Climate Change is Here: Yellowstone River Closure

Climate Change is Here: Yellowstone River Closure

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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

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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.

When the Fruit Comes to Town, We Make Jam

When the Fruit Comes to Town, We Make Jam

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I’ve been waiting and waiting for “the Utah Fruit Guys”  to come to town, and Wednesday evening, there they were at the Farmer’s Market. I did my graduate work at UC Davis, and the University of Utah, both of which are located in the midst of serious orchard country — and it ruined me for grocery-store stone fruit. So I wait. Every year, I wait and wait for the Utah guys, or sometimes we really luck out and get a truckload up from Colorado’s western slope — but we wait for real fruit.

And then we make jam. I was out of raspberry jam so I was thrilled to find beautiful flats at the market on Wednesday. In general, I don’t really believe in buying fruit to make jam — for me, it’s always been about being creative, and using up the excess from my yard, but I make a runny raspberry jam that I particularly like, and I was out of it, and so I spent what seemed to me a small fortune on a flat of nice raspberries.

So here’s the the other thing about the fruit coming to town, raspberries don’t last. It was Wednesday, right in the middle of the week, and the job-I-haven’t-quite-stopped-working-at-yet has been really busy. So I washed and weighed the raspberries (after a gentle spin in the salad spinner), and put them in a container with about 1/3 the sugar I was planning to use for jam. I like a runny jam, one that can be used as a topping for ice cream, or as a filling for cake, so I use 3/4 of the weight of the fruit instead of a 1:1 ratio. I gently shook the sugar into the fruit, and left it to macerate overnight — it’s a trick I picked up from Marisa McClellan at Food in Jars. It bought me some time, since I didn’t want to refrigerate the fruit, which spoils the flavor, but raspberries will go moldy in a flat second so I didn’t want to leave them out overnight.

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It wasn’t until late the following afternoon that I had a free minute to cook them up, and as it was my first batch of jam for the year, I had to give my Beautiful French Jam Pot a little scrub, as well as wash up a flat of brand-new half-pint wide-mouth jars. I threw the jars in the oven at 225 to sterilize, added the rest of the sugar to the berries, and set them over a low flame to start cooking down. A couple of podcasts later, the fruit had gone shiny and thick, and it was ready to jar up.

Here’s the thing about making stuff, when you’ve been doing it a while, it’s not such a big deal. You get better at it. I’m still amazed when I run into people who think it’s magic, this ordinary preservation of delicious ingredients in season. I put up 11 half-pints and one leftover pint (in the fridge) during an afternoon when I was also fielding emails, and handing off files, and it wasn’t a big deal. Except for the waiting part, the waiting for good fruit.

Ever since we lost our cherry trees two years ago, I’ve got one eye cocked for the End of Fruit. For years I took that grove of cherry trees down the block for granted, and even after the guys who owned the lot built a big building there, they told me of course I could still pick cherries, and that no, of COURSE they weren’t going to bulldoze that grove, their mother would kill them if they messed with her pie cherries. And then we had a killing frost — it went from 65F to -10F in less than 12 hours, and we didn’t know it until spring, but it killed every cherry tree in town. My beloved grove is gone, and I’m hoarding my last few jars of precious sour cherries. I know the East Coast lost their peach crop this year, and when it seemed our Fruit Guys were late, I started googling to see if there was any problem with the Colorado and Utah crops. Perhaps it’s the other reason I can, to preserve what we have, to shore up our stores against an uncertain future. At any rate, I’ve got enough raspberry jam for a year, and more peaches than I can eat fresh this week, so there will be more noodling around with fruit.

 

Theory of Minor Demons

Theory of Minor Demons

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Himself has a theory about minor demons — minor demons are what beset you when you are unduly annoyed by other people, usually other people who are just going about being the other people that they are, without any intention of bothering anyone.

The first time we encountered minor demons was years ago, when we were hiking in the Columbia Gorge on a trip to Portland, and we Could Not Get Away from these two chattery teenage girls on the trail. We’d hustle to get ahead and get some space between us, and they’d pick up their pace. We’d drop behind to let them get ahead, and they’d stop at a fork in the trail, chatting innocuously, but loudly, and loitering until we’d caught up with them again. Then they’d fall in, right behind us, chattering. On a trail. In the woods. Where we’d hiked to have a little peace and quiet. Could not shake them.

Minor Demons, Himself said after we finally managed to escape them, just as we re-entered the crowded trail from the waterfall, when it was too late and it didn’t matter anymore.

