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Author: cmf

I'm a writer and editor based in Livingston, Montana. I moved to Livingston from the San Francisco Bay area in 2002 in search of affordable housing and a small community with a vibrant arts community. I found both. LivingSmall details my experience buying and renovating a house, building a garden, becoming a part of this community. It also chronicles my efforts to rebuild my life after the sudden death of my younger brother, and closest companion, Patrick in a car wreck.
Twenty Years

Twenty Years

Single-story yellow house with bushes and a white picket fence.

I realized earlier this week that if it’s August 2022, then it’s 20 years since I managed to fool the bank into lending me money to buy this house.

I never thought I’d have a house. Houses were what my parents lost. Once the baby got sick and they split up, once Dad went bankrupt the first time, then it was a steady slide down the economic ladder. First to go was the fifteen acre horse farm, then the house in Lake Forest, then the condo in Madison, then even after we moved in with Dad it was one house, then a smaller house, then a series of apartments in Chicago until finally he fled to Prague and was gone. There was no home. We were always moving out of one place we couldn’t afford and into another, smaller, more precarious one.

By the time I finished my PhD and moved to California to live with my surviving brother Patrick, we were both in our 30s, both still reeling from the chaos of our childhoods, but we were both determined to figure out why we were having such a hard time getting launched in life. And so we teamed up, with that as our goal, and after rooming together for four years, we felt like we’d made huge progress. We figured out how to live in a house with someone you love. We figured out how to discuss things that needed discussing without waiting until there was a crisis, then screaming and crying and throwing accusations around. We hosted holidays. We paid our bills. We each made real progress in our careers.

But I wanted a house. I wanted a house the way other women my age wanted babies. There’s an image from my childhood, one of those summer weeks we’d been sent to our grandmother’s farm, and it was hot out, and she’d sent us off to play in the barn. I came in to get something, and found her upstairs in the library at the top of the landing, in a chair, with her shoes kicked off and her feet on a little footstool, reading a book. It was probably a mystery novel. She loved them.

It seemed like the ultimate luxury. Your own house, where you could, if you wanted, go sit in a chair by a window and read a book in the middle of the afternoon. By yourself. It lodged in my head as the thing I wanted above all others. A place of my own, where I could put up bookshelves, and start a garden, and read a book in the middle of the afternoon.

It was pretty wrenching to leave Patrick to move here, especially when he lost his job 2 weeks before I moved. And while I was a little bit conflicted when he wound up here, once I got him out of my basement and into his own apartment, it was ideal. I loved him. He loved me. It was time to split up if we ever wanted a chance of meeting actual romantic partners, but I was so relieved to have him around. For one thing, he was way more social than I am, and so I could draft along behind as he made friends all over town. I always had someone to meet up with at Happy Hour. We settled into a routine – he’d come walk the dogs in the morning, then we’d have coffee, and most afternoons we’d meet up for a drink on the porch. We did dinner together a few times a week.

If it’s been 20 years since I moved here then it’s 19 years this fall that Patrick died, driving drunk, late one night after an Art Walk, when he was coming out of a bad depressive episode. His death is the defining event of my adult life, no matter how much I wanted to believe that it was something I could get over. You get used to it. You move forward. But it’s always there.

I bought this house myself. There was no family help to be had. This is the house my little novel bought. I got a second job as a visiting writer at St. Mary’s college, and put that money aside. Livingston wasn’t chic yet, and I found this house, put 5% down, put a new roof on so the bank would give me a mortgage, rewired it, and took what felt like a gigantic risk putting the moving truck money on my credit card. I got here with my noisy calico cat, and spent three days sleeping on an air mattress in my empty house, sure someone was going to burst in and tell me to get out! what was I doing here! go!

No one threw me out, and I dug in, and built a home. I have bookshelves. I have actual furniture (I didn’t have a bed that wasn’t on the floor until my very late 30s, so this too feels like a real accomplishment). I have a lovely garden shed room where I write, and yes, have a comfy chair with a footrest where I can read a book any time I want to (well, I also have a full time day job). I have a garden, and a dog and two cats and at the moment, two chickens. I have a lovely man to share my life with, and a pack of children who are subject to my very active Auntie-ing. I have a community here, even if pandemic and my own dislike of small talk means we haven’t seen as much of one another the past couple of years as we might have liked.

I did it. I built the life I wanted. How many of us get to say that?

That it’s been twenty years seems weird to me. Maybe it’s the garden, maybe it’s the cabin and living with someone who is very much a creature of the seasons, but it all just seems like the same time. Circular more than linear. Milestones come back around, and we pass them one more time. Here I am again, starting seeds, harvesting tomatoes, putting up plum jam. It’s a good life on my tiny plot in the middle of town.

My house is the center of a set of concentric circles. The house, the garden, the town — the Paradise Valley, the Absaroka range, the Gallatin range, Emigrant peak at the base of which is the cabin Himself built, and where we spend so much time in winter.

I’m not a lifestyle writer, and I’m deeply suspicious of the internet genre where well off white people show off their houses/gardens/cooking in a way that implies that everything is basically okay. We’re in the early stages of a catastrophic planetary climate change, with the political and economic chaos that comes along with that. Previously unimaginable floods, fires and droughts are reconfiguring where and how we live. Pandemics are going to continue. Hot and cold wars are exacerbating the effects of these unnatural disasters. And people in power are using all of this to convince us all to fear The Other. There have been a few small glimmers of political hope in recent weeks, but as for all those calls to “go back to normal” that’s impossible. There is no more normal. Normal is a country none of us live in any longer.

However, I think it behooves us all to carve out our little place, whether it’s a physical space or a place within our artistic and literary and online communities. For me, having a tiny spot where I can live on the earth, with my hands in the dirt, is probably what has saved me. But I’m lucky that my patch of dirt is embedded in this community of people, folks I know I can rely on because I’ve seen \ over and over again, how everyone rallies when there’s trouble. There was my disaster when people walked into my house that first night, refused to leave me on my own, and stayed for years. We’ve done it over and over again for so many here. Twenty years means I’ve cooked for ailing elders, for funerals, and have made the frosting for so many little-kid birthday cakes. I’m not as good as I should be about showing up for readings, but that we have so many is a blessing. And when that big flood hit this spring, the neighbors all gathered on the street to make a plan, and pitched in afterwards to help out those who’d lost their houses and their businesses.

I love my house more than is probably seemly. I’m trying to push back against the creeping agoraphobia that is a family trait, especially in older family members, because I know that as much as I love my house, and as happy as I am within these walls and this garden, if anything’s going to see us through this disaster that’s unfolding, it’s mutual aid, it’s community. What turned this building into a home is not the decor, it’s not paying off the mortgage, it’s not even the garden — it’s the people and the animals and the landscapes in which this house is situated. That’s what makes it my center, the place that grounds me at the bullseye of all those concentric circles. It’s not the building it’s the relationships, relationships with plants, and with animals, and with my fellow travelers in this odd little corner of the world.

May we all be so lucky. May we all find ourselves homes.

Flood

Flood

Just before the really big water hit …

You might have heard, we had a flood. 

We’re fine

Our houses weren’t even close to being touched by floodwaters, but I am once again grateful for Geology 101, the course for non-majors at Beloit College, where Prof. Stenstrom drilled into our heads that we should be geologically aware when buying a house. My front yard is 4 feet above the sidewalk, with a concrete retaining wall, and the alley drops off steeply about 2 houses down hill from me. Even if the levee hadn’t held, I’d probably have been fine. 

However, others were not so lucky. Our neighbors on the east end of town were inundated. The water came up so fast and high that it submerged the highway at Yankee Jim canyon, a place where the river is usually 50 feet below the roadway. A large building that housed multiple Yellowstone National Park employee families washed away, after the river ate a full 90 feet of frontage in just a couple of hours. And our neighbors over in Red Lodge suffered catastrophic losses at 2 in the morning. Their whole town is ruined.

