Most radical thing you can do …

Mint ready for harvest

One of the reasons I stopped blogging on a regular basis was that I felt that the original premise of this blog, which was to make a radical experiment out of my life, had somehow gotten completely lost amidst the recipes and photos and dog stories. All those things are lovely, but what I set out to do when I moved here  was to take a stand against the soul-less mall-and-freeway culture of larger America, to escape the housing developments eating up the hillsides of the Bay Area, and to find a place where I could live as self-sufficiently as possible, where I could cut my carbon impact to the minimum, and where I could build a life entwined in community. All of that got lost in the internet tsunami that became “lifestyle blogging.”

My itchiness about this issue came to a  head a few months ago when I was approached to write for a new online Montana food and travel publication. It was very lifestyle-y. I was horrified. It seemed to me to be all about selling Montana, selling an idealized Montana, which appeared to be a state populated by young white pretty people making the kind of artisinal products that have come to represent what? The hipster ideal?

But my horror made me feel like a snob. Why was this so bad? People are just trying to make a living in a place they love  and where jobs are scarce on the ground (something my long-distance high tech job frees me from). And yet, it all seemed so staged. There’s a substantial class divide in Montana, with plenty of people who move here with the means to start little, specialized businesses that won’t support them. Every town has one of those stores, that are so artfully appointed, and contain 15 carefully curated objects, and which can’t possibly support the person running it. One grows tired of the pretense that this is authentic, or artisanal or that it has some kind of meaning other than the horrific hollow ring of “aspirational” marketing.

It was the opposite of what I thought I’d been up to in this space for all those years. If that was what writing about living small had become, then I couldn’t continue, wouldn’t continue. I wasn’t in this for the Instagram shots, I’d been trying, this past decade or so (especially since Patrick died) to dig myself into a place, to build a garden and a community and a way of living that can sustain a person, and especially that can sustain a person through hard times.

And so, I’ve went back to the sources. Back to my foundational texts, — Gary Snyder, Wendell Berry, Joan Grussow, Thoreau. I’ve also been catching up with environmental thinkers who have been working in the 15 years since I left academia.

In particular, I’ve been immersed in Distant Neighbors: The Selected Letters of Wendell Berry and Gary SnyderThey are radicals, both of them, artists whose lives have been dedicated not only to their own works, but to the larger project of changing the way we think about the world.

Their correspondence begins while Berry was working on “my farming book” (Unsettling of America) and continues through to the present day. The letters are marvelous in the same way that I love the letters of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy collected in Between Friends — they cover the whole range of friendship, from personal matters (Snyder’s letter to Berry explaining that he and Masa were splitting up is heartbreakingly tender), to critiques of one another’s work, to that most wonderful of all shared intellectual tasks, thinking through complicated ideas about the nature of the world.

They didn’t just retire to their farms to pose for the New York Times magazine artfully holding pitchforks. They took a stand. They are each opposed to the rapacious form of capitalism that is currently eating us alive, and they wrote and managed their land and worked with other like-minded folks to try to do what they could to bump that ravening machine off course.

And so, now it seems time that I reclaim the radical portion of this experiment. The part that wasn’t just about buying an old house and fixing it up, but that was about living within my means as an act of rebellion against a society that relies on consumer debt as fuel, about paying off my house and my student loan debts, about buying my freedom by getting off the wheel of consumerism, and then doing something with that freedom.


The Lusitania and the Plamondons, 100 years later

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Plamondon mausoleum after the internment of Charles and Mary Plamondon

Great-great grandparents sounds so remote, but it’s really not. My grandmother’s grandparents, Charles Ambrose and Mary Mackin Plamondon were killed when the Lusitania was torpedoed 100 years ago this week. It was their wedding anniversary that week, one that by all accounts they celebrated with great tenderness.

My mother was enormously close to her grandmother, Charlotte Plamondon Ripley, and these were her parents. Lolo, as we called her, was 32 when her parents died, a young mother. Her sister Marie was 34, Blanche was 29, Charles was 25 and Harold was only 23.