I had a week of Minor Demons. There have been too many people here in town — there was a big free concert on Main Street, a huge success, ten thousand people packed into three blocks having a great time and spending money in local businesses. I’m two blocks away, so starting mid-afternoon, my street filled up, there were crowds heading over, there were just people hanging around. It was fine, I told myself. People like this kind of thing. Its good for the town. And it was. I was on a deadline, and had to work, but people were happy, they liked it, they danced and sang along and had a great time.

But then, three days later, the PBR Bull Riding at the Rodeo Grounds across from Himself’s house. It was raining. I was still on a deadline and was working. I left here late and went over to his house and there was not a parking spot for blocks. It was raining, and I was tired, and I’d been working two jobs all day and I was Just Over It. Plus, there was loudspeaker announcing in that Gee-Shucks rodeo voice that is so annoying, and did I mention, even in my tiny new car, there was no where to park for blocks?

I came storming into Himself’s house In A State.

Minor Demons, he reminded me.

I hate crowds. It’s one reason I moved to Montana. There’s fewer than a million people in a state the size of most of the northeast. I am a short person and I get enormously claustrophobic in crowds and this summer, with the highest-ever visitor numbers to Yellowstone and through town, it has been A Trial. I like my nice quiet life that just hums along on its steady baseline of routine, and there have been too many people, and too much noise, and sirens and car wrecks and forest fires and crowds and by Saturday night I had just Had It.

And this is the minor demon part. Minor demons are things like this, things sent to test us. I don’t work in tourism, but most of my friends and fellow townspeople do. Tourism is great for our local economy, and is quickly becoming the major economic driver of the state. Which is great for things like pushing back against the two gold mines they want to build in the Paradise Valley, and perhaps might even help us save the grizzly bear after delisting.

I know all this. But Saturday night, when I was tired, and there were too many people, I lost my damn mind. Minor demons. They’re sent here to test us. I might not believe in big-G G-d anymore, but I certainly believe in minor demons. And Saturday night they got me.

We had a rare open night at Himself’s cabin last night, and one peaceful sleep, with no noise other than coyotes hunting bunnies in the willow thicket, went a long way toward quelling the minor demons.

Making Stuff: Dilly Beans

Making Stuff: Dilly Beans

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Enough talking about making, let’s get to work — it’s summer, and our Hutterite neighbors are filling the local grocery with their lovely green beans — so today it’s dilly beans. They’re so easy, and they’re a huge improvement on the sludgy canned green beans I grew up on (if you want to preserve plain beans for winter, I’d go with the blanch-and-freeze method. They stay much nicer than the pressure canned ones.)

So, I use Michael Symon’s pickling brine recipe from his Live to Cook. It’s dead simple — half and half vinegar to water, 2 tablespoons each salt and sugar for each 3 cups of liquid. Then aromatics. I’ve been doing a bunch of pickles lately, so I splurged on the half gallon jug of organic apple cider vinegar, but you can use any vinegar, including the plain white vinegar that you might also use for cleaning. It’s perfectly fine. Mix the water and vinegar in a pot, add the salt and sugar, and bring to a boil — these are cold-packed pickles, meaning you pack the vegetables in raw (cold) then cover with hot brine, and process in a water bath.

I’m fairly loose with my pickles — for dilly beans I sliced about a clove of garlic per jar into thin slices, added about half a teaspoon of dill seed, and a little bit of dried red pepper (off my ristra from last year’s garden peppers). I like a little heat in my dilly beans, but if that’s not your thing, leave it out.

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I did have one exciting moment – when I put this jar in the hot water bath, I heard it crack. This happens sometimes, and it’s nothing to panic about, but it can be a pain. I used my big flat Chinese spider strainer and a pair of tongs to scoop the broken jar out and into a bowl, then dumped the beans and aromatics into a new jar, added more brine, a new lid and ring, and back it went. Good as new.

Fifteen minutes in a water bath, cooled on the counter, and then into the pantry with the Persian Tarragon pickles and the Pickled Carrots I made last week. Because the light has changed, and even though we’re suffering in the bright heat of a Montana summer, when the wind blows and the humidity drops to less than the percentage that lumber yards use to kiln dry wood, that time of year when it feels like the whole world is going to burst into flame out here — but the light has changed, and we got a little rain last night, and you can tell that winter is coming. So time to put up the pickles …

