I was talking to my Beloved Stepmother on Christmas Day while watering the plants (oh! How I miss real phones, the kind you can pin to your ear with your shoulder) when a whole shelf in the greenhouse-office flipped and geraniums and dirt went flying, and knocked a glass jar off a lower shelf that was … full of light bulbs? It was a mess.
When Himself built me this room nearly 10 years ago, he didn’t set the shelves properly because I wasn’t sure where I was going to want them to go. I set them using those little metal pins you stick in holes you drill. The reason I got the door/window units he repurposed for free was because the cedar was degrading after 15 years or so of taking the full blast of the Livingston winds at the top of the Yellowstone bluffs.
Suddenly, all the shelves looked like a Very Bad Idea, including the one I use as a sort of altar, which has Many Fragile Items on it.
This morning, while Himself went home to shower and have breakfast etc … I cleared out all the plants (they got a lovely soaking shower in the bathtub), and vacuumed up the spidery bits, and Himself came over and set the shelves properly. And fixed the kitchen cabinet handles which probably date from the 1930s, and which finally stuck last week.
This week between Christmas and New Years is my favorite of the year. We all have new books, and new notebooks, and most of us don’t have to work. And now that the holiday is actually over, I find I’m breathing again, not feeling quite so panicky. It doesn’t make sense that I was racing like an engine with bad timing — I don’t have kids, the family members got their gifts, Himself and I kept it pretty mellow this year, but for weeks, I’ve felt like I’m behind, like I’ve forgotten something, like I’ve fucked up mightily but just don’t know it yet.
I’ve had more lonely and screwed up Christmasses than a lot of people, but for some reason, knowing that everyone else was having a terrible Christmas sent me kind of off the deep end. I was unmoored to an extent that surprised me.
And I’m more relieved than I expected that it’s over. A week off. Everyone has a week off (well all of us who aren’t working retail, which I did through my 30s).
I thought I’d be buckling down, making progress on this book, starting new notebooks and making new plans when what I’m actually doing is clearing out clutter. Throwing out bags of stuff that’s just accumulated over this weird-ass year. I vacuumed all the dead spidery bits out of the greenhouse, put the shelves and the plants back up, moved this years notebooks to the office.
Which is the next frontier. How my office came to be the Place of Towering Piles, I’m not sure. I went through the bookshelves not long ago. It’s one of those things I do when I’m starting a new project, or in this case, changing the angle of attack. Move the books that don’t apply to this one, bring books that do up from the basement storage. Putting them out on the shelves helps me see where I want to go.
So tomorrow it’s into the office with more boxes for trash, figuring out what to keep and what can go, getting the piles whittled down, my desk reorganized, getting ready for a new year.
Wednesday about mid-day, I got a call from a number I didn’t recognize. It was the animal shelter. Someone had turned in my black, one-eared cat who went missing in January.
I thought she was dead.
My funny, noisy, oddball cat is back, although she’s lost a full 1/3 of her body weight. She’s just skin and bones.
But she’s back.
After almost a full year.
No one ever comes back.
But there she is, on the other side of the room, asleep in her chair again. After a few days of being fed regularly, and lots of lap time, and even getting to sleep in our bed where she parked herself right in front of Himself’s face for about an hour “purring like a fucking chainsaw” as he said, without rancor, because he’s also very glad she’s back.
No one ever comes back. The dead stay dead, no matter how much you pray, or hope, or cast magic spells. Even before Patrick died, Truly Madly Deeply was one of my favorite sad-day movies. “You’re here!?” Juliet Stevenson says, ugly crying and pressing her hands on Alan Rickman’s chest which seems, miraculously, to actually be there.
I only had one dream in the years after Patrick died in which I could actually talk to him. It only happened once. He was back. We were on the porch, in the wicker chairs, having a gin and tonic, as we did that whole first year I lived here. “What do you mean you’re back?” I said. “You’re in there, in the living room, in that urn.”
“I’m back,” he said, looking very pleased with himself. “I had to go all the way to the top. To the big guy himself.”
