Browsed by
Category: Living

Newsletter! Sign up!

Newsletter! Sign up!

Hi everyone — I’ve been missing the blog lately, but also, it feels like a town that was bypassed by the internet highway, just sitting over here off the 2-lane, wishing someone would pass by.

So, if you too miss my little essays on food, and gardens, and making things (land art! I’m obsessed with land art and Derek Jarman at the moment), sign up and I’ll drop you a little missive in your email box once a week.

The signup is here: LivingSmall at Substack

Food Resiliency and the Pandemic

Food Resiliency and the Pandemic

Making breakfast this morning I realized that everything on my plate was homegrown or foraged, and that this is not an accident, but rather, the result of nearly 20 years of being “weird” about food, about cooking, and about the coming disaster.

This is the first morel of the season, sauteed up with some butter (oh! KerryGold. Totally not local), some backyard green spring onions, and a backyard egg. Toast from my own sourdough no-knead bread. Even the plate is thrifted, and the silverware was my great-grandmother’s.

The thing is, I’ve been doing this for years. I haven’t really chimed in on the pandemic food stuff too much, because I feel like I have posts on food resiliency, on local food systems, on growing your own and eating locally going back to the beginning of this blog. In 2002.

And now, here we are. In a global crisis which is exacerbated by decades of people believing the marketing, believing that they didn’t need to know how to cook because there is takeout, and restaurants, and frozen meals in the grocery store. People believing that the engines of industrial food and just-in-time supply lines were as inevitable and natural as the air. People who couldn’t understand why I won’t buy lamb from Australia or grapes from Chile.

While I’ve always advocated for living smaller, buying less, spending less, growing and making more … that it’s all caving in so suddenly, that we’re all living through this global catastrophe together (even with the ones who are denying there is any catastrophe at all) is as upsetting for me as it is for everyone else.

Yes, I have skills, and twenty years ago I deliberately moved to a place where there is fresh water, a lot of non-industrial agriculture, and people who still know how to do and make things. But that doesn’t mean I want everyone else to suffer like this. Or that I’m somehow feeling smug about it. I’m heartbroken. This isn’t something I wanted to be right about. I wanted to go on being the kooky aunt with the bolshie opinions.

And yet, here we are. I’ve ordered enough flour and olive oil and coffee to get me through to the end of the year if supply chains take a while to rebuild. If they can’t well, there’s local flour, and probably rapeseed oil. Will we have to learn to live without coffee? Am I going to be scouring the roadsides this summer for chicory roots?

More than that though, is this the fulcrum? And if it is, for what? A better, greener, more equitable society in which we finally break the back of the exploitation beast that is Big Capitalism? Or the other option, where the guns in the hands of all those white supremacists are called to action?

When you’re raised in chaos, you get a pretty good sense for that moment just before it all kicks off. That moment when you need to get the fuck out of there, and on my worst days here in the backyard, starting tomatoes and new baby chickens, this moment feels like that. My instinct is to hide. To hunker down here in my backyard, the one I’ve been cultivating for 18 years now, the one where I might be able to grow enough stuff to keep us alive. If I have to. Which I don’t want to.

This is just to let you all know, that even though I have a beautiful backyard egg, an egg so orange that it takes your breath away; even though I have morels starting to come up, and the Egyptian Walking onions have come up with abandon, even though I have a years supply of flour and a sourdough starter and there’s still gas coming through the pipes so I can make bread, even though I’ve set all these things up deliberately — I’m just as freaked out as all the rest of you.

On Leftovers …

On Leftovers …

Amanda Mull tweeted this morning that nearly every food culture except “modern American food culture” has a host of recipes and techniques for dealing with leftovers, and I replied in a way that made me feel like the 10,000 year old crone. She’s not wrong at all, but I tried to say something that can’t be said in 280 characters, about why “modern American food culture” makes me cranky, and I just came off like a finger-wagging boomer.

And then my friend Sara, who stayed here last night (sadly because of the virus, we didn’t get to see one another) texted me as she’s driving east for a second day, trying to get home to her ailing 91 year old mother while she still can. “What was that dahl you left?” she asked. “Can you send me the recipe?”

I’d left her some wine, and bread, and there was a pot of dahl/soup in the fridge I made a day or so ago. But I don’t have a recipe. What I had was a 16 ounce yogurt container of leftover red-lentil dahl in the freezer, and a tray of yellow beets and carrots that came in my CSA box that I’d roasted with some commercial schwarma spice a local spice company sells. And extra Aleppo pepper, because always extra Aleppo pepper.

I didn’t like the texture of the roasted carrots and beets, and I knew there was leftover dahl, and that I also wasn’t crazy about the texture of that. Sometimes red lentil dahls taste gritty to me. Combined, and cooked more with some water and white wine, I thought they might make a nice soup. I eat a lot of soup for lunch. I’ve worked at home for most of my career, and soup with a slice of toast is a staple around here.