For decades now, I’ve been telling people that if you’re going to have a disaster, Montana is a good place to do it, because people not only pitch in, but they have skills. There have been brigades of folks helping the flooded — doing the dirty work of pulling out soggy carpets and floorboards and drywall. As the waters were coming up, the road crew working in the canyon just south of town, which floods even on a non-catastrophic year, were bringing in loads of gravel and volunteering their heavy equipment to help berm people’s houses. 

The water still came up. The last major floods were in 1997, when the river topped out at 37,500 cfs. This year it hit 60,000. Damage was done. The two northern entrances to the Park are going to be closed for at least this season, if not for next. This will have devastating consequences for the people who live here. I’m not sure how everyone will survive.

What has struck me from people who don’t live here, is the impatience. The morning after the flood, there were tourists in Gardiner calling in helicopter services, not even willing to wait to see if the waters would go down, to see what the road would look like. As it turned out, they were able to drive out about mid day. We’ve had folks who have reservations at our vacation cabin calling and emailing Himself, wanting to know what the situation is, if the Park will re-open. He keeps telling them we don’t know yet, we’re still in the middle of the crisis. However, he does keep reminding people, there is plenty to do in the Paradise Valley, and you don’t have to sit in a traffic jam all day to do it. 

When is it going back to normal, they keep asking. We’ve been in this endless loop for the past year, since the vaccines came in, this endless loop of pressure to “return to normal.” There’s all this social and media pressure to return the world to what it was like before the pandemic, to the globalized, superheated economy, to a world where workers were “happy” to commute to soulless office parks every day, where Starbucks workers weren’t unionizing, where everyone pretended we don’t know what the working conditions inside Amazon warehouses are like. Where you can fly across the world on a whim for vacations, where entire industries exist to give you a neatly-packaged consumer experience of “going to XYZ.” 

Until there’s a flood, and the road washes out, and your sacred itinerary might be thrown off because the world still exists. The physical world in which, astonishing as it is, a canyon can flood so deep that the road is submerged and you can’t get out. People panicked. They couldn’t even wait in a safe place with food and water and a community who rallied to take care of them, they couldn’t even wait 24 hours to see how the situation was going to play out. They were frightened and offended that the actual physical world was impeding their sacred right to a vacation. 

And like those tourists who didn’t want to admit that the road was flooded, that the actual world had intruded on the experience they thought they should be having, so too with the rest of us. There is no more “normal.”  If the pandemic has shown us anything, it’s how fragile our house of cards is. Viruses, wildfires, tornadoes, floods, a planet where we currently have more C02 in the atmosphere than in any moment in recorded history. We can’t “the economy” our way out of this one. 

If we’re smart, we’ll start inventing new normals. New economies.

Normals that normalize not commuting, that normalize distributed systems of work and energy and leisure. With any luck, we’ll start inventing new models where “economics” and particularly the economics of neoliberalism, are no longer the prime value. I’m beyond exhausted by politicians and talking heads (and “libertarian” dudebros on Twitter, although I mostly have them blocked) nattering on about “the economy” as though it’s the only value that counts. 

One thing that’s been striking and inspirational to me about the Ukrainian refusal to bow to Russia’s invasion is how the entire narrative of that war has kept the focus on life.  Human life, animal life, the life of their fertile farmlands, the life of vibrant cities. None of it has been couched in the language of money and “the economy” and what it’s cost Ukranians to have large sections of their country bombed into smithereens. The cost has been dead children. Dead people. Dead animals. That they have not allowed themselves to become inured to the assault on life itself.

The circumstances are utterly different here, although we did see the Montana response we rely on. Everyone helped out. My neighbors and I were outside making a plan at 10:30 at night, when the police were telling us to evacuate. They have little kids, who were asleep. We’re all up on this little bench. “Bang on my door in the night if you need to,” I said. “We’ll go across town to my friend Nina’s house. It’s empty, and she’s got 5 kids, so there’s plenty of beds.” Word got out that the river was slopping over the top of the levee and people showed up with flatbed trucks full of sandbags and warm bodies to keep passing them along, piling them up against the unbelievable force of the Yellowstone river, running at THREE TIMES the normal flood level. They kept it from breaching. Word got out that the animal shelter was flooding, and the swift water rescue guys got in there, rescued all the animals, and people found them temporary lodging. And the next morning, crews of volunteers arrived to strip out wet carpets, crowbar soggy drywall, and start making a plan to rebuild. 

I moved here 20 years ago for a number of reasons, but among them was climate change. I wanted to be someplace where people have skills, and where they come together in a crisis. That’s what we saw this week. I just hope we can be smart enough to take the right lessons from all of this. That what’s important is life. That what’s important is community, and cooperation, and making sure our neighbors are okay. 

Into the Dark

Into the Dark

Distribution box after the ditch is turned off.

This stretch of ditch I’ve been walking the past few years is empty now. The headgate was turned off in late summer, and the water went down slowly, but surely, until now it’s dry stone and snow.

But there’s water in the distribution box. I normally stop there at the end of our dog walk, say the Heart Sutra, and look down the ditch to the Absaroka-Beartooth range rising in front of us. Some days I have to try to muster up some hope, other days, it’s all so beautiful I can’t believe I live here. Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.

As the water receded, I started to see fish in there. Some mornings I’d lean over to peer into the darkness and the whole surface went ashimmer with tiny minnows. Other days it was big fish, ten or twelve inches long, lurking in the darkness. Knowing there were fish in there comforted me somehow.

A couple of weeks back, Hank found a small dead buck in the ditch. Hard to tell whether it was hit on the highway and managed to get this far on adrenaline, or whether coyotes took it down, since most of it’s hind end had been eaten. It had a nice little rack on it, so I took a picture and sent it to Himself. About ten minutes later, I got a call. “Where is it?” he asked. He came by on his way back into town and cut the antlers off. It’s not quite horn season yet, that is, the deer and elk are not yet dropping their antlers as they do every year, but he’s been watching the bull elk up on Emigrant through his telescope, keeping an eye on “his” bulls, hoping to get the antlers when they drop. All spring he walks the back country between his cabin and Yellowstone park, stalking the elk, looking for antlers. You can sell them, but mostly it’s the finding them that’s the point.

In the morning, over coffee, I watch him scan the mountain for elk through the spotting scope. We like just watching animals being animals. And then once in a while, if we’re lucky, he’ll spot a wolf. I worry about them this year, since our right wing state legislature declared open season on wolves. They’ve made it legal for folks to shoot 10 wolves AND to trap 10 more. So far, 15 Yellowstone wolves have been killed just outside the park by folks people who set out bait, and snare traps, or wait with lights and guns ready. Himself gave me a set of cable cutters for Christmas, because of the snare traps. You can maybe get a dog out of a leg trap if you keep your wits about you, but there’s no release mechanism on a snare. So now I get to dog walk with a heavy cable cutter in my pocket, and hope for the best. For my dog and for the wolves.

Like so many other incomprehensible things this year, it feels like all I can do is to try to protect myself and those I love.

Maybe that’s why as the year ticks over, I keep thinking about the distribution box. It’s frozen now, and we’re into the season where trying to walk out there at all depends on how bad the winds are. We’ve had a couple of weeks of 40-60mph winds/gusts, and even bundled up in a lot of wool and down, that’s a brutal dog walk. But tucked up in my house in town, with the wood stove going, and the cats and dog asleep around me as I write, I keep thinking about that square hole. I’m notoriously bad at estimating distances and volumes, but my guess is it’s six to eight feet deep where it emerges from the underground pipe. Even cold as it’s been, I don’t know that it would freeze to the bottom. If you’re burying pipes around here, they need to be six feet deep to be below the frost line, so I like to think there’s some water down there in the bottom. There would be protected water up in the pipe as well, and some air that’s insulated in there too. I like to think there’s just enough cover, and just enough algae and insect larvae in there so those fish can overwinter. I like to think of fish down there, their metabolisms and heart rates slowed down, hunkered at the bottom of this odd square hole, waiting for spring.