I heard from an old friend this week that her husband lost both his parents to Covid, within days of one another. His father was starting to fail, but he was holding steady until he got infected. “His mother was fine last week,” my friend texted me. “And now she’s dead.” That they couldn’t be there made it all the worse, and for my friend, who lost most of her family in an accident when she was a child, well, this doesn’t get any easier with practice. They were fine, and now they’re dead.
Three hundred thousand families are missing people.
They were fine until they weren’t.
Three hundred thousand families are missing people, and somehow, it hasn’t sunk in.
Three thousand people a day.
Himself and I are pretty much sequestered at this point, as numbers in our county have spiked. We can sequester, so we are. As much to stay out of the way as anything else. We’re fine, we have our houses in town (we met late in life, kept the houses we already owned), and the cabin down valley. “If we don’t have it, or can’t order it,” Himself said the other day, “We don’t need it.”
I did have to dash into the grocery store to get more of the cat food in a tube that the prodigal loves. It’s not too disgusting, sort of the texture of bologna, and she needs fattening up. I picked up a few other staples, and we’re set. It’s not like we’re having or going to any Christmas parties anyway — my normal Christmas with my BFF’s family and her 5 kids is just not happening.
The woman who turned my cat back into the shelter said she’d been hanging around their shed for a while. That she was even skinnier then. She fed her for a bit, I’m not sure how long, then decided she probably should turn her in. Somehow my kitty wound up at least five miles away, on the other side of our busiest road, on the other side of the interstate, way out in the country. There’s a crazy lady down the alley who, I found out in January when my cat went missing, has a reputation for trapping cats, “relocating” them to the country. All I can figure is she catnapped my cat. In this year when people have been acting in ways I’d never have expected, I think my cat got napped.
Betty Boop had been a stray before I found her, and while I let her go in and out the dog door, she had very regular habits. (I know, birds, but I also rely on the cats for rodent control. Harriet the new kitty got a packrat last summer. Good girl. Earning your keep.) She was used to me being gone for a day or two, for Himself to come by and feed pets, play with everyone for a bit. The roofers were here, but they were nearly done. It was January.
Himself and I walked every alley on this side of town. I leafletted for blocks. I looked everywhere for this cat. I was sure she was dead.
And so I adopted a new cat, Harriet, in April. It was too lonely here without a cat. And so Harriet, who is a very fluffy Russian Blue, lives here too. The lady at the shelter seemed to imply I might be thinking about returning her, which no, I wasn’t. If the two of them hadn’t gotten along, someone could go live with Himself. There’s no returning anyone.
My cousin Matt was about five when my Aunt got a call, there was another kid in trouble in their area, would she consider adopting another child? Matt bursting into tears at the dining room table. He thought we were trading him in.
There’s no returning anyone.
I don’t have any grand summation here. People are dying, we’re in a pandemic, a lot of people are having to weigh whether and how to travel, our old folks who aren’t sick are isolated, our kids are having to go to school on Zoom.
But the cat came back, and on Saturday morning while I was shoveling the walk, all the families with little kids came out on the street. You could hear the firetruck siren. You could hear Christmas music. Santa was coming. Santa on the firetruck. Every year Santa drives through every block in town, stopping to give a little bag of presents to every kid who comes out. Santa was coming and the kids were beside themselves. The adults chatted from a safe distance. Amy went down the block to let the new people know, the ones with the twins who aren’t quite two. Steve had decorated his entire front yard this year. It’s been years since he did that. He used to have a plywood Santa in his sleigh with reindeer. When I first moved here he put it on the roof. It’s been ages since Steve has decorated and this year there’s a ton of lights, and those light-up reindeer in the yard and it’s great. As Santa pulled up, Steve’s oldest, who lives in Alaska, came out with a new baby.
It felt like normal life again. It reminded me how weird everything has gotten, how little low-stakes interaction we’ve all had. Just standing around outside, watching the kids nearly explode from joy as Santa, who must be real because look at that beard (he was a very good Santa) arrived on the firetruck, with sirens and music and firefighters with masks handing out candy and presents.