Making leftovers into something else meant that when my brokenhearted friend needed a place to land for a night on a long long drive, I had a pot of soup to leave her, with some bread, and some wine. Enough that she took a Talenti jar with her as she headed out across the unsafe oil patch that is the Dakotas. Which made me even more happy.

Any of you who are getting notifications that I posted have been following me long enough to know that I have been pushing against “modern American food culture” for a long time. We have a whole generation, maybe two, who don’t know how to feed themselves. They have a few pretty party dishes, but faced with a situation like the one we’re in now, where they are bereft of restaurants and prepared foods, there are a lot of people out there really struggling.

They’re struggling because we all believed the propaganda. Believed that we didn’t need kitchens anymore. Believed that corporations could provide us an endless stream of pre-cooked and prepared meals in a bag. Believed that we don’t need to teach home economics anymore, and that knowing how to shop and budget and cook your own food and clean up your own home are chores of drugery.

They can be, but they can also be something more. They can be the means by which you build a home. I made a dahl-ish soup because I looked at those three yellowish things, spiced with warm spices like ginger and cinnamon and cardamom and coriander and thought — oh, those could go together. Maybe I’d like them more together than I do separately.

And I do. Topped with a dollop of yogurt, and some green onions that are the first things growing in my garden (it snowed, again), it’s delicous.

One reason I don’t pitch much “food writing” is because I find the entire machinery of food writing and food blogs and food photography so alien. It’s all still in service to the same consumer capitalist maw. It’s all about what’s “on trend” this year. It’s about what looks pretty in an Instagram photo.

In my second tweet replying about American leftovers, I tried to be more constructive. There’s a fabulous value cookbook from the mid-80s called American Gumbo from which I learned a lot in my brokey mcbroke years. The hippie cookbooks of that era are also good — lots of things you can do with cheap staples like beans and grains. I’ve written on a number of occasions about my deep love for Patience Grey’s Honey from a Weed, in which she describes all the ways she fed herself and the scupltor as the knocked around the Mediterranean with no money. Vine twig fires and an earthenware pot of beans.

If we’re going to survive this planetary sea change we’re seeing start to play out, we must change our lives. We’re going to have to think about the actual realities of food and food systems. We’ve been burning the planet alive so we can jet ourselves and our food around the world. That I’m looking at Australian oranges in a supermaket in Montana is insane.

Maybe a place to start is to learn to cook with what we have. It’s a good place to practice that kind of creativity. Don’t think of it as “leftovers” think of is as one of those cooking challenge shows. You have a container of leftover dahl. You have two gigantic yellow beets and some big carrots that came in your CSA box. Now what?

The Weather Is Real

The Weather Is Real

Here’s a little essay I wrote a few years back about the domestic and the wild, the virtual and the real. It’s part of the longer project I’ve been working on, both in print and in the real world of my backyard. That is: how do we survive enormous grief? How do we prepare ourselves for hard times, times when we might need to rely on ourselves and others? Times like these.

Scott McMillion was nice enough to publish it in Montana Quarterly, but since the archives aren’t online, I thought I’d post it in case it’s useful for any of us during this strange planetary time of trouble.

Garden in the Wild

I park my car at the cattle guard and let Hank-dog out. We’re going for our daily walk, on a gravel road about ten minutes outside of town. There’s a trailhead at the top of the road, and as much as that trail is one of my favorites, during this year of recuperation after ankle surgery, I’ve fallen in love with walking the road. For one thing, there are fewer people on the road, and since dog walks are when I think, and in particular when I think about writing, I don’t want to talk to people. And the other thing is that this trail, the Suce Creek trail, is where I’ve been both barked at by a very large bear, and charged by a bull moose.

Thrilling experiences both of them, but sometimes a girl just wants to walk the dog, look at the scenery, and let her mind wander to whatever is going to happen next in the novel she’s writing back in town.

The Suce creek road starts with a fairly steep little climb — maybe a couple of hundred vertical feet in that first quarter mile. Uphill, fir forest rises unbroken to the ridgetop, while below lie a couple of fields with horses, and a ranch house where an elderly herding dog barks as we walk past. Next, the road winds through an aspen grove, and comes back out into the open with a beautiful view down the drainage and across the Paradise Valley. The Gallatin range hoves into view on the far side, and most afternoons, the skies light up as the sun sinks to the west. This stretch of road is open, and warm enough in the wintertime that there’s a cow moose who beds in the sunshine here sometimes, we’ve come across her impression in the snowbank, steaming a little where she left it. Sometimes the cattle are loose up here, which can be a trial with a two year old border collie, but they’re fierce, and he’s getting better about listening when I tell him no, no freelance herding. Then the road winds through a deep wooded stretch. I love this half mile. It’s like a forest from a children’s book, deep and cool even on a hot summer afternoon. Past that, is the trailhead, and if the parking lot’s empty, we’ll keep going, up through the willow thicket to that open piney stretch where we startled that bull moose two years ago, got charged. He rolled the puppy as I jumped off the trail, hid behind a terrifyingly thin fir tree. But we all came through unscathed. Terrified, but unscathed.