We’d hoped to do Christmas this year, all together at Nina and Elwood’s house like we have done for years now, since the twins were born. They just turned 17. We spent a lot of last week sending college essay drafts back and forth across town through the intertubes. But Covid hit again. The 21 year old and I didn’t get to cook together because she tested positive while visiting her boyfriend in Canada. She’s still there. You don’t need the rundown of how crazy it all is. If you’re reading my newsletter, you know. Covid is running rampant again, the suburbs of Denver are burning up in late December, and as I’m writing this, the new breaks that national treasure Betty White has died. Everything is still a lot out there.

And so I’m thinking of that square black hole in the middle of the Paradise Valley with a few fish lurking inside it, protected by concrete and ice, by six feet of earth on top of a corruguted iron pipe set into the hillside to prevent erosion.

I’m thinking of my house, and my woodstove, and my garden and my sense twenty years ago that I needed to find a bolt hole, needed to find a place I could pay off, a place I could grow food, a place I might hope to be safe. And I am. We’re fine. We have one another and enough firewood to get through the winter. We have so much food in this house, because when I get scared I buy more dry pasta, and beans, and rice, and olive oil.

Winter is upon us, the New Year is about to tick over, and for me at least, this time of year is when I dig in and use the darkness to read and to write, when I make soup and order seeds, when I sleep a lot, knowing that summer is coming, with long days when the sun doesn’t set until after nine. I have no idea what’s to come as we all sail into another year of climate crisis and pandemic, civil unrest and wildfires, but like the fish in that square hole out there in the middle of the valley, I’m going to duck and cover, muster my resources, and hope we all get through another winter.

Thanks to all of you for reading this year, and may we all be well in 2022.

Out There

Out There

Himself, watching big waves

I know, it’s been a minute.

In part it’s because I got headhunted for a new job — I’m back in the corporate fold, with nice people and a real salary and actual benefits again. But it’s also Been A Lot. Learning new things, meeting new people, getting my feet underneath me. So here we are. There was a lull.

The other thing that happened is that we went on a small exploratory trip to the West Coast. It was so hot and dry all summer that I was jonesing for the ocean. Which is amusing since I am terrified of the ocean and all its inhabitants. But I do love big crashing waves, and cold rain and moody grey skies. All of which we got. We arrived just in time for the first “atmospheric river” storm, and it was very dramatic. There were waves sending spray 30 feet into the air, vistas where all you could see was miles of giant white swells heading toward shore, and rain. Lots of rain. Soft rain. Driving rain. Everything in between.

I drove out first and had a little visit with my stepmother in Seattle and then Himself flew out to meet me. We took the ferry over to Bainbridge, then drove the Olympic peninsula. We stopped for a minute in Port Townsend, and had a nice walk at Ft. Worden, but we weren’t that interested in a bougie arty town full of retirees. That’s what Livingston is turning into, much to our sorrow, and one of the reasons we were on this trip was to see if there’s anyplace out there that seems promising. We spent the night in Port Angeles which was more our speed — slightly run down, with pretty buildings, but once you get out of the historic district it gets bleak pretty fast. It reminded me of the minor Rust Belt towns where I went to college in the 80s. It was one thing in town, but there was another kind of bleak out in the strange countryside of the Olympic peninsula. It’s slash and burn country out there. Anything that isn’t explicitly protected by the National Park has been logged hard, then replanted as monoculture plantation. We’d pass an unnecessarily brutal clear cut, where the mountainside was just a mess of slash piles left behind, only to turn a corner and drive down corridors of uniform plantation pine for miles.

And then you’d come around a bend, or drop down into a river valley and the whole forest would open up. “The real forest” we took to calling it. It’s open, and while there are giant trees, they’re not all the same, and there are epiphytes growing up in the canopy and tree ferns bigger than we are growing on the forest floor. It’s breathtakingly beautiful, and heartbreaking in that it only exists in these scattered pieces, pieces in which you can feel the pressure from out there, the pressure from those who are jonesing to cut it, to cut the last bits of it, to cut it all. The drumbeat of rapacious, extractive capitalism is strong on western coast of Washington state.

And then there’s the Trumpism. You’d come out of the Real Forest, into a stretch of plantation pine, you’d come around a bend and there would be a little settlement, homesteads with trailers and old vehicles and junk that had just exploded across the property. There’s nothing wrong with living in a trailer, and Himself is famous for collecting Useful Bits and Old Things. That wasn’t what we were seeing. We were seeing the fury of failure out there. Trailers with a leaking roof no one had bothered to fix, that had a tarp thrown up on top, and no one even had the energy or drive to keep the tarp on the leaking part of the roof. And all of it, festooned with Trump signs and flags and messaging. In that really manic, crazy way that it seems the worst, least competent, most angry white people in America are currently manifesting. It was not good.

Since we’ve been back I’ve been reading Amitav Ghosh’s new book, The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis. I’ve been banging on about The Great Derangement since it came out in 2016. When I was in grad school at Davis, Elizabeth Tallent was telling us about a story the New Yorker had rejected, a story that had a miscarriage at it’s heart, but one that happened off stage. The male editor had returned the story because “nothing happened.” He’d been blind to the nothing that had happened. “Who decides what a story is,” Elizabeth challenged us. “Who decides what stories matter?” One of the things I struggled with for years in fiction was trying to figure out how to tell the collective story, the story of a group or community. I think of To the Lighthouse when I think of this kind of story, a story where the actions and perceptions and feelings of the entire group are really the subject. Where every perception pings off another character and changes things, even slightly, for everyone. What I loved about The Great Derangement was how Ghosh took on the core trope of the Western novel, the Hero’s journey, the story of a single protagonist, and demonstrated how this is an explicitly Western trope. And that it’s part of the same story of the white man triumphing over “brute nature” that lies at the heart of the extractive capitalist mindset that has led us to our current fix. He’s written several wonderful novels about how capitalism played out in Asia, how it impacted those communities, how some people got rich and some got run over. I love those books in part because the perspective is so different.

The Nutmeg’s Curse feels like a natural extension to The Great Derangement. Ghosh begins with the disaster that befell the Banda Islands when the Dutch East India Company discovered they were where nutmegs came from — nutmeg, a spice that until then was rare, and expensive, and traded through a number of hands, traveling by sea and by land from Banda through Asia and finally to Venice, where spice traders had controlled it’s high price for centuries. It was not yet a commodity. It was a lot of things, a spice, a rarity, a fetish object to show off your wealth. It was also not controlled by any single entity. It was a trade good.
Until the Dutch East India Company discovered that it originated in the Banda Islands, a small cluster of volcanic islands in Indonesia. They sailed out there, demanded a monopoly over the nutmeg trade, and when the Bandanese objected, they killed them all. 1621, just as the same thing was happening in the Americas. But what’s so compelling for me about Ghosh’s account (and also so compelling about his fiction) is the perspective. It’s an Asian perspective. This is not the story of Europeans “discovering” the world, this is the story of those who were already there, trading their valuable spice in any number of places, including throughout Asia. They weren’t “savages” — they were prosperous, rich even, and they had towns and ships and trade relations, they were embedded in an existing network. Ghosh writes from the perspective of a people who were not treated like trading partners, or even like human beings, but who were brutally subdued by the forces of European capitalism who murdered them, traded them as slaves, and commodified them the way they commodified the nutmeg.

Ghosh uses this story, and the Bandanese attitudes toward their volcanic homeland, to introduce the question of terrestrial sentience. What if the earth itself, is alive? What if the earth is a protagonist? How does that effect the way we think about the climate emergency we’re in, the ways that we’re all complicit in extractive capitalism and colonialism? Part of the thrill of the book for me, was seeing Ghosh pull together work from writers I’ve been reading a lot of the past ten years: Donna Haraway, Anna Tsing, Jason W. Moores, Bruno LaTour, Tim Morton, Robert Macfarlane. Jed Purdy … writers who are doing the work to show that these forces are not “natural” but are social constructions that allowed certain actors to seize power and resources and wealth and to continue to do so for the past five hundred years.