So maybe we’ll all get through this somehow.
Santa did finally arrive on the firetruck.
The cat came back.
It looks like we’ll have a new administration.
There’s a vaccine.
The light starts coming back to the sky next week.
My driving ambition all through my 20s and 30s was to find a way to buy a house. Not just any house, but a house I could stay in. A house I could live in. I was the kid who went to six grammar schools, who switched custodial parents, whose brother died of cancer. Every time we got settled in, every time I made friends, some crisis arose and we had to go. As an adult, neither of my parents were much good at keeping themselves consistently or appropriately housed. I spent a lot of time in my 40s trying to keep a roof over my elderly mother’s head, trying to find someplace she could afford to live when she only had social security. That’ll scare you into keeping your day job, putting your money away, paying off the mortgage.
I moved to Montana in 2002 because I wanted a house I could afford in an artsy community, but also because I did not trust the Bay Area as a sustainable place to live. There were too many people and too few resources. The seas were rising and the last of the arable land was being covered with housing developments. It was already terrifyingly hot and dry and windy for several months of the year. I was in grad school at UC Davis when the Oakland Hills burned up, and Maxine Hong Kingston’s stories about the lived experience of losing everything to a fire, seemed a warning one should heed. In my two years in the Hayward Hills, I had to call Patrick at least three times when there were grass fires, ask him what I should grab if I had to run, what he wanted from his room.
I bought this little house because it had space for a garden, and good light in the main rooms in winter (also, a clawfoot tub small enough to fit me). I bought this house because it was cheap enough I could see paying it off. I bought this house planning to work at home, to live here. And over the past 18 years I’ve fixed it up, and painted, and organized and now it’s the place I most like to be in the world. It’s paid off. I’m here for the duration.
If the pandemic has shown me anything, it’s how rare this is. So many people are stuck in spaces that don’t work when they can’t go out. So many people had homes that were really more of landing pads, places where they slept and showered, ate sometimes, but primarily used as the space between spaces. And now they’re stuck, and don’t quite know what to do or how to keep their house, how to make it a home, a place they want to be.
That New Yorker cover has had me so upset all week. The chaos. The stuff all over the floor. That so many people I know shared it as though, chuckle chuckle, of course we’re all living in chaos. I feel the same about the discourse around “adulting.”
I grew up with a depressed parent who often could not organize our world, and so I learned early how to write a grocery list, how to make food last for the week, how to keep things tidy. All I wanted was not to be a child anymore, not to be helpless and at the mercy of these adults who couldn’t, or wouldn’t step up. I saw learning the skills of adulthood — keeping myself housed and fed — as liberatory. Even during those decades when I was so broke, figuring out my money and how to mostly live within my means, even if I had to juggle bills sometimes, that all felt better than those years of helplessness.
Granted, I’m not great at house cleaning — I’d almost rather do anything else than wash the kitchen floor or scrub the bathroom. I’m perfectly capable of those things, but as long as I’m employed and have money, I’m happy to pay Kate her considerable hourly wage to clean for me. She’s great at it. I like her. She’s the kind of useful, cheerful person we want to keep in the community. And she has my heart for life after she scrubbed the hard water stains off all the windows in my greenhouse room.
What I’m talking about is a little different than that, and it’s not even about keeping things tidy. I’m tidy. I can’t think if there’s too much mess or clutter, but I know other folks for whom mess is their natural creative habitat. What I think I’m trying to get at is the way so many seem back footed by the experience of having to live in their homes. That we’ve come to a place as a society where the very notion of cooking all your meals, every day, is sending people into a sort of despair. Where people are so deeply uncomfortable in their homes that they’re willing to risk their own lives, and the lives of everyone else, just to go to a bar. As a culture it seems, we’re none of us any good at living in our own skins, or homes, or places.