Then, down through the aspen grove littered with slash piles from where the Forest Service decided to improve things by cutting down the fir trees. A perfect bureaucratic project. Count aspens, cut down firs, count new aspens, declare it a success. Entirely unnecessary to anyone but the Forest Service ranger who got herself a promotion out of it. She’s happy I hear, up in Helena.

After the manicured aspen grove, the trail passes through a sweet little meadow where I scattered the ashes of my last two dogs, we say hello as Hank pees on their rock, then follow the trail where it drops steeply down into the creekbed, crosses with a ford and a little one-log bridge. Hank fell off that bridge once as a puppy when he stopped to lick himself, toppled backwards into the creek. There’s another ford about a half mile up, just past that clearing where years ago, I found a large bear standing on the game trail just uphill from the big Wilderness Area boundary sign, chuffing at me in a puzzled, yet deliberate manner. I called the now-dead dogs and remarkably, they came. We backed slowly out of the clearing, clutching the bear spray, thinking about the book my friend Scott McMillion wrote about grizzly attacks. What did Scott say to do? I remember thinking as I didn’t make eye contact, as I backed away, as I talked to that puzzled bear like he was a big drunk man in a bar. Hello bear. Nice bear. Didn’t mean to bother you bear. We’re just leaving bear.

Again, everyone was fine. Spooked, but fine. I called Doug Peacock to tell him what happened. “Congratulations,” he said. “You had a real experience out there.”

 Although the trail does cross the boundary into the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness area, and although I’ve had more wild animal encounters in this drainage than anywhere else in the county, we’re still in the front country. It’s wild up here, but there are people on this trail, folks on horseback, in fall there are hunters. It’s wild, but it’s not what we think of when we think of wilderness, it’s not pristine, it’s not remote, it’s not untouched by humans.

It took me twenty years to get to Montana, and even then, it wasn’t Montana I was after so much as Rocky Mountains. I’d lived in Telluride, and in Salt Lake, and from California, all I wanted was to get back to the Rockies. There’s nothing wrong with the Sierra, and my first novel is set there, but they’ve never been my mountains. You imprint, I think, on your first real western landscape. I remember watching a graduate student when I was at the University of Illinois, one of the climbing club guys, clicking through a carousel of slides from a summer trip: granite peaks, white snowfields, blue skies. I was seventeen years old, stranded in a sea of cornfields, marooned among the sorority girls. We’d spent a summer out west when I was ten. Watching those slides, I could smell the specific scent of willows in a sandy midsummer creek bottom. I knew in my bones I had to get back there somehow. To those mountains, those snowfields, those willow bottoms.

I finally made it west in the late 1980s, and the first time I found myself on the top of a Colorado ski hill in January, wearing only a sweater, in warm sunshine under a clear robins-egg sky, I told myself I was never going back east. And I didn’t. It was part of what scuttled my academic career, refusing to go East again, but I didn’t care. I went West, to the Bay Area, got a job in high tech, desperate to pay off my student loans. Three years into my tech job, I was commuting back the long way, the way I chose most nights because even if it was about fifteen minutes longer, most of the time you weren’t standing in traffic, and it took you through some of the last open agricultural fields in the Bay Area. But they were filling up. Houses were going up on perfectly good farm land, just as I’d watched the last few migrant workers hoeing a zucchini field that was doomed, to become the new Cisco “campus.” I wished I’d had a camera that day. I was stopped in traffic, and across from me were several guys with computer cases standing at a bus stop, while behind them, four or five Mexican guys hoed zucchini rows, and behind them, another three story Cisco building, identical to all the others, was going up.

It made me nervous, California. It had been good to me career-wise, twice. Once when I left Colorado for UC Davis, once when I left Salt Lake City after my PhD, came back out to live with my brother and find a job. But it was getting so crowded and I could feel the big change coming — whatever we want to call it, climate change, global warming, the anthropocene, the great acceleration — I don’t know what it is, but having been raised by unreliable parents you develop antennae for impending doom. You can tell by the energy level, the degree of frantic vibration, that something bad is about to happen. And that’s how I felt in California. I couldn’t put a finger on it exactly, but I knew something wasn’t right, and I wanted to get out of the way.

I was trying to figure out how to do that, when I heard a little voice in my head while driving to Whole Foods one Saturday morning. An actual voice, saying what about Livingston?  I knew about Livingston from running writers conferences, knew there were writers there, knew house prices hadn’t spiked yet. It was like there was someone in the car with me, that’s how clear the voice was. It spooked me, but I went home and looked up houses online, called a friend in Bozeman to see if she’d put me up.