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Here’s a photo of Mary. She looks like the kind of mother a person could rely on, the kind of mother you’d really miss. They were both missed, enormously. I have a big diamond ring that originally belonged to Charles Ambrose, and that was passed back and forth between a couple of branches of the family. My grandmother gave it to me when I turned 40, and I love wearing it since it’s odd and distinctive and has a great story.

Mary’s parents met on the boat over from Ireland. She was born in New York state, and eventually the family made it to Chicago, and then out to Leland, following the railroad.  When Mary’s parents died, a group of the Irish relatives sued for the property, claiming that the oldest male relative should inherit. Mary and her sister Sarah wound up in court for years, and eventually took the case to the Illinois Supreme Court and where they established that women in this new nation, unlike women in Ireland, could indeed inherit property.

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Charles Ambrose Plamondon and his dog. Villa Farm (?)

Charles’ family had immigrated from Canada, and had a foundry business out of Ottawa, near the Mackin farm that is still in the family. They were a big and merry bunch, who from all accounts spent a lot of time in and out of one anothers’ houses, cousins being raised, as we were in my generation, like a big pack of siblings. My cousin Elizabeth Plamondon (Cutler), descends from one of Charles’s siblings, and yet, even as distantly related as we are, we were raised close, and then spent much of our 20s together in Telluride.

Charles Ambrose and his siblings still had the  foundry started by their father, and he had built a gear company — they did the gears for the big ferris wheel at the Columbian Exposition, as well as for the first elevators in the Eiffel Tower. They’d been on the Lusitania because they were going to Dublin to sell a pneumatic malting system to the Guinness factory (which led to a contract dispute arbitrated as part of the reparations settlement by the international courts after World War l), and it was the Swift family who brought them, and the other Chicago victims, home in their newly-invented refrigerated cars (Maria Swift and I grew up together — we share a birthday, same year, same day).

I don’t have an image of it, but there’s a heartbreaking letter in the family archive — Charles and Mary and their children used to come out to Yellowstone, on the railroad, the one that comes right through Livingston where I now live. They travelled like the Edwardian rich people they were — staying in big canvas tents and eating off real china with table linens etc. But they came back, year after year, and there’s a condolence letter from the people who ran the outfitting company, who were based out of Helena. They’d seen the news in the paper and wrote a letter so touching that nearly 100 years later, going through that box with my grandmother, it brought me to tears.

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Funeral crowds behind barricades.

The funeral was at Holy Name Cathedral, and was a big public event. Here’s the photo of the crowds being held back, and there’s another one that’s difficult to see that shows people lined up all down the sidewalk. They were prominent in Chicago, and of course, they’d died in a huge public event, akin to the 9/11 of their day, so it was also an occasion for patriotic display.

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The bodies leave the family home on Astor Street for the funeral. Carter Harrison, Mayor of Chicago in the foreground (?). He and Charles A. had lunch together nearly every day.

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A century on, it’s tricky to pinpoint the personal ripples in the family from their deaths. The family fortunes began their long slow decline, and who knows, perhaps with a vigorous patriarch (or matriarch, knowing our family) the following generations might have had both the encouragement and the capital they needed to grow the small fortunes they were left with. Or perhaps not. They were still a fascinating bunch, who built settlement houses and ran the logistics for the liberation of Italy during World War 2 and played polo and foxhunted and had a pretty grand old time. That my mother’s generation seemed eager to spend the last of the capital, rather than build anything out of it, might just be one of those things. Life is funny, and you never really know how people will turn out.