The way we treat our homes is the way we treat the world, and one of the biggest challenges we’re facing is the one that drove me here all those years ago. The climate is heating up. We’ve left trash all over the place. We’ve used more than our share. We have not left the campsite in better shape than when we found it. We have a vacation rental cabin, and let’s just say that we’ve had more groups than usual this summer who have left the place a wreck. Garbage on the floor. Grease and sticky soda pop on every surface of the kitchen. Bathrooms that we’ll never speak of again.
I know everyone is at the end of their ropes. We’re going into lockdown again. People are stuck in tiny apartments, sometimes with the wrong people. But I do hope when we come out of it, we can start rethinking how we are living. What kind of spaces would make urban life better? What kind of spaces could accommodate people when the next pandemic hits? What kinds of housing do we need — what about cohousing? Spaces where tasks like cooking and cleaning can be shared — this won’t just lighten the chores, but I think we’re seeing that people need more robust social systems too.
I hope we’ll get a chance to think through some of these issues, although the bad behavior we’ve seen in response to this global call for people to care about the collective at the expense of their immediate and individual urges is not very encouraging. But after teaching for a couple of years, I have huge faith in the kids coming up behind us. My students were kinder to one another than we were when I was in school, and they’re acutely aware of the global crisis we’re living through.
And so, as we’re all going back into lockdown, and into the darkest part of the winter, I don’t know? Maybe entertain ourselves with utopian ideas. What would be your dream living space? Your dream community? How might that change from when you’re young and social, to when you’ve got a family, to when you’re old? The dark is a good time for dreaming.
I’ve spent much of the pandemic on a kind of crash course of garden design. It started when I went down the rabbit hole of Monty Don garden series videos on YouTube — Gardens of France, Italy, the World, America … what is a garden? What does it mean to build a garden? Is a garden a form of art? What do gardens mean in different cultures? When is a garden a symbol of power, and when is it a means of sustenance?
It’s something I was thinking about as I tore out my old raised beds early this summer, and replaced them with new ones. The new beds are new wood, so look quite spiffy. I kept the two long beds a single 12” board high, but reduced them from 3 1/2 to 2 feet wide. At 3 1/2 feet wide, I couldn’t easily reach across them, so planting and harvesting was always a chore. In the center of the space, I built four 3×6 beds that are two boards high. I was after a garden I can toddle out to on my walker in 20 years. I wanted a garden that was ergonomically pleasant to plant, and weed, and harvest from. And so, I lined the paths between with heavy weed cloth, and then late in the summer, my hippie neighbor Mike helped me fill them with gravel. The whole thing was already fenced in cattle panel and chicken wire to keep the animals out, and I have to say, although it looked fabulous by the time I was done — it was a little alienating. It looked so fancy. Like a garden someone would have built, rather than build themself.
Raised beds make Himself grumpy. “Just grow a carrot in the ground,” he gripes when I show him Instagram photos of gardens like the one I just built. And I can see his point. Building tall boxes in order to grow vegetables does separate us from the actual earth. My boxes are currently filled with layers of plain straw, garden soil, straw chicken litter from the coop, and then topped with bagged compost that claims to be organic, but really, who knows where it comes from. The things I grew this summer in those beds, well you could argue that they’re not even really growing in my yard at all, but rather, in an artificial environment.
Which was part of the project. The “natural” environment of my backyard garden, even after 17 years of gardening there, had become defined by invasive Bermuda grass. Every spring for the past few years, I couldn’t plant until I’d dug out the beds, hauling out enough Bermuda grass roots to completely fill the 64 gallon trash can they give us for yard waste here. While I’ll probably still have to dig out the long beds, at least the four tall beds should keep the grass mostly at bay.
So, what is a garden? Is it, as in this case, a sort of “machine” for growing vegetables? Because no matter how many flowers I also grew out there this summer, the purpose of that garden space is to grow enough veg for us to eat all summer (made easier by the fact that Himself is not a veg guy), and for me to put up for the winter. And I did. I put up enough greens, scallions, and tomatoes to see me through until spring without having to buy much at the store. Especially if my plans to turn a couple of those high beds into hoop houses works as I think it might. I should be able to start planting again in late January or early February. Once the light comes back.