Six months later, I was living in a small town smack in the middle of all the wild country a girl could want. It had been two decades since that slide show in the central Illinois flatlands, but I’d finally made it. I’d bought a house where I could see peaks and blue sky and snowfields from my front porch.

I bought a house in town, in part because I was moving alone, and feared if I bought a place out in the valley my agoraphobic tendencies would kick in, I’d hole up, never meet people. But I also bought a house in town because it already existed. I wasn’t cluttering up some hayfield with another new house, wasn’t chopping up the country with another five acre tract. In town, I could walk to Happy Hour on Fridays, to the dog park where I met the people who are now my family. It helps that I moved to a town full of writers. Writers, and painters, and fishing guides and carpenters and used-to-be-movie-stars. Who all get on together, who all wind up at the same happy hour, the same parties, the same art walks. It’s a good place, inhabited by people who wanted to live someplace beautiful, who needed to be near Big Wild Beauty, and who (with the exception of the rich summer people) were willing to take a hit financially in order to be here. We’d all rather be here than be rich, which is good since we’re mostly fairly broke.

Fifteen years later, it turns out that while I moved here for the wilderness what I did was build a garden. On my town lot, one I bought in part because there was a gigantic vegetable patch in the backyard, I hammered boards into raised beds and erected trellises. I moved dirt with a wheelbarrow and grew tomatoes and cucumbers and greens. I pruned up the fruit trees, planted currant and raspberry and gooseberry bushes. I built a coop and got chickens. I learned to can and freeze and put up my produce. With a gift of sourdough starter from another writer, I now bake bread once or twice a week. I moved to Montana for wildness only to find myself diving deep into the domestic.

If there’s anything that’s sacred in Montana, it’s wilderness. And the domestic, we are told, is the inverse of the wild. The mere presence of the domestic nullifies “the wild.” Just look at the outraged essays coming from old-school eco-warriors like George Wuerthner who collected a bunch of them in   “Keeping the Wild: Against the Domestication of Earth.” If there’s anything profane in this part of the world, its domestication. Just try being a single woman here, walk into the Murray Bar and watch the fishing guides react with terror, as if you’re only there to kill their fun, rope them into domestic life, tie them down with babies and houses and gardens. In the same way, there are plenty of people I know who would sneer at my Suce creek walk, especially the part I do on the road. I can hear it now, you moved all the way to Montana to walk a road?

But in Montana, the domestic and the wild are not always entirely separate. One of my neighbors, who bartends for a living, told me he’d been on his front step late one night, having an after-shift cigarette, when he thought he saw a dog coming down the sidewalk. Turned out to be quite a large bear. “She peed in the street,” he said, pointing. “Then went off that way, toward those apple trees.” He wasn’t freaked out about it. It was both perfectly normal, and very cool to be sitting on your front step at one AM and have a little visit with a very large black bear sow.

Visiting Chicago and Seattle, I see Montana scenery plastered on city busses. Glacier and Yellowstone, the big animals, bears and moose and elk, are what we use to lure tourists. No one is luring tourists with photos of the jars of applesauce and jam I put up, the sauerkraut I make when the Hutterites bring cabbages the size of a beach ball to the Farmers Market in the fall.

I make my living online, and like everyone else I know, I waste too much time on Facebook and Twitter, reading meaningless gossip about people I don’t know, losing whole hours diving into virtual rabbit holes. I did much of my academic work studying the ancient human conflict between the wild and the domestic, and while I’ve never quite bought the argument that the wild and the pastoral cancel one another out, it seems we’re now faced with a bigger conflict, the one between natural and virtual realities. My friend Amanda Fortini, for example, who wrote a very good article for Good Magazine about what a shock weather was when she moved to Montana. She’d never realized that weather could be something that impacted your daily life, that you had to think about. She grew up in suburbs, and then spent her twenties in New York. Her description of how it sunk in one evening when she and her husband found themselves stuck in the snow outside White Sulphur Springs, where they’d driven up for a soak in the hot springs then decided on a whim to drive north to Helena for the night. Someone will come along, she told Walter, who knew that no one would, they were on a small side road, and so he dug them out with the windshield scraper. It wasn’t until the hotel clerk when they were checking back in in White Sulphur acknowledged that it was a good thing they got themselves out, they only send someone up that road every couple of days in the winter, that it sunk in. Weather is real.

While those of us over on the environmentalist front have been squabbling over whether acknowledging the anthropocene means the end of wilderness (and hence somehow magically believing that if we deny the anthropocene, wilderness will be saved), we lost sight of the bigger problem. For too many people, the physical world has faded away altogether. They live online, or in their phones. The distinction between the wild nature I encounter hiking on the Suce creek road and the domestic nature I encounter in my kitchen when kneading sourdough bread, seems less important than the fact that both of these activities require tangible interaction with the physical world.