The big mausoleum is still there. My brother Michael was the last one buried there, in 1972, after he died from childhood cancer. And as eager as I was to flee Chicago, where I felt suffocated by the way all our families are all still so entwined, I also find it a comfort that I found a Mackin relative out here (a fellow North Shore expat). People are always sort of shocked that Dan and I discovered we’re cousins, but as I like to say, if you’re Catholic, and Irish, and your people were well off in Chicago at the turn of the last century, well, we’ve all intermarried in the meanwhile, so chances are we’re cousins somewhere along the line. I like to tease Dan about trying to steal our farm, since he comes from those other Mackins, the ones none of us even knew existed until some Plamondon relative from the Michigan side (descendents of Blanche, the third Plamondon sister) came out to the farm to talk to my grandmother in her old age. They had scrapbooks filled with clippings about the case. . And all these years later, Dan and I are both living out here where he and his wife run a restaurant and catering business, and I have my weird little high-tech job and try to write books. The American saga, migration, reinvention, and in the case of Irish families like ours, lots and lots of storytelling.


Dead Leg …


This is Hank, with the deer leg he’s been carrying and hiding on our morning dog walk for the past couple of weeks. I posted it to Twitter, and was slightly shocked by a couple of people who were grossed out.

It’s one of the things about living out here where people hunt (and illegally dump hides and bones) and where there are non-human predators who hunt as well. The woods are littered with bones.

Bones of deer and elk and sometimes cattle who just died out there, or who were killed by something — a bear, a mountain lion, a coyote, a wolf. A couple of years ago, Himself and I were hiking in Yellowstone, up on the Blacktail plateau where the wolves roam and we found a rocky cove, a kind of a gully that the wolves had been using as an abbatoir. Looked like they’d been driving ungulates up in there for years, then killing them when they couldn’t get out. The bone pile was impressive.

Our morning walk isn’t particularly wild. There’s a road with a steep hillside to the west and a swamp to the east. On the far side of the swamp is the highway. It’s a spur of the old road, mostly quiet although with enough traffic that we’ve had to do a remedial course in “do not herd the vehicles”.  Upstream from the swampiest part are a couple of fields with a very small herd of cattle.

A few weeks ago, one of the cattle died. It was a weird sight, the cow lying on it’s side, dead. Dead does not look like sleeping, although one sort of hoped, but when we came back twenty minutes later and the cow was still there, still with the raven perched atop, it was pretty clear. Dead cow.

Things die. That was an old cow, or perhaps a bull, it was fairly far away and my eyesight is not so terrific. It was there for a day or two, then the rancher hauled it away, I think just deeper into the woods where the bears and the coyotes and the birds will eat it.

And there’s Hank every morning, my bright and shining new boy, so pleased with his deer leg, bounding up the road eager to see what other treats might be waiting. I like it, that it’s all here mixed up together. Deer leg and new dog. Dead cow and new baby calves. Sandhill cranes singing their weird clacking breeding songs and Canadian geese squawking at us, and redwing blackbirds calling from the cattails below. It’s all the same.


New Project?


I’ve been trying to figure out why I’ve been so much more compelled this past year by sewing clothes and knitting than I have been by writing.

While I made real progress last year on my memoir manuscript, and sent it out to readers and agents, it’s clear that it just doesn’t work yet. It’s not bad, it’s just not right. And more important, it’s not the book I want to write. There’s a lot of good content there, and while I was pleased finally to get the voice I was after, the book itself just wasn’t working. There are things I don’t love about memoir, and they’re fundamental to the form — self-disclosure for one, and the imposition of a clean narrative on the messiness of experience for another. I kept trying to find ways to subvert those formal constraints, but found myself just fighting the manuscript most of the time. And then I came up on a chunk of content that I just couldn’t bring myself to revisit.

And so, I sewed. I was still being creative. I was really involved in chasing down patterns and shapes I like, figuring out what mix of minimalist silhouette and pattern that I wanted. I finally discovered what Pinterest is good for — chasing down technique tutorials and finding fashion ideas for what I was sewing. The whole process was deeply satisfying. And for the first time in a decade, I have a closet filled with clothing I like, that fits, and that makes me feel good wearing it.