Knowing I can grow food is a source of real solace to me. That vegetable patch was one of the biggest reasons I bought this house back in 2002. It was established. The people who lived here never had any money, and raised eight kids in this house. It’s clear they grew food not just for pleasure, but out of necessity. We’re a rural state here in Montana, and an agricultural one, and Livingston in particular has been building out resilient food systems in a very intentional way for the past decade or so. The crash of 2008 hit hard, and our Food Resource Center has worked to not only provide food for those affected among us, but to build a local food system. They teach classes on kitchen skills and train folks for restaurant work. They’ve partnered with local farmers to grow produce, and built facilities to process and freeze it each year. That food goes into the school and local hospital supply, as well as into our homegrown Meals on Wheels program to feed our seniors. When the pandemic hit, a local rancher started the Producer Partnership to solicit, process and distribute local beef to folks in need across the state. It started with an offhand remark from one of the guys he worked with: “Look at all that hamburger walking around out there.” They’ve donated almost 42K pounds of meat this year so far.
As I said when I started this blog up again, if we’ve learned anything, we’ve discovered that the local matters, that we actually don’t live in some global nowhere land of digital space, but in our homes, in our towns, in our communities.
My vegetable garden, and the chickens who I think of as a part of that little backyard food system, what they mean to me is that even if it gets really bad, I can get by. They mean security. Even if I couldn’t entirely live off my backyard, that I could get part of the way there makes it possible for me to sleep at night.
But gardens aren’t just practical, and I think that’s why I’ve been down such a rabbit hole of garden design all year. As I was redesigning and rebuilding the vegetable garden, I was also reading Olivia Laing. I’m a little late to that party, but the way she writes about her love of Derek Jarman, is one of those threads that makes having a reading life so worthwhile. Everything was falling apart this summer. The world was in chaos. No one was paying attention to the pandemic. When you’re raised by people as unreliable and unrealistic as my parents were, you get a sense for when it’s all about to come right off the rails, and that’s how I felt all summer. Laing’s book The Lonely City was a balm, but it was Funny Weather, Art in an Emergency that really got me. In “Sparks Through the Stubble” she writes:
“Returning to Modern Nature recently I was astounded to see how thoroughly my adult life was founded in its pages. It was here I developed a sense of what it meant to be an artist, to be political, even how to plant a garden (playfully, stubbornly, ignoring boundaries, collaborating freely).”
Scouring the house, it turned out that I already had a copy of Derek Jarman’s Garden, the 1995 book photographed by Howard Sooley. I remember buying it years ago after hearing something about Jarman’s garden, but being slightly baffled by it. Jarman is not the household name here he was in the UK, and I couldn’t parse what he’d been up to. It’s such a strange garden — all driftwood uprights, iron bits, and scrubby plants. Jarman’s garden at Prospect Cottage has, in the intervening years, come to serve as something of a talisman. Seems like every six weeks or so, I’ve seen something about Jarman, someone musing on Prospect Cottage, the garden built in sand, on a shingle promontory, in the shadow of a nuclear power station, by an artist fighting AIDs back in the days before the anti-retroviral drugs. I remember those days. I lost a dear college friend, and my Uncle Jack, and I lived in NYC then. I remember the faces, the men losing weight, the Kaposi’s spots. The way they disappeared. The way a whole generation disappeared and no one even seems to remember it. As though it was erased.
So when the pandemic hit, and we saw the same thing start to happen again, well I think that might be why so many of us turned to Derek Jarman, and his garden. It feels like the kind of beacon many of us have needed. An artistic practice based in hope, against all odds, that succeeded nonetheless. That funds were raised to save the place, in the wake of the death of Jarman’s partner Keith Collins, and that it’s in the safe hands of the Garden Museum in London felt like one of the few good things to happen this year. Even today, in Allan Jenkins Guardian column about his allotment, Jarman shows up. Jenkins, for those here in the US, is a longtime writer for the paper, and the author of the beautiful and heartbreaking memoir, Plot 29. In today’s column, he addresses the longtime companionship his allotment has provided, with, it turns out the same Howard Sooley who photographed Prospect Cottage. Jenkins says about Howard: “His book with Derek Jarman at Prospect Cottage helped give English gardening a new aesthetic. Together, they unleashed an almost feral freedom that informs everything I do.”