How Routine is a Creative Practice

How Routine is a Creative Practice

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I’ve been walking this same two mile stretch of road every morning pretty much since Hank-dog came to live with me two years ago. It’s a quick drive out of town, and there’s usually no one else there, which is important. Despite having made most of my close friends upon moving here through our dogs, at this point, I don’t want to chat on my dog walk.  Also,  there aren’t many cars. Hank and I are still working on the concept that cars do not need to be herded (neither do runners, or bicyclists).  So for two years I’ve walked exactly the same stretch of road, and I’m the opposite of bored by it. It’s both the same, and different every day. The colors of the vegetation change in the creekbottom below the road. The sky is a different blue with different clouds every morning. The wildlife changes —  one morning it’s a hawk and a goldfinch, eyeing one another from two branches high in a cottonwood snag, another day it’s the kingfisher diving for minnows, and nearly every day the blue heron rises out of the creek on his enormous wings. Right now, the chokecherries are coming ripe, which means I’ve got an eye out for bears.

It’s not just the ever-changing details that keeps this walk crucial to my day — it’s actually the routine nature of our walk that opens up my head and activates both my powers of observation and creative thinking.  Because the structure of the walk is the same, the task doesn’t take up any head space, which allows my mind to wander in the best kind of way for that 40 minutes every morning. I’m not there to accomplish anything other than giving both Hank and myself a little exercise, and practicing Not Herding Inappropriate Things. And because I’ve deliberately chosen a road where I don’t usually run into people, it gives me a solid 40 minutes to talk to myself, usually in my head, but sometimes, yes, I find myself muttering out loud. This road has become the place where I think up ideas, where I outline essay and story structures, where I talk things over with myself. Sometimes I dictate into my phone — I’ve discovered that if I pull up a Google doc, I can dictate in the roughest of rough drafts, which as someone who loves editing, I’ve discovered is a great way to jump start a piece, or get myself unstuck.

I’m with Flaubert, who wrote: “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” It has always been the central project here at LivingSmall — to pay off the house, to bring my expenses down so I can afford to chance a freelance life, and to build for myself the kind of domestic routines that allow my brain the space to roam, to make things up, to imagine worlds in which all kinds of things can happen — and then to get those worlds down on the page.

For me, routine is the mental scaffolding that allows the work to get done. It’s not that I go dog walking in order to produce ideas, it’s that when I go for a dog walk, when I let my mind drift — when I look at a landscape both as deeply familiar as this one but which is, because it is a natural place, is also always in flux, different colors, different birds, sometimes the cattle are in the bottom, sometimes they’re up high — all this makes space for ideas to emerge.

Our culture has become so obsessed with productivity, so addicted to the drug of busyness, that we forget how crucial daydreaming is to our mental wellbeing. It’s difficult to advocate for taking a walk, for daydreaming, for carving out time to protect those routines that feed our creative processes, when we’re all struggling so hard just to make a living.

Figuring out what routines we need seems to me one of the biggest challenges of building a creative life. For one thing, it seems so precious and bourgeois — oh poor me my challenge is not to survive and put food on my table and make sure my kids have shoes but to figure out my perfect little artistic life —  but if we’re to get the work done, it’s one of the most important things we need to not only figure out, but to protect.

I’d love to hear from you all in the comments — what routines work for you? Do routines work for you, or are you the kind of creative who needs to shock your system once in a while? It’s been ages since we’ve had a commenting community here at Livingsmall, but it was always one of my favorite parts of blogging, and I hope that (if you’re out there), you’ll join in.

Building A Creative Life

Building A Creative Life

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For many years, I thought of my maker projects and my writing as separate. More than that, actually,  I got into a bad habit of thinking of them as oppositional — as if my making was only a kind of procrastination or evasion from writing. I felt guilty about it. As if spending time in my garden, or putting up a batch of jam, or making a shirt, or learning to knit socks was somehow betraying my “real” creative work, which was supposed to be writing novels and essays.

About a year ago I got really interested in the notion of creative practice. This is quite a common idea in the art world, but writers don’t tend to think in these terms — or at least not the writers I came up with. Process was fine, but the point was publication. Where you were published was frequently not as important as the fact of publication, especially when I was still in academia. And there was a hierarchy. “Little” magazines at the bottom, then real magazines — the ones who paid — and at the top, publishing a book. That I published a book with a commercial publisher was sort of a big deal back in the day. But as the years have stretched on, and I haven’t managed to finish another book manuscript, I’ve gone through many cycles of despair and reinvention, then gotten stuck and have done it all over again.