None of that was a waste of time, but I wasn’t writing. I’ve been through long periods of not writing before (since it’s been 15 years between books that seems self evident). I have a fiction project I’ve returned to that I like, and that I’m determined to draft all the way to the end, but I’ve been thinking all week while dog walking about what it would take to be as genuinely interested in my writing again as I have been in sewing.

And then the tiny flame of an idea for a new project came to me. It’s far too soon to talk about, but it gives me that same sense of excitement that the sewing has done this year, that sense of being really interested, of wanting to go out and do a bunch of research and see if, by putting it into the concept buckets I’ve outlined in my head (and in a new Scrivener file), whether I can make something of this. It has that maker thrill that sewing has held all year.

So I started where I always do — by re-organizing. I cleaned out my office bookshelves, and scoured the basement storage library for the threads I’m thinking of pulling together, and ordered a few things online, and grouped my shelves by topic. It’s sort of like an idea board. I can now stand in front of my shelves, and see the terrain.

It feels like setting out on a new voyage, and most thrilling, it’s a voyage that synchs with the fiction project that’s in progress, so I don’t feel like I’m dropping that, I’m adding on a complementary project. Like adding knitting to my sewing. They don’t cancel one another out, they flow from the same desire to make things.

We’ll see. It’s early days yet. But that thrill is back, the one that made me want to write in the first place.




Ambition and Making Things


Anyone who has followed this blog for a while knows I like to make things. The first decade or so, I seemed mostly making food and a garden and renovating the house in various ways, and this last year, since turning 50, I’ve been sewing.

I wrote a few pieces on Tumblr about sewing this year. This one, about rethinking clothes in my 50s, and there’s a roundup of what I made this summer, and my foray into Japanese Pattern books in the spring.

The dress in the photo above is Dress E from the Stylish Dress Book by Yoshiko Tsukiori. Google it or search for it on Pinterest and you’ll discover it’s wildly popular — and for good reason. It’s a cinch to make, and if you take out some of the excess ease (I cut nearly 2 inches out of each side of the front piece, and about an inch out of the back), you get this cute, swingy, comfortable dress to wear with leggings or jeans. I did one this spring without sleeves, and I think I like it much better with them — I’ll probably make a couple in lighter fabrics for summer.

This is what has happened to my brain. I should be writing, but lately, what I think about is making clothes. Pinterest makes sense at last — you can see what popular patterns look like on actual people. If there’s a technique you want to learn, you can find tutorials. And don’t even get me started on knitting — I’ve discovered Fair Isle/stranded knitting. I’m about to start a pair of socks. On these teeny tiny double-pointed needles.

It makes me feel slightly insane.

And yet, it’s the farthest thing from insane. When faced with a choice between working on my novel, a project I like (unlike the memoir, where the agent I queried rightly noted that the parts I didn’t want to write were really showing), or making a new dress, the dress is so appealing. I can cut out and finish a dress in two days, and then wear it right off. It’s such instant gratification.

My novel. Oy. I’ve been working on it for years. And I’m not terribly good at holding it in mind in the face of a workweek. It takes a day of noodling around the house and several days of making no plans with anyone before I can find the thread again. There’s a reason it’s been 15 years between books.

And one of them is that while it’s true I wanted to be a writer, it’s more true that I just wanted a life I like. I have my house and my sweetheart and my pets and the garden and now I’m figuring out how to make cute clothes. There was a lot I didn’t love about publishing a book — the tour, the questions from strangers, the sense of personal exposure and feeling obliged to do the Dancing Bear. I never really wanted to go to book parties or teach at conferences. Pretty much all I want to do is to stay home, write some, putter in my garden, have dinner with my Person, hike, play with the dogs, meet friends for drinks.

So I’m trying to treat this book project like learning to make clothes — this one is a new genre, so I’m reading a bunch of old and new theory (I know, doesn’t sound fun, but is). I’m spending time doing exercises with minor characters. I’m finding smaller goals so it feels like perhaps I’m making progress.