Like I said, I make my living online. I moved to Montana but kept my tech job, and my working day is spent handling documentation files, and logging in to meeting software that allows my team, located here in Montana, in Seattle, in San Jose, in Dublin, in London and in Warsaw all meet with one another. We can see one another on our laptop cameras, we can share documents on the screen. I just spent two weeks training my replacement at that job, a woman who lives in rural Texas. We did it all over the meeting software — sharing screens so I could talk her through the program she needs to use. We don’t need to be physically co-located anymore. And yet, as my job has become more virtual, I’ve found myself more and more driven to get outside into the garden. I take refuge from the virtual by diving into the biological. Coaxing seeds to germinate, keeping them alive and watered and making sure they neither freeze nor burn up, requires a level of attention that keeps my head on straight. Too much time in the virtual world at work sends me back out into my yard, armed with a spade, eager to turn over the actual earth.

Its the same with the animals. I have chickens out back, chickens I raised from day-old hatchlings in a box with a heat lamp, chickens who lay more eggs than I can use, and provide compost for the vegetable garden. It’s a small closed system, and one that isn’t going to change the world, but simply having built it over these past years keeps me tethered to the reality of the physical world.

There are a lot of reasons we need to get past our binary thinking that the wilderness is sacred and the domestic is profane, but perhaps the most crucial reason is because we’re making the wrong argument. We’re arguing about degrees of difference between categories of experience in the natural world with people who have lost sight of the natural world altogether. My high school sweetheart for example, who arriving after a drive through Yellowstone said “well a lot of it was really boring. It was just forest. There weren’t any peaks or anything.” Yellowstone experienced not as a natural wonder, but as a slightly disappointing consumer experience. The difference then between the domestic and wild natural worlds collapses entirely when we’re dealing with people who have never stepped outside the human bubble of automobiles and roads and tourist boardwalks and malls. Who have never considered, for example, that the weather is real.

And so I cling to my hybrid life here. The one where my encounters with sourdough starter are as important to me as the blue grouse Hank spooks up on our morning dog walks. If sometimes it feels like the domestic has taken over my Montana life, something happens to remind me that our town is small and sits between several enormous wilderness areas. In the fall, at the dog park trail five blocks from my house, we’ll encounter big bear shits, purple with chokecherries, while, in spring you have to watch out for the moose that calves there, in the willows and creek bottom.

All those years when I dreamed about moving to Montana, I saw myself in the wilderness bagging peaks, or skiing across the Yellowstone backcountry. Instead I find myself living in a small town, puttering in the garden, complete with an old-lady straw hat, or in my kitchen, over a steaming canner filled with tomatoes during the hottest week of the year. But every time I go to some city where zombie-people walk around staring at their phones, I’m grateful to live in a place where people float the river, walk the trails and trade mason jars of canned goods at Christmas. We meet on Friday afternoons for happy hour, or show up for one another at readings and art openings and funerals.

And at night, sometimes we go out and get wild ourselves, put our party hats on and dance, while in the moonlit darkness, wild bears walk through our town in search of apple trees.

Routines in a Time of Trouble

Routines in a Time of Trouble

Montana road, dog in distance, blue sky, ocher cliff.

I must have a million photos of this bluff, that sky (this dog, and Raymond before him). This is my usual dog walk — in the winter we do it early in the day to catch the warmth and light, in the summer, late afternoon to catch the shade as the sun drops behind the mountains to the west. It’s about a mile each way, through a creekbottom, then opens out at the north end of the Paradise Valley.

This is not a wilderness walk — although last spring a moose calved in there, so we had to be careful. And two years ago a very large cinnamon black bear and I startled one another badly. But it’s not a wilderness walk — it’s a county road, and just on the far side of the creek is Hwy 89 south, the main highway serving the Paradise Valley and the north entrance of Yellowstone National Park. It’s very busy. In the summer it’s a parade of RVs. Don’t get me started on the RVs. I’m the old lady in the straw hat shaking my fist at your selfishness, RV people.

At any rate, this is the walk we take nearly every day. We have a couple of others, but our routine is a walk, then breakfast, then yard chores, then settling down to work. I’ve worked remotely since 2002, and until the last three years when I’ve had to drive over to Bozeman to teach at MSU, I’ve made my entire living while working from home.

For me at least, routine is key. It’s a real job. I log in about 10 most days, and work until 6. Or another way of putting it is that I work a regular 9-5 on California time. Which doesn’t mean I don’t putter. While writing this, I just got up to water the geraniums in my office that I only just noticed are looking peaky. I’ll do a load of wash — hang it on the line. But for the most part, I’m at work. Writing copy. Answering emails. Taking meetings. Just like I would if I was in a cube in San Jose, or Seattle.