It was in those down times about a year ago when a manuscript I’d been struggling with had come apart, again, that I discovered a group of knitters in the UK who were building these really vibrant networks of creativity. They had podcasts and book projects and were starting their own lines of yarn and making patterns and researching the history of knitted textiles in the British Isles in ways that seemed enormously exciting. Kate Davies, for example, who writes these beautifully-researched books on Fair Isle knitting, or yoked sweaters or haps … books that include not only terrific patterns, but these essays about the history of these handicrafts, and the women who made them, and the economic conditions that helped turn these things into the luxury items of their days. Turns out that Kate has a PhD in 18th Century History, and an academic career cut short by a stroke she suffered in her early 30s. She reinvented herself entirely — took the thing she loved doing, and in exploring it deeply has built a truly creative life for herself, as well as a business. Felicity (Felix) Ford is another one I’ve been slightly obsessed by, because again, she has that combination of true enthusiasm and academic and artistic expression that just makes my heart sing. Also known as Knitsonik, Felix is a sound artist and knitwear designer who wrote the absolutely astonishing Knitsonik Stranded Colorwork Sourcebook which is my very favorite kind of how-to book. There are patterns, several really wonderful ones, but just as my most beloved cookbooks are a collection of recipes in service of teaching a person how to really cook — how to think about flavors, how to acquire the techniques needed to make those flavors and textures happen, how to set you free to truly cook on your own, Felix’s Knitsonik Stranded Colorwork Sourcebook is all about learning to really see, and then to translate what you see and love into patterns that can be knit into any number of garments.

I am not a particularly visually adept person. My mother is a talented visual artist who can draw and paint, but that’s never been my strong suit. And what I loved about Felix’s book is that it is rooted in place, which has always been the source from which my writing begins. The book is a workbook of sorts, leading the reader through several of Felix’s projects where she takes elements of the landscape that she loves — whether it be the brickwork of her hometown Reading, or an ancient stone wall, or the meandering highway over which she commuted to a University job — and rethinks them as colors and patterns that can be translated into the medium she loves, knitting. I was set on fire by this book. I was SO excited about the way it had me looking at colors, and patterns, and the contrast between colors and patterns — every morning for weeks. My morning dog walks took on a heightened sense of thrill as I tried to translate the shapes and colors of the mountain ranges, the sky, and my beloved creek bottom where we walk every morning with it’s willows and bullrushes and blue heron and cows. And while I’ve yet to knit anything from it, that it opened up my creative mind again, got me thinking and seeing and simply being excited about creating again — that was enough. (Although I do have plans for a very special pattern I want to develop using her methods.)

Felix has a terrific Knitsonic podcast, which seems to be on hiatus at the moment as she works on a project for the Dickens museum on Catherine Dickens, Charles’s long-suffering wife who he both divorced and erased late in life. And that podcast led me to a few others that also felt really inspirational — KnitBritish and A Playful Day in particular — podcasts that take on the big question of how do we build creative lives that will also support us? They’re women telling stories about making up their own lives, and interviewing others who have done the same — built creative businesses that not only support them, but feed their creative practices.

All this has been in my head this year as I’ve been planning my Great Leap into Freelancing. I have a stack of writing projects, and for the first time in decades, I’m sending things out. For ages every manuscript submission felt life-or-death to me, as if it was the Final Judgement on whether or not I was any good at this. Maybe its getting to that age where a woman famously doesn’t give a shit anymore what other people think, maybe it’s having a solid footing underneath me for the first time ever — a settled domestic life, a safe home — or maybe it’s just a very belated sense of confidence in my own talent, but sending things out no longer seems like such a big deal. The next challenge is going to be figuring out how to find paid work that isn’t so divorced from my creative life as that I’ve been doing these past fifteen years or so. It was a deliberate choice on my part — I wanted a job that didn’t creep into those creative parts of my brain because I thought it would compete. And perhaps I was right, or right for what I needed at the time. Now I’m in a different space, a space of really exciting creative brainstorming. The three things I love: making, wilderness, and writing are all right here — and my goal is to bring them into some sort of constellation that allows me to pay my bills while doing good work — work that brings creative energy into not only my world, but becomes an expression of that energy out into the universe. I have no idea how I’m going to accomplish this, but the challenge has me waking up mornings with a head full of plans, plans that it looks like I’ll have time now to start putting into place. It’s so exciting. Terrifying, but exciting.

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On Quitting my Day Job

On Quitting my Day Job

 

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I took the leap.

I gave notice at my day job.

It’s pretty terrifying. I have a few things in the pipeline, but it’s a big risk. I’ve got another month of steady work, then it’s me and my little freelance shingle, hoping I can make it work.