I had a classics professor at Beloit (who I’ve written about before), and John used to look at us, his classroom full of well-off middle class American kids, kids with prospects, and he’d say “You know, for five hundred years Antioch was the center of the known world. It was the trading center. It was the center of power. It seemed as though it had always been there and it would always continue to be there.” He’d pause, write Antioch on the board, then turn to us with that twinkle in his eye and wry smile and say “And now it’s just sand and ruins. It’s gone. Sub specie aeternitatus.”

I also think of Ursula LeGuin’s great last speech when they gave her the National Book Foundation Medal. “We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable — but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art.”

One of the things that has been so upsetting these past couple of years about what’s happened to our home, is that it’s been commodified. It’s being wrapped up and packaged and sold as the answer to any number of dreams: the dream of living in a wild place, the dream of living among artists, the dream of living in “small town America” complete with God Guns and Flags. There’s a lady across the street, who seems perfectly nice. She moved in over the pandemic, because her daughter and grandson were also living on this block. The daughter is selling, and I expect she’ll be gone again soon. They didn’t move here, to Livingston. They moved to “an arty western town.” They moved to “Montana.” I’ve spent a lot of the pandemic looking at inexpensive houses in the French countryside, dreaming of living out my final decades in a place without Trumpsters, with good bread and cheap wine, in a language I’m not entirely fluent in so I can’t be as bummed out by the inevitable right-wing prejudices of my neighbors, the ones I’ve displaced by buying a “vacation home.” It’s the same thing, really, the dream that there’s someplace “out there” where everything will be better. It’s the central dream of America, and especially the American West. It’s how I got here in my 20s.

So we both felt a little weird about heading out to see if there might be another place. We actually didn’t really admit to ourselves we were doing that — it’s just a vacation, we told ourselves. And yet, every town we drove through, we kept an eye out. Could this be a place? And as we passed from the hostile degradation of the logging lands of the Olympic peninsula down through the tourist zone of the Oregon coast, a place that was spectacularly beautiful but also warped by the idea that it’s a location whose value lies in scenery and pleasure (see also all the tourist economies I’ve lived in in the West since I came out here in my 20s), it became clear that no, there isn’t another place, at least not there. It was all just different manifestations of the same problem we’re dealing with here.

Which I suppose is why the Ghosh struck me so deeply when I came home. We all keep asking: where would we go? And despite the robber barons who are buying up ranches and building bunkers, the answer is that there really isn’t anyplace to go. We’re in the places we are. Its one thing that’s so unsettling about this emergency we’re in. It’s everywhere. It’s the arctic on fire and tornadoes ripping up the Ohio river valley and a global virus.

And so, we came home. Neither of us grew up here, but after decades, this has become home. We have a community, even if it’s fraying, and our older community members are dying. We have bits of land in which we are deeply invested. Himself has been walking the public lands of the lower Paradise Valley for nearly 30 years now, hunting horns in the spring. Where are we going to go where we have that kind of connection to a place?

And yes, I realize we’re colonizers on this land. Land that belonged to the indigenous peoples and which was absolutely stolen from them. If we’re lucky, we might sneak through to the end of our days without the new rich stealing ours from us via that age-old practice of raising property taxes until holdouts have no choice but to sell. “Freeing up” property, they call it. We may get fucked. I mean, we’re all going to be fucked in the next few decades, especially since it’s now abundantly clear that a very large proportion of the American public has no intention of changing anything in their lives. I don’t have any great hopes for this next transition to go well, nor do I think we’re necessarily safe in our corner, with our friends, and our little patch of land.

But I think that for now, the answer for us is not out there.

Return

Return

Irrigation ditch with trees and fog

The weather finally broke. Yesterday was all clouds and soft showers. Today is the same. We had a couple of small frosts in September, but for the most part, it was more fire weather. Hot dry days and wind. So dry that watering doesn’t really work anymore. The last few weeks, I’ve just been survival watering. Trying to keep new plants alive, trying to keep trees from dying. You can feel the water evaporating as it comes out of the hose, puddling up on ground that’s gone hard as clay.

According to the local paper, we’ve had 8.36 inches of rain this year. Normal is about 11 inches. Neither of those is enough, which is why our agriculture, and our gardens, rely on irrigation. The ditch above probably has a day or two of water left in it, it’s been going down steadily the last few days. I’m pretty sure it’s been turned off at the headgate. The Yellowstone is all gravel bars, lower than I’ve ever seen it this time of year.

Despite being ready for it all just to end, being impatient for snow, an impatience along the lines of “burn it all down” but in this case “freeze it all” — despite that, my nasturtiums came in so late, the weeks of 100 degree temps put them in suspended animation for most of June and July, just little 2 leaf sprouts, neither dying nor growing — they came in so late that I wanted to draw them out, revel in the their perfect green and gold and orange and deep red. So I got out the old sheets, the long white frost tarps, and swaddled the nasturtiums, the cosmos, the last of the tomatoes. Monday we’re due for snow, so I expect this weekend I’ll be pulling the tender annuals, piling them in the compost, shovelling chicken-litter-straw into the raised beds to protect them for winter, to add organic matter to the soil.

It feels a little tiny bit like some of the pressure of the summer is lifting. We still have the worst COVID infection rates in the nation, but folks seem to be back in masks in the store. The worst of the tourists seem to have dispersed, and the traffic to my morning dog walk is not fraught with so many people passing multiple vehicles at one time. The hunters will be here soon, but we’re in that brief moment between seasons, when we stack wood, and I put up preserves, and we get ready for what should be six or seven months of snow and cold weather.

You can feel it sometimes, when the pent-up energy starts to break. I got headhunted for what looks to be a really great new job, with people who have been so welcoming and nice that even someone as skittish about corporate life as I am is feeling hopeful. Himself sold a house he bought 20 years ago and has rented long term ever since — it was his version of saving for retirement, and so now there’s a little cushion, which is making us both breathe easier. And we’ve got a tiny vacation coming up — a few days drive around the Olympic peninsula, down the Oregon coast. I’m not an ocean person, but I’ve been desperate for cold and fog and big crashing waves.

And my book has a shape. I fought to write a piece for weeks this summer, before realizing I’d already written it, that I had it in a draft I’d discarded. Turns out it’s all pretty much there — a skeleton of a book, with 60K words, most of which need a rewrite, but now that I can see them, can see the shape of the thing, well, it’s another reason to look forward to winter.

All the big problems are still there, as the world as we know it cracks at the seams, but for the moment we have a little breather. I walked this morning, and while everything is still dry, there’s a lovely wet fog hanging in the grass. I came back with wet boots, and a wet dog. We have a moment to stack the wood, and dry the mushrooms, and stock the freezer and hope that the healing snows we need descend on us soon.

Mushrooms and the Soul

Mushrooms and the Soul

My cousin called last night from Telluride. “Remember that year you sent mushrooms to me in New York?” she asked. “That was so amazing, and I was so busy that year. We’re having the best mushroom season here in ages. Can I return the favor?” I told her yes, I’d love that. I said we’d finally got some rain, and I’m seeing social media pictures of mushrooms, but I’m working too much to get out in the middle of the week, and it’s too crowded on weekends. I’m under water on about six different fronts just now.

“What do you want?” she asked. “I have boletes and chanterelles …” I asked for mostly boletes, with some chanterelles, and then we caught up on our aging parents, her kids, her plans for fall, and all the other stuff that family catches up on. We don’t talk as often as we should these days, but there’s something so comforting about a conversation with someone you’ve known all your life, and in our case, we spent our twenties together in Taiwan and Telluride.

It got me thinking about the restorative power of a day spent hunting mushrooms, and since Culinate, who originally published this piece, are no longer around, here’s an older essay I wrote about how walking very slowly through the woods in search of mushrooms saved my health in grad school.