So for those of you new to working at home — treat it like work. Do your morning routine — including working out if that’s part of it. There are a ton of workouts online that you can do at home — I’m a huge fan of Yoga with Adrienne — her neck and shoulder yoga videos have nearly rehabbed my left shoulder which froze up last summer. Then take a shower and get dressed. You don’t have to dress as formally as you would if you’re going to the office, but dress nice. Dress comfortable. I’m planning to put on my Teaching Lipstick when I start holding classes online on Monday.

Most important — learn how to log off.

When work is done, close up shop. I used to have a real rule about no screens when Himself and I are together for dinner and after. I’ve been bad about that the past few months — Twitter has crept up on me. I’m going to really try to return to Books On Paper in the evenings. And knitting. Things are terrifying out there, and while I love scrolling Instagram in the morning and looking at pretty pictures, I might have to give that up for a while too. Poetry. I think it might be time to turn back to poetry in the morning.

The thing is — figure out what works for you and impose some structure on your day. It will help fight back the terror, and the madness. Take advantage of these weird times and figure out how to limit what comes into your brains. If you have a yard, now’s the time to start cleaning up after winter, planting some things, or even just sitting outside in the evening and listening to the birds who have returned.

We can all get through this somehow. Together, but apart.

Pandemic Projects

Pandemic Projects

Three chicks in a box inside a dog crate

I was going to wait until later in the spring to get new chicks, but with everything shutting down, it seemed like time. On the way back from dog walking this morning, stopped at the ranch store and picked up a new Buff Orpington, a Silver-Laced Wyandotte, and a Dominique chick.

This was the year I was going to start replacing old hens with Bantam hens, in part because my yard is getting pretty torn up, and in part because I thought “Oh, my chickens-for-the-apocalypse thing is overblown.”

So here I am, with a new batch of chickens for the apocalypse.

My current flock is made up of one ancient Silver Laced Wyandotte who I kept, even though she doesn’t really lay anymore, because she’s such a matron. She’s a fat old thing now, but I find her presence reassuring, and she waddles around the yard like the queen she is.

The other four are one Delaware, not as charmant as the late Miss Delaware (a hen I regret culling, but back then I was trying to be “professional” about my backyard agriculture), one Buff Orpington, and two Amerucanas. None of them have much personality, although this Delaware is also the leader of the pack. The sad truth is that as these three get big enough to start laying, I’m going to have to cull some of the older ones — it just depends really on whose laying, and who I will miss the least.

I hate this part.

But the truth is, at three years old, the majority of my wee flock isn’t laying much, and with times like they are, well, it seemed only prudent to replace them with hens who will.

And the ranch store chicken manager is in a bit of a fix. She was really trying to get me to take the older chicks, which I would have, had I room. She’s cancelled some orders, but there are a bunch of chickens out there if anyone else local wants to start keeping them. Personally, I love my chickens in the backyard. They cluck around. They eat bugs. They lay eggs. (They tear up the lawn and they do poop everywhere. Himself is not a fan.)

And for the moment, they are also providing entertainment for bored pets. Here’s Harriet the new kitty, and Hank, watching chicks:

Grey cat and border collie watch new chicks in a box inside a dog crate.



Messy greenhouse office with plants, and twinkle lights.

Here we go, once more around the back side again, about to come out into the light.

There have been a lot of posts out there in the intertubes about the end of the decade, and asking folks what they’ve done this decade, or what has characterized it for them.

For me, this decade has brought a long-sought stabilization of my personal life, including finally building a life with a partner. He hates being written about, so I try not to, but if there’s anything that marks this decade it is having spent it with Himself. He’s a good man, and we’ve built an unconventional but reliable relationship that has brought us both great happiness.

There’s a funny thing that happened with time when Patrick died — it’s not that it stopped exactly, but my experience of it shifted from linear to circular time. When Patrick died, it felt in a very real way that my story had ended — our story certainly did. The story of how Charlotte and Patrick saved one another, that ended. But because I had washed up here, in this little house in this odd little town, my experience of time settled in, and became seasonal. Was it the garden? Or living so close to these huge wilderness areas? I’m not sure, but time now feels less about ambition, less about ticking off the boxes of accomplishment, and more about wondering whether the morels will come back in the spring, whether this year I can get peppers to ripen, when will the Sandhill cranes pack up in the valley for their journey south, when will the herds of cow and calf elk show up in the cabin yard? These have become the markers of my years.

And yet, these kids come back from LA and time has obviously passed. Knox, the “baby” is the same age as my relationship with Himself, which means that Knox is about to be taller than I am. The big girls are dealing with career choices and romantic involvements, while the twins are fifteen, and glorious, and so much cooler than all of us put together — So clearly linear time is still marching on.

