sun was setting and the gold meadows were gleaming against the dark fir forest, and there were spectacular peaks and pink clouds up above.

We drove further up the road to where a bunch of folks had pulled over. It was like a cocktail party, with bears. People had big spotting scopes, and were chatting quietly among themselves, and watching out across the meadow. There was one sow with two cubs, who we watched for a while, and a herd of cattle behind them, and neither the bears nor the cattle seemed the slightest bit bothered by one another. Clearly they all knew one another, and were used to hanging out together in the evenings.

The viewing party was a little noisy for us, so we drove up to the campground at the top of the road and turned around. There was a big herd of goats all tucked up for the night behind an electric fence — Hank-dog was very interested in them. There were campers. There was cattle, and some deer, and who knows what hanging out down in those willow thickets below the road. There were peaks and sunset and a big white moon coming up.

It was pretty perfect as a Saturday night goes. And then this morning when we woke up, the hummingbirds were having air wars over the feeder, so we watched that quietly for a while while drinking coffee.

Wild in the Garden, Garden in the Wild

Wild in the Garden, Garden in the Wild


The backside of the garden has gone a bit feral on me this summer. Actually, the whole veggie garden is pretty feral — there’s way too much grass, and weeds, and because I’ve been experimenting with broadcast sowing, things are just coming up where they will, or not. Domenica Marchetti, of the new book Preserving Italy (blog posts to come), has been using the hashtag #gardenofneglect, and that’s kind of how I feel about mine this summer.

Or do I? Is it neglect, or have I finally gotten the garden to where it pretty much does what I want it to, without a whole lot of work? A couple of years ago I read Masanobu Fukuoka‘s book The One Straw Revolution. Fukuoka turned me definitively away from row planting, and although I’m not nearly as observant as I should be about what will sprout when, and how to plant vegetable crops so that they’ll shade out the weeds (will anything shade out my Bermuda grass?), the book did turn me toward a richer, messier mode of gardening, and one that also somehow broke through my notion that flowers don’t belong in the veggie garden.

A couple of years into the most-casual adoption of the Fukuoka “method” — one I think of as “throw out the seeds and see if they take” and “plant stuff that will reseed by itself” — I have a wild and messy garden, but one that produces greens in abundance, the beans are doing great this year, the tomatoes are a little slow, but this is also the first year I haven’t started my own, and the identification sticks got lost, so I’m not even sure what’s out there. But I’m starting to get Yellow Pear cherry tomatoes, and two different red ones — one a tiny bright red, and another that’s over on the purpler end of the spectrum, and I seem to have planted at least one beefstake — which is unusual for me. Our season’s so short, I don’t usually bother. The flowers are also doing great — I have a big Monarda that came back from last year, and finally got a Gaillardia to take root. I have a couple of echineacea’s that I’m babying along in the veggie garden before transplanting them into the flower beds (which I don’t water as much as I should do, hence they need to be big enough to survive). The borage has gone to town, and is self-seeding all over the place, and I have the wall of sunflower and cosmo and hollyhocks that I envisioned in the long bed along the fence.

It’s a messy garden, but I think it’s the garden I’ve been intending to grow all along. I look out back and it just says abundance and color and food and joy. Which is what I wanted. A feral garden on the edge of miles and miles of wild country.