Big Bolete

The Walking Cure

About three years into my doctoral program, my health broke down. The low-grade fever I’d run for a couple of years — a fever I referred to as my Victorian Illness, for its lack of specificity and its ability to render me prone on my futon, propped up with a novel like some swooning maiden — finally blew up on me. My entire mouth erupted in canker sores.

Because the regular doctors at my Utah university’s clinic didn’t have any good treatment for either the canker sores or the Victorian Illness, I wound up in a traditional Chinese-medicine clinic in a strip mall. There, I was told that the problem was “damp heat” and “mental overstimulation.” I was told to rest, to eat broccoli and beets and brown rice, and to not eat sugar or coffee or garlic or spices.

I was also told to walk. Not on a treadmill in a gym, but outside, in nature.

Since I couldn’t concentrate enough to get any work done, I took this advice. It was early fall, just after the monsoonal rains had swept in across the desert and rescued us all from the crushing heat of summer, and some nearly forgotten part of me could feel that there were mushrooms growing out there. I remembered that someone in my department had said that she’d found boletes up in the Uinta Mountains on the Wyoming border. So I got out my map and found a small road out of Kamas that looked like it’d take me up to the top of the plateau. About 90 minutes later, I parked at the trailhead and — after stuffing my daypack with a mushroom book, a trail map, some water, and a sandwich — I got out and started to walk.

I wasn’t hiking, exactly. “Hiking” implies a more vigorous activity than I was up for. I was still exhausted. I still ran fevers on and off with some regularity. I didn’t have any energy, I couldn’t concentrate, and although the canker sores had mostly healed, I lived in a state of constant vigilance, terrified of a return of that painful eruption.

So when I got out of my car on that rainy Wednesday afternoon, I was really hoping that I wouldn’t run into a group of those cheery, athletic types Utah is so full of. I’d been outdoorsy in my 20s — leading canoe trips, working as a raft guide, ski bumming, rock climbing — and now I found myself, a decrepit 30-something in a 10-year-old jacket, stopping every 100 yards or so to rest.

But mushroom hunting rewards the slow and the halt. Mushroom hunting requires very slow hiking. It requires that you pay attention. It gives you a reason to creep through the woods, stooped over like the prematurely old woman you feel yourself to be. It also gives you a reason to just look at everything: roots, rocks, leaves.

And after a while, you start to see that what looked like a weird yellow leaf is actually a chanterelle. And then you notice the other chanterelles around it. And then you’re seeing mushrooms everywhere. One minute it’s a bare forest floor, the next it’s covered with mushrooms you couldn’t see before. It’s eerie. It makes you understand why there’s so much folklore linking mushrooms with fairies and magic.

When I began hunting that first year, I only really knew how to identify oyster mushrooms and chanterelles. I’d never found boletes before, but I’d read enough to know those were what I was really after. King boletes (Boletus edulis) are also known as cèpes, porcini, Steinpilzen, and, in England, as penny buns for their round, toasted-brown-bun appearance.

The key to the boletes is that, instead of gills, they have spongy-looking masses of tiny tubes on the undersides of their caps. This makes it exceedingly easy to tell if you’ve found a member of the genus. There are many boletes, including the slimy but wonderfully named Suillus tomentosus, but once you’ve found a real cèpe, it’s unmistakable. There’s just something about the heft of one — about the bulbous stalk, about the toasty color of the nice dry cap — that makes a king bolete memorable. And it does look as edible as a penny bun at a bakery.

I spent a day or two a week up in the Uintas that fall. My Chinese acupuncturist was right; getting out in nature and walking started to cure my Victorian Illness. True to form, I felt like a character out of one of those books, like Mary in The Secret Garden, who was cured of her sickliness by fresh air and everyday contact with the earth. The smell of the damp forest, the rain on my parka, and the clean air did the same for me.

By the time I got sick, I’d been locked in a small studio apartment for a couple of years, living almost exclusively inside my head. The irony was that I had holed up to write a novel that takes place entirely outdoors, in the mountains of California’s Desolation Wilderness area. At the same time, I was engaged on the academic front in a fierce battle with a number of literary, ecological, and religious theories. My brain had been spinning like a gyroscope for months.

Getting out of town, getting in my car and driving for an hour and a half up to the top of that plateau, getting out into the actual physical world — a world of smell and taste and touch — did me as much good as anything could have. Mushroom hunting was both meditative and active; I got some very moderate exercise, and I was forced to pay close attention to something other than words on a page.

Mushroom hunting brought me back to my body and allowed me some mastery of that most basic of human skills: finding and preserving food. I’d come home from the mountains and my mushroom meditations would continue as I cleaned and trimmed and put up my bounty. While I stood at the sink, rinsing, trimming and cutting chanterelles into chunks, I had a chance to think about how the woods must have looked to my characters, who were searching a different terrain altogether, but who were nonetheless spending their days walking slowly through the woods looking for something, too.

I sautéed my harvest until all the liquid cooked off. It gave me a chance to just slow down and watch something cook, a chance to slow down and smell something delicious, a chance to slow down and know that I was going to have enough Ziploc bags of chanterelles in butter stashed in the freezer to see me through the long winter to come. The porcini I ate fresh or cut into slices and strung on thread in my kitchen to dry. My little studio apartment smelled all woodsy and mushroomy that fall as, slowly, my health returned and I managed to finish my doctorate.

Sometimes life tells you the hard way that you have to pay attention. Sometimes life rises up and smacks you in the mouth and reminds you that you need to learn to feed yourself, that you need to learn to feed your body and your soul and that you are a part of nature. For me, this was the lesson of the Victorian Illness: that my illness was a symptom of a life out of kilter. I healed myself by walking very slowly through the woods, looking for the delicious things that nature has provided for us. It’s a lesson I’ve carried with me, the questions I’ve asked as I’ve moved on to other places, other jobs, other homes: Will I be able to walk outside in nature every day? Is there a chance I’ll find a delicious surprise?

There’s always soup …

There’s always soup …

Bowl of soup, glass of tea, notebook

I made a little soup this week. Sautéed some onion and backyard garlic in a nice glug of olive oil. Added diced potato and carrot, salt, water to cover. Let them simmer until they were getting soft, then added local green beans, not mine, mine didn’t come in this year, but nice local green beans, cut into soup-spoon lengths. Let them cook until they were done. No crunchy green beans for me. Then some orzo added at the end. No stock, a splash of fish sauce was all it needed. Topped with the first few garden tomatoes, some basil, a little more olive oil, some parmesan. A piece of bread. Lunch.

Soup seemed to steady the existential wobble of these past weeks. Weeks when day after day temperatures have been in the 90s, pushing 100. Weeks when the sky has been white with wildfire smoke. We haven’t seen blue skies since June. However, it’s good to know that even when it’s apocalyptic outside, I can rustle up a delicious meal out of things that are in my house and garden. Which was, after all, one of the cornerstones of the project I started in this house all those years ago.

It’s what I do when I don’t know what to do. I make something. Often in the kitchen.

I learned to cook in the wake of my parents’ divorce. We moved to Madison when I was just starting 7th grade, to a condo in a development full of divorced moms and latchkey kids. After a couple of false starts, my mother, who never expected to have to work, found a job as a travel agent. So we’d come home from school, and would be on our own for a couple of hours. After a while, she started teaching me to get dinner started over the phone. I’d slice onions and put a pot roast in the covered aluminum roaster (that I still have, and still use for this) with a can of tomatoes, a can of beef broth, and a packet of French onion soup mix. How did we not die from the salt? In the oven it would go, and we’d head back out to play various strange and competitive kid games in the cul-de-sac. Dad was not great about paying the child support, so there was a lot of scrimping.