A feral freedom is what I’d always aimed for in this garden, and it’s why the raised beds, as useful and necessary as they were at this point, feel slightly alienating. I keep telling people, “Look, they’re like a fancy-person garden.” Which is sort of amusing on a consumerist acquisitional level, but as the long-term project of this house and this garden has been to provide a safe place to live, without succumbing to mindless bourgeois trappings, it feels weird. Those beds are the antithesis of feral freedom, although the self-seeding calendula and nasturtiums, cascading down over the sides, do their best.
And so, I started thinking about the rest of the garden, particularly the front yard. Since Hank-dog has been banished from the front yard (because there are dogs he doesn’t get along with in the yards on either side), suddenly, I had a blank canvas to work with. As fall wore on, I mowed the grass very short, then buried it under layers of soil and fine bark mulch. I ordered peonies and spring bulbs. I moved one small cherry tree and bought another, so there will be a tiny “grove” of sour cherry trees which echoes the feral grove down the block, a grove I was overjoyed to see bearing fruit this year after having been nearly killed off in an early subzero frost in 2017.
I had a little money this fall, and considered getting someone in to scrape off the grass entirely, maybe lay down some new soil, but every time I looked at photos of those kinds of garden installations (see these pics of the new Piet Oudolf garden going in at Belle Isle in Detroit) they felt alienating the way the raised beds are alienating. It doesn’t feel organic. Plus, I don’t have the kind of imagination that can envision all those new plants at once — I tend to buy things here and there, often off the sale table. My perennial bed in the backyard was gorgeous this year, because sort of by accident I’ve wound up with enough different varieties of hardy shrub roses that they bloomed in sequence, over and over this summer, and sent up shoots in bright greens, or even a sort of maroon. It was lovely to watch unfold.
So we’ll see what happens in the spring. It’s certainly going to be feral. The grasses are mostly bunch grasses, so here’s hoping they won’t get too tall and overwhelming. I put a lot of bulbs in, and I’m planning on more catmint, and shrub roses, and peonies, and daisies, and the blue perennial geraniums. As for what it means, well, like all good projects, I think I’ll just have to figure that out as I go along.
I made a cheeky Twitter post the other day about Thanksgiving being the worst of all the holidays, and hoo boy! Someone with a huge following chimed in to tell me how wrong I was, which sent my tweet out into a pool of people I don’t usually interact with (the only reason I’m still on Twitter is because I have it pretty buttoned down). People were in their feelings. They were offended that I find Thanksgiving tiresome, and find the food even worse. I wound up having to mute the post because really, who has the time?
Those of you who know me personally know that my childhood was something of a shit show — toddler brother dead from cancer in 1972; Dad left for another woman, then promptly went belly up financially; Mom was a depressive before the baby died and well, things didn’t get better. So I didn’t have a childhood full of memories of Thanksgivings with some grandmother bearing trays of rolls fresh from the oven (mine hated cooking and preferred to ride her horse). Thanksgiving was an annual experience in orphanhood.
Not that there weren’t some good ones. There were. But mostly I remember being dragged off to a stranger’s suburban house, where we’d have to watch a lot of television, before eating a gigantic bland meal at 2 in the afternoon. Or rather, my anorexic mother would push food around her plate, while giving us the stink eye to eat up so we looked like good guests.
That many on the right are claiming there’s a new “War on Thanksgiving” in response to Very Sensible People pointing out that an entire nation traveling to see their at-risk parents and grandparents, then returning to their communities is well, a blueprint for making a terrible pandemic even worse, seems indicative to me of the kind of denial you see when a loved one is about to hit rock bottom. Think Amy Winehouse, singing about how she won’t go to rehab. The shouting and driving around in truck caravans with Trump flags, and yelling about how no one’s going to take away “our” Thanksgiving and carrying on, it all looks to me like a group of people who know, in their hearts, that they’ve been taking more than their share for centuries but fully intend to keep doing it. Anyone who has lived with an addict knows you can’t make them stop.