Another decade, another year, another dark December nearly survived. There are twinkle lights and nativity sets all over the house. There’s a pile of presents in my office closet ready to wrap. There’s Hank-dog and Betty the cat and five chickens in the backyard. There are aging parents and growing kids and a book that is slowly, slowly coming into focus. So much content I’ve generated for this one over the years, and despite teaching and freelancing and struggling, as we all do, to find time, it’s coming along.

And starting tomorrow, the days will get just a tiny bit longer again every day. As once again, we come back out of the darkness, come back out to face another year, another set of goals and seasons and life that keeps, whether we want it to or not, keeps marching along ….

Merry merry to any of you still out there with a little subscribe button. I might start writing more regularly again. We’ll see — I’ve said it before, but I miss it. There are things I want to write about, books I’d like to discuss with all of you, thoughts on food and food writing to be thunk.

Here’s to the best of new years ahead for all of us. Onward, into the light.

Home Again, Home Again

Home Again, Home Again

tomato seedlings in plastic cups with garden and garden shed in background
Tomato seedlings sprouting in the greenhouse shed

Life has been quite manic around here lately, and last weekend I had to go to Arizona for a family wedding. With my mother. Anyone who has followed the blog for a while knows that my mother is a very difficult person, with whom I have a fraught relationship. But she wanted to go see the granddaughter of her late sister get married. My cousin Jennifer is sentimental about our side of the family, because she lost her mother when she was just 15, and so, because it was important to both of them, I made it happen. It was a Very Long Weekend.

And so last night, I can’t quite even describe the depth of my gratitude for the most ordinary of evenings. I got to the cabin and Himself had just arrived. We took a small walk out to see if the morels are starting to come up yet, and while they’re not, a little walk along the irrigation ditch, with Hank-dog romping in and out and doing his dog-wallow in the snowmelt was perfectly lovely. Because it was calm, we built a fire in the firepit, and watched sparks from our Christmas sagebrush swirl into the air. It’s been so rainy that we didn’t have to worry about setting the valley on fire. A couple of hours outside, with Emigrant peak rising above us, looking up at the expanse of the valley, with a fire, and some sausages, and the dog happily munching on a deer leg he found somewhere. We talked and watched sparks and fed brush into the fire, then went inside to eat and fell asleep with the scent of smoke in our hair.

My childhood was difficult and unlike my mother and my cousin, I am not sentimental about those times at all. It was not a delight to reminisce about my aunt’s house on the lake, a place we were sent every time things fell apart. Which was often. While I don’t usually mind talking about Patrick, with my mother, who behaved so abominably toward me after he died, I avoid the topic altogether, and so when she and Jennifer moved from the topic of Dead Aunt Lynn to Dead Patrick, it was all something of a trial. (However, it was fun to hear Jennifer’s childhood friends talk about the ENORMOUS crushes they had on him.)

Sitting by the fire last night with my Himself, and then driving into town this morning, I was overcome with gratitude for the life I’ve built. I have a lovely relationship with someone I can rely on (who does not like being written about on the intertubes). I have work I like, that brings in enough money to take care of what needs taking care of. I have a dog and a cat and a little flock of chickens, and a backyard garden to feed us all. There are young people, no longer children most of them, who we’re raising as a village, and who are making their own way out into the world.

I worked hard for all this, and had some good luck. And I’m so enormously grateful to have escaped that world I came from, and to have found my way to this place where my life works. Where things hum along, and we enjoy one another, and life isn’t lurching from crisis to crisis anymore.

It’s a little life I’ve built here, but it’s my little life. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Go Outside and Play

Go Outside and Play

Suce Creek looking toward Trail Creek, Livingston Montana

For the first time in ages, Hank and I went for a real walk this morning — a walk up one of our favorite drainages. There’s a trailhead at the top of the road, but often in the spring and fall, as the wild animals are moving around, we’ll stick to the road. It’s a great walk — about a mile and a half each way, with probably about a 500 foot elevation gain so you get a little workout. There are squirrels in the woods that Hank is convinced, Every Single Time, that he’s going to catch. And it’s quite beautiful — even just walking the road. You go up a long slow hill overlooking a small ranch below, where an elderly dog usually barks at us, and there are a couple of horses in a field. Then through a lovely aspen glade and out onto a very sunny south-facing stretch overlooking another, fancier, rich-person-second-home house. Then it’s about a 1/4 mile through a piney glade, which is lovely and cool and out into the trailhead parking lot.

I’ve written a million posts about Suce Creek. Suce Creek is where I had a very large black bear stand up and “chuff” at us when I’d first moved here, it’s where I’ve seen two mountain lions, and it’s where Hank and I were charged by a young bull moose when he was just a wee puppy. It’s also the place where I see several regular friends when walking the dog — Jack the barber who congratulated me on quitting my day job to finish a novel manuscript; Connie who comes up from Texas for the summer and who I’m so fond of despite the fact that we have almost nothing in common; Louisa the grizzly bear expert who lives down in the bottom of the creek.