Groceries were always someplace my mother figured we could stretch the money. Pot roasts from cuts Mom wasn’t familiar with, but that were big, and cheap. Pot roast, then sandwiches, then pasta, then soup — same with turkey. There was a lot of turkey on an out-of-season frozen Butterball for three people. Same cadence: roast, then sandwiches, then on pasta, then soup. When I turned sixteen, she handed me the car keys, the list, and a signed check. “Don’t spend more than fifty dollars,” she’d say. Later I spent two years broke in New York City, working for a cookbook packager — I had no money at all after rent and bills, but I had access to a big cookbook library. So I started reading up on cucina povera. How to stretch a dollar and also eat really well? It was New York, so I had the tiny shop down 2nd Avenue that only sold fresh mozzarella and olives, the Union Square Farmer’s Market when it was just getting off the ground, and there were still bakeries, and butcher shops and fish mongers. I remember asking a fishmonger what to do with a mackerel, because it was so beautiful and so cheap.

When people complained about cooking every night during the pandemic, my first grumpy thought was “well we cooked dinner every night when I grew up and no one complained,” and then I remembered the housekeepers and the country clubs. I grew up in a wealthy suburb where most families had housekeepers. They’d feed the little kids in the kitchen before they left for the night, leave something that could be heated up later for the parents and the big kids. I remember a world where families didn’t eat out like they do now, but we had country clubs, where you were obligated to pay a certain amount for the restaurant every month whether you ate there or not. So that’s where people took kids, or ate out on a Tuesday night. When we were little, before the bankruptcy, we ate at the club after tennis or swimming most of the summer. When people do that nostalgic thing about “your grandmother’s cooking” — oh boy. Mine did not cook. Neither did her mother. When my great-grandparents money ran out at the end, and people couldn’t afford house servants, my great-grandmother refused to learn to cook. So my very proper great-grandfather learned.

Alicia Kennedy and I got chatting on Twitter this week about food media. I was bemoaning the way the focus shifted, sometime around the launch of Lucky Peach, from home cooking to celebrity chef and restaurant cooking. There’s a whole generation (or maybe two?) behind me who didn’t grow up cooking. Who either microwaved something frozen, or ordered takeout, or went out as a matter of course. Now there’s services like DoorDash (although not here in Livingston) and UberEats as well. There’s a whole cohort of younger folks who seem to equate “cooking” with the performative cooking of TV food shows and restaurants. Even my old standby, “The Splendid Table”, no longer has the call-in feature where folks ask what to do with a tree’s worth of apricots, or how to cook with some ingredient they found on their travels. Francis Lam sounds like a lovely guy, but his background is cookbooks, which are currently centered around chefs and restaurants.

Because making something from what I have has always been the place I turn to when I’m feeling as existentially wobbly as I have these past weeks of hot wind and smoky skies, I pulled out the Elizabeth Luard cookbooks again. I discovered her during pandemic. I can’t remember how? But I found her via her memoir Family Life, and then her two big cookbooks, European Peasant Cookery, and The Old World Kitchen. Luard grew up wealthy but her father died in WW2, and her stepfather came to dislike her and her brother, as if they were cuckoos in the nest of his own children. She married a charming bounder, and found herself with four kids, living in Spain, with almost no money at all. She learned to feed them all from her housekeeper, and became fascinated by traditional peasant cooking even as she could see it disappearing around her. This is not showy cooking. This is not television cooking, or the hottest restaurant, or even a food truck popup. This is the cooking of making something delicious from what you have. In a single pot, over one heat source … because heat is money. The cooking of going out into the garden or to the local market, and seeing what is ready this week. Here, it’s been unseasonably hot and dry after a spring that was characterized by several very late frosts. I’ve been watering, but my garden is only now beginning to produce — and in tiny quantities. A few cherry tomatoes. The first skinny zucchini. Chard at last. Peppers and parsley. That’s about it. Luckily, our local Hutterite colonies are showing up with lovely onions and carrots and green beans and pickling cucumbers. And a family that ran roadside stands in the Boston area for decades retired here, built a greenhouse, and opened a stand for us.

And so, as it was all coming off the rails, I went into the kitchen to rustle up a soup. A simple soup made from local stuff I had on hand. A soup that didn’t have a recipe. A soup I’ve made a million times, in a million different ways. A soup that has saved me more than once over the years.

Sometimes cooking is just cooking. It’s what you do to feed yourself and your loved ones. And it’s what you do over, and over, and over again. Because you can. Because you are still here, even if under skies of smoke, and a hot wind. We’re all still here, and people need something good to eat, something that will feed their souls. For me, that’s always soup.

Ruin

Ruin

I’ve been trying really hard not to write about how difficult this summer has been, but I can’t seem to find a way around it. I want to be cheerful, really I do. I’m so tired of being filled with fury and grief.

I thought I knew something about grief, having lost both brothers, one as a child, the other as an adult. I thought I knew about grieving after our father left the country when I was in my twenties, after our mother chose the bottle over us time and time again. I thought I knew how to do this. I thought I had strategies. Strategies that would apply in some useful way to the climate disaster, that I’d be able to use my experience as a metaphor somehow, salvage some nugget of solace.


But I’ve got nothing. I’ve been deep in the weeds of depression and rage for weeks now. My beautiful home has turned into an apocalyptic hellscape and I don’t know how to handle it.


We’ve been socked in under opaque, smoky skies since early June. Some days you can taste the burning forests, other days it’s just this scrim that’s descended over everything. The light’s all weird. It’s glittery. Temperatures are soaring into the high nineties, low 100s, day after day after day. Nights aren’t cooling down. The authorities have closed afternoon and evening fishing across the state, and Yellowstone park has banned fishing entirely. The roads are clogged with tourists, who are camping in all sorts of places that are not actual campsites, and the vibe is one of frantic excess. Driving down valley to walk the dog has become a terror. It’s a two lane highway, and the RVs, or SUVs pulling boat trailers, or farm equipment sometimes slow traffic, which backs up, and then impatient people try passing multiple vehicles. You’ll be driving along and suddenly there’s someone coming right at you, in your lane. I’ve nearly been driven into the ditch more than once.


I’ve been stuck indoors with the blinds drawn against the heat and my ears ring from the constant whir of fans and air conditioners. It’s too hot to do anything outside, including enjoy my garden. The trails are crowded (and Hank is not good with other dogs) so I’ve been walking him along my beloved irrigation ditch, the one I’ve written about before. It’s a good walk for him because he’s in and out of the ditch, which is clean water, and keeps my black dog with the heavy coat cool. There are swallows to chase, and gophers to try to dig up, and sometimes there are big raptors in the cottonwood tree — bald eagles, red tail hawks, osprey. The ditch has been leaking for a while, I think it’s the gophers, and I called all the authorities I could find to report it. But no one has fixed it, and so there’s this swampy area at the top of the cliff along the Yellowstone, just north of the official fishing access and campsite. Sometimes Hank likes a little wallow there, lowering his nether regions into the cool water, rubbing his face in the long wet grass.


Despite the death defying 10 minute drive, it’s been my one place this summer. The one place where I didn’t feel like I was under siege. The one place where I could walk in peace, where even though I can hardly see the mountain range three miles away through the smoke, at least there were birds, and the river, and the burbling ditch. I’ve been saying the Heart Sutra there in the mornings, trying to bring my frantic mind back into some kind of headspace that isn’t all anger and despair.


The other morning, I came down the hill and found the damage in that photo at the top of the post. Someone had unlatched the gate, which is posted “No Motorized Vehicles” and had driven down the two-track, and onto the flat area at the top of the cliff. Because the ditch has been leaking for weeks, it’s swampy, and they clearly got stuck, and tore it all up getting themselves out.


I was heartsick.

I am heartsick.

I go down there in the mornings now and there’s this scar on the land. And it’s not going to go away. Despite the leaky ditch, this is high desert. The tracks from whoever came this spring to clear debris out before they turned the water on, they’re still there. The grasses never bounced back. And now this.


I’ve known climate catastrophe was bearing down on us for as long as I can remember. I moved here in large part because the Bay Area seemed utterly unsustainable. There were too many houses, too many people. There were earthquakes and fires and rolling electrical blackouts even then, 20 years ago when I left. I came to Livingston because there were writers and artists here, because houses were still very cheap, and because with the Yellowstone river and these three mountain ranges, it seemed like someplace the water would hold out.