At the 1992 UN Climate Conference in Rio, George H.W. Bush famously declared that “The American way of life is not up for negotiations. Period.” And the GOP has pretty much stuck to that stance for white people ever since. Meanwhile, the climate has continued to heat up, storms have gotten worse, and we’re now facing a changed world in which everything in the western US burns up every summer, whole subdivisions and parks and forests are just gone. And somehow, we don’t … do anything? We don’t even really mention it. There are thousands of people from California all the way up to here, the Bozeman/Livingston area who have no homes this Thanksgiving. Hurricanes are worse and more numerous, and the party of No Change has put a guy in power who thinks chucking rolls of paper towels at US citizens who have lost everything is an appropriate response. Here in Montana we’ve been inundated this summer by white flight folks buying houses sight unseen, driving up the cost of housing, and pretty much tanking Montana’s reputation as a politically “purple” state. They’ve also driven up our COVID numbers dramatically.
And now it’s Thanksgiving — a corporate holiday if there every was one, where everyone feels they need to rush home, buy a bird that’s been genetically engineered to grow a truly-American sized breast of dry white meat and then overcook it for a crowd. That green bean casserole you love? Invented by the Campbell’s soup company in the 50s, another era when America wanted to see itself as a wholesome nation of white people whose tables are laden with abundance. That famous Norman Rockwell print? Propaganda. Cranberry sauce in a can? You can thank Ocean Spray (although cranberry sauce is the best part of the meal). And what’s the deal with mashed potatoes? People act every year as though mashed potatoes is some exotic dish that’s tricky to make. Folks, I live with a potato guy. We have mashed potatoes a couple of times a week. They’re no big deal.
Thanksgiving is the most corporate of our holidays — from the food to the mandatory college football where America watches indentured black men play a dangerous game in exchange for an education they’re not actually allowed to pursue (see my friend Elwood Reid’s terrific novel If I Don’t Six). There’s nothing authentic about Thanksgiving. There are no organic traditions — even if you do love your Aunt Whatsit’s Pie.
So it seems somehow fitting that here in the End Times of the American Empire, a nation of idiots are getting on planes, or driving across country, in order to infect their at-risk family members with a virus they’ve decided not to “believe” in. They don’t believe in climate change either, but like the virus, it doesn’t care. They’re certainly proving Doris Lessing right when she noted that sentimentality and violence are flip sides of the same coin.
Things are changing. People are going to have to change their lives. In my kinder moments I can see how terrified all these people acting out are, but at this point, I don’t really care. Once they’ve tipped their hand and shown us that they’re willing to take all of us down with them, I’m done worrying about their feelings.
I voted for Biden because it was better than fascism. And while it is, I just hope the party pulls its head out of its ass and tries, for once, to make the world better. I fear, this Thanksgiving that as they have every time before, they’ll just return us to the status quo, where we pretend the corporations have our best interests in heart, where the best we can hope for is an organic can of jellied cranberry sauce on our table.
The wild is not only full of bones, but it’s full of shit. Or to be polite, scat
While we were waiting for the election results, Himself suggested taking advantage of the last of the nice weather and going to Yellowstone for the day. Knowing your scat is a crucial skill when you’re walking around in places where you are not the apex predator, and where there are large animals like bison and elk who could, if startled, really do a number on you.
Hiking with Himself entails finding a trail that heads in the general direction he’s interested in, taking it for as little time as possible in order to get away from other people, then veering off to follow a stream, or hike a ridge, or see what’s over there that looks interesting. Last week was no different. We parked at the Slough Creek trailhead which was blissfully empty (except for a ranger, who had assigned himself the onerous task of carrying 2 Coleman lanterns into a cabin a couple of miles up the trail. You can hardly blame him. It was a beautiful fall day, and they had 4 million people come through the Park this season). It looked like the official trail was on the far side of a ford, which would have been okay in summer at low water, but it wasn’t so warm that we could wade, and no one wants to hike around all day in wet boots. So we found a trail at the back of the campground that was probably a game trail, and headed off through fairly thick cover to see what Slough Creek looked like.