And I’m trying to let myself off the hook a little bit. All things considered, that I have a home and a Person and pets and a level of financial security is such a bloody fucking miracle that really, even if I only ever publish that one novel, I made a success of my life. And if I can find my way through this new one, well, as Ray Carver once famously said, then “it’s all gravy.”


Woodpile as Life Lesson …



We put in a woodstove this fall, and I’m discovering that if you are a saver, as I am, a woodpile poses a specific challenge. One of the reasons I wanted a little house like this one, and one of the reasons I’ve spent the past decade learning how to grow so much of my own food, is that I’m by nature a person who feels that disaster is just one small step away.

Maybe it’s all that moving house we did as little kids — every time you’d get settled in to a new school, finally make some friends, feel like you were on an even keep again, one of our parents would feel the need for a Big Life Change and we’d be off again, dragged to a new town or plopped in a new school. Then there was the slide down the economic ladder — both parents moving from house to rental house to apartment to someone’s back room to a new apartment to another apartment in a crappier neighborhood. With brief forays into stability or a year or so of being flush and living in a fancy neighborhood until that vanished again.

Patrick used to tease me because when I get nervous, I start hoarding dried pasta. He’d come home, look in the pantry and then over his glasses. “The famine is not coming,” he’d say. “You’re not getting fired.”

“You never know,” I’d tell him. “If it does, we can live a long time on dried pasta, oil and garlic.”

So. The woodpile. The big woodpile is at the back of the yard, where there’s a gate that opens out into the alley so the guys I buy wood from can unload. I had about half a cord I split myself from some log-cabin ends Himself bestowed on me, and I bought two cords from the guys at the end of my alley who sell wood. It wasn’t expensive. I’m not broke.

And yet. Every week as I restock the woodpile by the back door, every time I bring in an armload, I find myself doing mental calculations. How fast is the pile going down? Will it last? Do I need to order another cord? When?

My lizard brain is convinced the Wood Will Run Out.

And so, I’m finding having a woodstove something of a small spiritual lesson. An everyday encounter with my Fear of Disaster. The woodpile is going down, as it must. However, this is not the end of the world. More wood can be acquired. Or that’s what I tell myself as I feel that tiny panicky clench in the bottom of my gut. The daily wrestle with a minor inner demon.

New Year, New Dog, Old Blog …

Hank_babySo here’s Hank — actually, this is Hank back in July when I first brought him home. Now he’s a great, big, galumphing, lovely dog. His mother was a nice little merle Australian Shepherd, and all I know about his dad is that he was “the border collie next door.” Hank has border collie markings, but we think there’s also something bigger in the mix — my guess is Great Pyrennes — he’s got feet like frying pans, a coat so thick he slept outside all summer as a puppy, and a big square head on him.

He’s also the smartest dog I’ve ever had. Owen was smart, but spoiled and willful, and Raymond, my dear departed Raymond was a dog of much heart, but very little brain. At eight months old, this one is better behaved than both of them ever were. He comes when you call him. He sticks close in the woods. He was quiet on New Years day while we waited an hour at the cabin for a herd of 200 elk to move through (so magical neither of us even thought to get out a camera, sorry), and then, when we finally let him out, he sat on the top step of the back porch for a good five minutes, sniffing the air, trying to figure out what had happened.

He’s not perfect, of course. I was pretty annoyed when he chewed a hole in the carpet the other night. He and the kitty have an interspecies love that is quite something — there’s a lot of play fighting, some real fighting, and then she’ll sit on a kitchen chair, he’ll put his head on the seat, and she’ll lick his head like she’s his mother.

So here we are in 2015 and I still have things I want to blog about. I hope some of you might still be out there … because it seems that with oil prices in the basement, and jobs coming back, that everyone has forgotten the lessons of the recession. I swear, I had to edge past a Suburban-like truck in the grocery store parking lot this morning that was bigger than my first apartment in New York. And I’m still here, still in my wee house in Montana, still making things and trying to bring my carbon footprint down and reading and writing and rolling into a new year. We’ll see what it brings us …