And now houses are expensive, an entire generation of writers have died, and our snowpack and summer water supplies are dangerously low. The great forests of the western United States are on fire. We’re breathing them in all day long.


I’m trying to roll all this ruin into my Heart Sutra practice. I’m not really a Buddhist but I’ve had a tiny practice for decades, largely based around Gary Snyder’s translation of the Heart Sutra. He gave it to us during the one astonishing class I took from him in grad school, a class on Zen and classical Chinese and Japanese poetry. Form is emptiness, emptiness is form. Form is exactly emptiness, emptiness exactly form. In my toughest moments, I’ve turned to the Heart Sutra. Sensation, conception, discrimination, awareness are all likewise like this. I’ve been standing at the diversion gate all summer, looking down the ditch toward the mountains I can hardly see through the smoke, trying to remind myself that, as Snyder once said to Terry Gross in an interview, when she asked him why there were poems about his truck in a book about nature: “It’s all just phenomena Terry.” The ditch and the ruts and the mountain and the Sandhill cranes and the river are all just phenomena. We like some of them better than others, but that’s sensation, conception, discrimination, awareness.


As we hurl into this era of climate catastrophe, I’m trying to accept the ruin. The careless, or perhaps deliberate ruin of those ruts. The ruin of our smoky skies. The ruin of a garden I can hardly keep wet enough to grow anything this summer. The ruin of people so bamboozled by propaganda and greed and fear that they won’t wear a mask in a pandemic, won’t get vaccinated to help stop it, won’t stop coming to our town as tourists and spreading it.


Middle age is a funny space. You were humming along thinking you’re building a life and then you turn around one day and it seems to be built. For better or worse. This is your life now and it’s kind of too late to go start all over. There are relationships and responsibilities and you kind of just are what you are. And then the world changes around you. Your town full of artists becomes a town full of rich people. Your clear skies and fifty mile view of the valley surrounded by mountains fills with opaque smoke and your mountains are now just shapes.

And so you look for small things to cling to.

The wizened black cat who returned after a year. The red tailed hawk scrying into the air over your dog walk. A chance encounter with an old friend, the discussion circling around as it does these days to “where would we go?” We’ve had Christmas together for nearly 20 years. Where would we go? Who would know us like that?

This too is phenomena. These tiny moments. Sometimes they’re enough. Sometimes we just have to have faith that they’re enough.

Range Bound

Range Bound

Image

“But where would we go?”
It’s the question that keeps coming up in conversations. Our funky little town has gone the way of all the other funky little towns in the West. Housing prices went through the roof last year, and we’ve seen an influx of both really aggressive dumb white Trump people, and less toxic but nonetheless annoying rich retirees and second homeowners.

No one who works here can afford to live here anymore.

I ranted a little bit about it on the bird site this morning, and got responses ranging from Ugh to “you should move because it’s like a bad marriage and is never going to get better.” Which also, ugh. I was freaked out because I’d gone to the Post Office, the office supply store, and the bougie bakery our food bank started to raise funds (and to bake for food banks across the state). No one was wearing a mask. We’re still getting 7-8 new infections a DAY. The CDC site lists Park County in red, as HIGH transmissions. Only 41% of the county is vaccinated, and it’s probably not going to get much better than that because all the evangelicals and Trump people and ex-cult members (CUT, it was an actual, gigantic cult that mostly went bust about 10 years ago) “don’t believe” in vaccinations.

I moved here in 2002 because I found a cheap house, there was a good internet connection so I could bring my job, and there were writers here. I moved here because there are three mountain ranges and a valley so beautiful that I remembered it from years earlier, when I’d stopped to look agape at Sandhill Cranes, when I called my brother Patrick from a campground pay phone in Yellowstone. “No wonder all the writers live there,” I said. “It’s more beautiful than you can imagine.”

I stayed after Patrick died because I found a real community, full of interesting people, who absolutely carried me through that disaster. I also stayed because even though the writer and artist types were fairly bougie, there was also a solid core of plumbers and carpenters and ranchers, of hunting and fishing guides, of small business owners. Houses here are small, it was a railroad town. There were still railroad folks here, union working people who’d been royally screwed over when Burlington Northern bought out the Great Northern railway. It wasn’t Bozeman. It wasn’t fancy. It was a funky, slightly run down town with the kinds of interesting people who like things on the shaggy side.

Over the 20 years I’ve been here, there have been booms and busts. Housing prices went way up before 2008, then there was a wave of foreclosures. We have a serious meth problem that waxes and wanes. We have the highest suicide rate in the state with the highest rate in the nation. Most kids qualify for free school meals. But many of the same retirees I complain about have also brought huge energy and drive with them. They’ve built a food system that integrates local food producers, a community garden, a Farm to Schools program, the Food Resource Center and the local restaurant economy to make sure that no one goes hungry. There are community Thanksgiving and Christmas meals at the Civic Center that bring together church groups and elderly folks who live alone, and single moms with kids, and just regular folks who like to stop by because it’s nice.

Which is why the aggro dudes in the pickup trucks with the Trump flags are so upsetting. There are a lot of them. Even the ones not sporting the flags have taken to tailgating me when I drive down valley to walk the dog in the morning. Something about a lady of a certain age, driving a Subaru, wearing a straw hat (I sunburn) really enrages them. This, this fury, this is new.

I spent a lot of the pandemic looking at little houses in the French countryside, houses that are nice — fixed up, with little gardens. Houses that are substantially less expensive than what I could sell this one for. I could sell this house, move to France, find a house in a village. Walk to the bakery in the morning, build a new garden, drive myself mad trying to navigate French bureacracy. Retire a few years early, live off the money from this house, write.

But Himself isn’t going to move to France. I’d be alone. My French is terrible, which is sort of charming from a tourist, but making friends in a foreign country is no small matter. I’m good on my own, and while the idea has its appeal, it’s not going to happen. I love Himself. He loves me. I was single long enough to know how rare that is, how odd we both are, how good it is that we found one another.

“The thing is,” he said to me earlier in the pandemic when I was really freaking out, when I was worried we were headed for a Bosnian-war-level breakdown, when I told him that if it happened, I knew which surly white man neighbor was coming for my house, “the thing is, we’re range bound. Where are we going to go?”

He meant it in the ecological sense. We see animal herds here who are range bound — the Greater Yellowstone Area is pretty big compared to other chunks of wild land in the country, but our elk herd is always going to be restricted by the fact that there’s an interstate, and a lot of fenced agricultural land between here and the next range.

Where are we going to go?

We’ve all seen the stories from across the country. City dwellers moving out, moving back to be near family, moving to the suburbs so the kids will have a yard now that they can’t be in the parks, folks moving “upstate” in whatever part of the country they’re in. And it’s only going to get worse. Climate change is upon us. I’m typing in my living room, with the shades drawn against the glaring day out there. It went from snow to 100 degrees in two days. My window AC units are both going. There are fans blowing. I’ve been spending an hour or so watering in the morning trying to keep the seedlings from burning up.

All indications are that this fire season in the West is going to be worse than last year. Himself and I were hoping he’d come meet me in October after a writer’s workshop I’m doing by Point Reyes, so we could drive the Oregon coast on the way home. We’re holding off buying tickets until we have some idea how fire season is shaping up. Driving up a coast on fire doesn’t sound like much fun. Crossing states on fire sounds like a nightmare.

The pandemic was climate change (no matter what nonsense they’re currently spouting about Chinese labs). The pandemic is just the first wave. I chose Livingston all those years ago not only for the writers and painters, but because it was out of the way of the rising seas, because it had a river and three mountain ranges. I figured the water would last my lifetime at least. We’ll see.