And this is the photo I’ve been looking at every time I get spooked. That’s my friend Dennis, who died last month. Denny was the first person outside of my family who truly saw me. We spent the summer after I graduated from high school leading canoe trips in the Boundary Waters and talking. It was one of those summers you hope for any young person you love — we were besotted with each other. We spent every waking moment together, and most of it we spent talking (no surprise to anyone who knows either of us). He was never my boyfriend — he was three years older than I am and had a girlfriend at college he was moving in with, and I was a very young 17 year old that way. But we loved one another. I have the letters he wrote me on birchbark to remind me. And then, years later, when I was suffocating in New York City, and flailing around trying to figure out what to do with myself and frightened I’d made a terrible mistake and had ruined my life, Denny came to the rescue again. He got me a job at the Nantahala Outdoor Center, and backed me up when my mother was furious I’d left a good job in New York City to go be a raft guide, and loaned me a boat so I could learn to really paddle. Denny was in love with Nancy by then, who he married, and had two gorgeous girls with, and just left behind.

Dennis lived every single day to the fullest. He was the most enthusiastic person I’ve ever known, and the most authentic. He spent a lifetime teaching wilderness EMT courses, and saving people’s lives. He and Nancy took their girls on an adventure of a childhood, living in an RV while they taught courses all over, from the Southeast, to Alaska, to Arizona and finally settling, in a real house, in Maine. That Denny could get a chronic illness, and then a very quick cancer and then die has shaken even me, the woman who has lost so many people I really love, to the core.

There is no time to waste.

And so, I’m jumping off the rock even though the timing is not ideal. Look at that photo. It’s cold in that photo. Denny’s jumping in even though it’s so cold there’s no leaves yet on the trees – that water is COLD — and yet, there he is, leaping into the river — for what, I’m not sure. To demonstrate something for a river rescue class, perhaps to actually rescue someone, perhaps because he’s Denny and he always jumped in.

The house is paid for. There are two half-written novels and a pile of essays that might, someday come back into a nonfiction book. There are environmental issues I want to write about and essays I’ve been dictating into my phone on morning dog walks about knitting and sewing and creativity. I went to a reading last week, and for the first time in fifteen years looked up and thought I’m ready to get back up on that stage.

I accomplished my goal at my day job. I paid off my PhD. I paid off my house. I have money in my retirement savings.

And now it’s time to leap.

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On Paying Off My Mortgage

On Paying Off My Mortgage

Livingsmall Goal # 1 Done! House is paid off!

On Friday, I wired the last payment on my house.

I own my own house. No one can make me move, ever again, if I don’t want to. For someone who went to six grammar schools and moved pretty much every 2 years until I was 35, this is huge.

This has been the primary goal of LivingSmall since day one. I moved to Montana because it’s beautiful of course, but primarily I moved here because I could buy an inexpensive house. A house I could afford to pay off.

I did my masters degree at UC Davis, where I applied in large part to study with Gary Snyder. I’m not a poet, but I figured if Gary was there, something cool must be going on. Gary’s biggest advice to us budding writers was not about poetry, or even about writing. “Find a cheap house,” he said. “Someplace you can pay off. If it’s cheap and you want to live there, there’s probably also other artists there.” That’s what he did all those decades ago on the Yuba Ridge, and what I was looking for in Livingston was something similar.

So that’s what I did. I came up here in 2002, seeking a cheap house, and a found one in a town full of artists, and writers, and musicians, and fishing guides, and electricians and carpenters and schoolteachers.

I built a garden, and fixed things up bit by bit. I paid cash for everything I did on the house and while I’ll need a new roof next year, and I have to repaint some things, and while there are always things I want to do in the garden, I own my house, free and clear.

In the process I built a life. A life that as some of you who have followed me a long time know, was nearly derailed entirely the first year I was here. As I tell people when the story comes up, if you’re going to have a disaster, have it in Livingston. Everyone came. My kitchen filled up with people that first night, and they’re all still here. I’m still here. We are all here together. We’ve seen one another through other disasters. We’ve all brought food to the Elks club for funeral parties, but we’ve celebrated kids birthdays, and book launches, and year after year of rodeo parades.

It was not a mistake, my project of living small. There’s more big news to come, but for now, I’m going to take a moment in my back garden, where the beans are shooting above the trellis, where the sunflowers and hollyhocks are blooming great shoots of color into the sky, where the chickens I just deloused are clucking around in their coop while I wait for Himself to come home for dinner and a Red Sox game on TV. It is not the life I thought I wanted, but it is a better life than I ever could have envisioned.

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