I haven’t been up there to ski this winter. As you can see from the photo, it’s not for want of snow — those are fence posts at one of the cattle guards. I’m five feet tall and they’re all about as tall as I am. I’d been planning to hang my jacket on one, because it was warmer than I thought, but um, guess not. At any rate –it’s been a really tough last two months. The average temperature in February was 9 degrees, and it was only 12 degrees in March. It’s been a winter of bitter cold, and wind blowing sideways, and skiing just seemed like so much gear and such a hassle and I wasn’t even sure my car could get to the trailhead. And I’ve been buried in work.

But it is so glorious today — 45 degrees and sunshine and the poor dog hasn’t had a decent walk in months, and neither have I, so we drove up, put the little rubber cleats on our boots, and went outside in the fresh air and sunshine for a lovely hour or so.

All that snow is melting, and we nearly didn’t make it up to the cabin last night because there’s a whole segment of the road that is washing out. The political situation is ridiculous and dire all at the same time. I have huge piles of work and laundry and well, there’s housekeeping (I’m tidy but there are dustbunnies the size of jackrabbits), but for the first time in months it is sunny! and warm! and there are blue skies and there weren’t any cars in the little parking area. Hank and I had a marvelous time and feel all the better for it.

Midnight Chicken: Cooking Your Way Back to the World

Midnight Chicken: Cooking Your Way Back to the World

I’ve been working too much, and this winter has been brutal. I had to sell my beloved Honda Fit and buy an Outback because the Beloved Fit was just not holding up to driving over the Bozeman pass three days a week. That I have the kind of financial stability that means I can drive into the Subaru dealership and just trade in my car for a new one, and finance it, and all that, is something of a miracle to me, especially considering I quit my “real” job four years ago, but here we are.

However, weeks of subzero temperatures, teaching writing to 75 students, and writing instructional manuals on the side has left me spent. It’s been the kind of winter that just feels like you’re under siege. My students are struggling too — between a serious flu going around, and working too many jobs, and taking insane course loads to avoid taking on more debt — then fighting our way across campus in temperatures that have hardly gone above zero since early February, with so much snow that TWO gyms collapsed. Well, we’ve all felt like it’s Just Too Much.

But the arrival of Ella Risbridger’s lovely and poignant book, Midnight Chicken has reminded me of why I believe so strongly that when we don’t know what to do with ourselves, making something with our hands can be a salvation. It’s the sort of cookery book that made me love the genre in the first place, a book in the vein of Laurie Colwin, or Patience Gray, or even MFK Fisher. It’s a book about cooking as an antidote to despair, and a means of building a life that feels like it has some kind of meaning.

It’s a book after my own heart.

Risberger was in her early 20s, living in London with the man she loved, when she realized she had “fallen out of love with the world.” Depression had fallen upon her, and try though she might, it escalated to the point that she tried to step in front of a bus. This book is the story of her journey back to the world, a journey begun as she sat in the emergency room, thinking

… how I wanted to cook again. It was like a little map: I will get through this, and I will cook something, and I will eat it, and I will be alive. I will be alive and I will make something with my own two hands, and I will get through this. This too will pass –it has to — because there is a pie at the end. With a crisp crust and a soft yielding centre, and my first initial done in pastry on the top and brushed with golden egg…

This is a book all about getting through hard times by doubling down on the things one can do. Make pastry. Cook a chicken. Survive an office job by packing nice things for lunch, and not eating them at your desk, but going outside, finding a bit of a park, with a bench, and unwrapping a potato you baked in the morning that is still a bit warm, cracking it open to slip in a pat of butter, and eating it as small birds also survive the city in your bit of a park.

The recipes are my favorite kind — delicious and unfussy, certainly NOT cheffy restaurant recipes. There’s a chili-lemon pasta for days when hope is waning, a simple cookie (that probably needs a wee bit more flour at my altitude, but was quick and delicious nonetheless, and Himself is always happy to have chocolate chip cookies when he’s renovating a house). There’s a terrifying English pork pie, which she admits resulted in her entire kitchen being coated in molten lard in the middle of the night, and a lot of soups, with buttered toast, that she claims are better eaten in bed (is it a sign of age that I’m HORRIFIED by this? Butter and crumbs in the sheets?)

Most of all though, it is a story about love. Her love for the Tall Man, who she met at 17, moved in with at 19, and lost way too early to cancer in her mid twenties. The book is suffused with their love, and not in a soppy way, but with the realistic glow of knowing that you once found your person, and he found you, and you built a life together as broke broke young people. They built the kind of found family that so many of us have done — a family built on dinners cooked and shared in their tiny flat, with too much wine, and dishes dumped in the sink for later, and everyone crowded into the sofa to watch bad movies late into the night.

It’s an extraordinary book. I think it might not be available in the US yet, but I got my copy on –where frankly, I buy most of my books these days.