Where would we go? isn’t just a personal question, but at this point, it’s a question for humanity. We’ve well and truly shat our own bed. The oceans are full of plastic. Soils are depleted and the great rainforests of Brazil are falling under the axe. These rising temperatures are because we pulled stored carbon out of any crevice in which we could find it for industry and cars and fucking synchilla sweaters. We’ve burned up the world for clothes dryers and to fly oranges from Australia out of season and to drag full-sized SUVs behind RVs through the Western National Parks so we don’t have to sleep in hotel rooms. I was pretty hopeful before the pandemic, but seeing what whiny babies people are, how deeply selfish, how unconcerned the general population seems to be about anyone else, how unwilling people, mostly comfortable white people, are to sacrifice anything to save the lives of their fellow citizens. Well, I’m pretty depressed about that.

And so, since there’s no where to go, since we own our houses at this point, and renting the cabin to vacationers is Himself’s retirement plan, there’s nothing to do but settle in and follow the hard advice that Gary Snyder gave us all so many years ago: that the most radical thing you can do is to stay home. Stay home and take care of your range. Make peace with your neighbors. Try to make the place you are a little bit better than it is now.

And because he’s Snyder, he also means sit down, and tend your own inner home. Sit with your self. Your whole self, good and bad.

The engine of American consumer culture runs on the idea that boundaries are to be broken, that you should strive always for more, for better, to optimize your performance, to go everywhere, to refuse to accept no as an answer.

But the world, as it will, is telling us something different. If there’s one thing I learned from living through the cancer epidemic of the 70s that killed my youngest brother and several others in our very wealthy suburb on the shores of Lake Michigan, and the AIDs epidemic in the 80s and 90s that killed my beloved Uncle Jack, my college friend Michael, and half the men in my NYC neighborhood, it’s that the world has actual limits. Despite the television nonsense about American exceptionalism and Elon Musk’s space dreams and consumerist madness about how “you deserve” a trip to Disneyland or Cancun or on one of those hellscape cruise ships, the world has limits. We’ve just refused, as a spoiled, late-empire society to acknowledge them.

I live in a beautiful place that is currently beset by some really dangerous nonsense. I’m angry that there is this cohort now who find it entertaining to frighten me. Because they do.

But then I remind myself that there are nice neighbors across the alley, and although I haven’t seen them in ages, I still have solid friends here, people I love. If the transmission numbers come down, if the vaccination numbers go up, maybe I’ll see them at Happy Hour again. There are chickens and a dog and two cats who are trying to learn to get along. There’s Himself, the unexpected gift of a person who loves and gets me, and I him. There’s this garden. I can’t even manage the Post Office right now without losing my nut, but I can manage to keep some tomatoes alive, and the masses of poppies I planted in the front look like they might be fabulous, and if worse comes to worst, I can live off eggs and greens. I might not be going out there for a while, but I’ll be back here, cultivating my garden, doing what I can to make this range to which I’m bound as fruitful as it can be.

Practice

Practice

Blue linen jacket with three pockets, hanging on a door.
My Monty Don Jacket

I hit a writerly speed bump the past couple of weeks. This happens. I’ve made a lot of progress on this book project since New Years, even if sometimes it doesn’t feel like it. There’s a shape I can see. There are several new essays that need honing, and some older ones that need reworking, and it feels like a narrative trajectory is shaping up. I’ve been sending things out, and a couple of them have caught, and a few have come back and for the first time in years that process does not feel life or death, does not feel like a referendum on my ability to do this thing. But about two weeks ago, I hit a blank. There just wasn’t anything in the tank. This too, used to freak me out, but now, I know not to fight it, know that when I find myself looking at the cursor, or dicking around on Twitter too much, that means it’s time to go do something else for a while.

So I’ve been out in the garden getting that up and running for the year. There are greens and onions and parsley all coming up already. In the front, the bulbs I planted last fall are blooming, and the cherry trees are getting ready to burst into blossom, and I’m starting to see some seedlings sprouting from the buckets of wildflower and poppy seeds I’ve strewn out there. And I’ve been reading fiction again! I’ve been tearing through Maggie O’Farrell’s novels (while I wait for Hamnet to come out in paperback because I read it on the kindle, and I want to read it in my hands). And sewing. A lot of it is utility sewing — more pants (I have a pants template that is easy, fits my odd bod, and only takes a couple of hours to run up), and a couple of simple long skirts. But I also made a jacket. The Merchant and Mills Foreman Jacket. It’s a menswear pattern, but I made it in a lovely soft robin’s-egg blue linen, and I love it. I told my bestie that I’d made the Monty Don jacket of my dreams and she said “It’s a garden show! Not fashion!” But really, that’s my favorite look — rumpled, comfortable, lots of pockets. So now I have my much shortened Monty Don jacket in soft blue, and a bunch of new pants and long skirts in brown and olive linen, and I’m ready for spring.

The past couple of years it’s people talking and writing about making art who have been the most useful when I get stuck. I think its because of the way contemporary art has shifted it’s focus from the object, to the practice. I haven’t sold a book in decades, and I really only publish a couple of pieces a year, so my production of literary objects is … sparse. But I write, and make things and garden pretty much every day. If I have a practice, this is it. The Talk Art podcast, for instance, is a joy. Driving down valley to walk the dog I listen to Russell Tovey and Robert Diament talking to artists about what they make, and how they make it, and what they want to make. It’s very joyful, and manages to almost never be about the commerce of art.

It’s always been the commerce side of writing that I’ve found impossible. I got paid so little for my first book that it was very very clear that I was not going to be able to make any kind of a living as a writer. And I sold it to a big publisher. When Patrick died three years after my novel had come out, I was about half way through a new novel, which I abandoned. It was about horse people and class, and my grandmother and in that moment of crisis it seemed absolutely dead, and meaningless, and I put it away. It seemed clear to me that I was going to have to write about the experience of losing him, of losing a second brother as an adult after we’d survived the death of our toddler brother as children. Patrick and I had been dining out for years on stories about our family, about the bad behavior of both of our parents, and at that point, in the early 2000s, the misery memoir was just gaining steam. People were telling me this might be the time, the time for that story. But I was such a wreck, and couldn’t see any trajectory at all.

We used to have a little film festival during the winter on Sunday afternoons, and that winter after Patrick died, the Andy Goldsworthy movie, Rivers and Tides, came to town. Goldsworthy went out every day to make something, and he didn’t know what he was going to make until he did it. There’s a point in the movie where he sort of bellows that at his wife (in a funny way, not in an art monster way). And he made things that essentially could not be sold. Icicles stuck together that then melted. Leaves pinned together with thorns, and suspended from twigs that eventually showered down upon his head. Rocks piled in shapes. That they couldn’t be sold brought me a real kind of joy. That he was just out there making things. For a while I had this Goldsworthy-inspired practice where I pulled a slip of paper with a topic on it out of a jar every day, and wrote about it. I wasn’t striving for a particular word count. And if it was too painful a topic, I put it back for another day. It was a really useful practice that year, when I was so sad, and missed my brother so much, and was tasked with rebuilding myself as someone who didn’t have siblings, someone alone. I generated a lot of content that way, content I’ve used over the years in various forms.

I’ve written some other things since then, but I keep coming back to the idea of writing that memoir. It became a sort of white whale. I need to write the memoir. I need to get it out of the way. After a really great workshop with Alexander Chee a couple of summers ago, I came home and wrote out the whole narrative of the trauma that was losing Patrick. It’s not bad. I got it down, and said the things I needed to say. But it’s still not the book I want to write — in part, because of the commerce aspect. Just as I was so panicked about clearing up Patrick’s so-called estate all those years ago, just as I recoiled at the prospect of having to sell all his belongings in the street, I discovered in the process of writing that material out that I don’t want to sell our story, don’t want to have to go on the road and answer questions about it.

And it’s fine! I wrote it all. I found that out. It was great practice.

All that work was not for nought. I have all that content, and a lot of it is coming into these essays that I do want to write — essays about grief and climate change, trauma on the private and planetary level, gardens and land art and representation and the practices by which we save our own lives, and perhaps, by sharing them, teach other folks how to save their lives as well. Essays about what it means, as my old Beloit College prof John Wyatt used to say, to live a good life.

Practice. It takes a lot of practice.