That’s when we found the buffalo skull above. It was a truly lovely one, and since we’re all pretending that Yellowstone’s natural state is sans humans (despite evidence that human beings have been using the area for at least 15,000 years), we had to leave it. You’re not allowed to collect bones, or the one that really bums Himself out, antlers, in the Park. So I took a photo, and we kept going.
Now, we were alongside a fairly noisy creek, in thick-ish tree cover, and because we like to see wildlife, we hike fairly quietly. This is, however, the textbook condition in which people run into trouble with grizzly bears, so I was a tiny bit nervous.
And this is when you start paying attention to shit in the woods. What scat are you seeing? How old is it? Scat is the most crucial sign by which you can tell who has been in that patch, and how recently. We started seeing very large elk shit almost at once. Himself said it was some of the largest he’d ever seen, meaning there were big bulls in there. At one point I heard a bugle. There were bison tracks, and pies as well. Years ago we were up in that drainage, poking around, when we came around a rock outcropping and discovered we were in quite a small clearing with two very large bison bulls. We apologized, didn’t look them in the eye, and quietly slipped back out then climbed a small ridge.
We worked our way up the creek, which was more like a small river after a few autumn rains and snowstorms, until we ran out of ground. We’d been skirting a rocky ridge since we left the campground, and the game trail we’d been following was cut off by a cliff that ran right down into the river. So we backtracked, and decided that sure, we could go up there, it was kind of steep but there were lots of boulders with good hand and footholds, and so we scrambled up about 500 feet or so and topped out in some lovely open groves. They looked like perfect elk habitat, and again, we started seeing scat, and places where they’d bedded down for the night.
We also started seeing some bear scat, including one patch where the bear must have been eating rosehips, because that’s what color it was.
Bones and scat. Outside the park it’s hunting season, and just this morning I had to stomp across the bottomland where I walk the dog to go call him off a carcass. I knew one was there because the ravens and magpies and bald eagles were all talking amongst themselves, flying off to visit various gut piles and pick the meat off stripped carcasses.
We don’t like to think about bones and scat. Most of us live so far from our animal natures that the quick reaction is usually disgust. Years ago, I posted a photo of the dog with an articulated deer leg in his mouth, happily showing off his find. The majority of the comments were expressions of horror. I’d been here long enough at that point, and had been walking that particular road where hunters tend to illegally dump hides and carcasses for so long, that I hadn’t thought anything of it.
Bones and shit and blood. We thought we’d solved these problems. We thought we didn’t need to think about them anymore. But if we’ve learned anything from this year, it’s that we are all still animals. We need to read the signs, to pay attention to the tracks, to keep our wits about us as we move forward through the world.
Hank has been carrying this elk bone around on our morning walk most of the week. He’ll hide it, then find it again, then hide it someplace else.
It’s one of the things that surprises people, how many bones there are. The outdoors here is full of bones. We live among one of the largest herds of wild ungulates left, and eventually, each of them dies.
Just last week, we rented a Forest Service cabin for a couple of nights. On the way home, we stopped so Himself could check out a side stream. I was behind him when we smelled it. A gut pile. A large rib cage. An elk. He turned, waved to me to keep the dog off. Later, he said he thought it was a grizzly kill. We were maybe 25 feet off the road. Someone had taken the head already. No antlers.
Usually, the bones are from less dramatic events. Animals just die, or hunters kill them. The elk bone Hank has been carrying around is from one of 2 skeletons at the beginning of our walk, elk that seem to have been poached several years back. Wasted. There’s a reason that’s an offense out here. You’ll lose your hunting rights for life. You can go to jail.
It’s Dia de los Muertos as I write this. A day of bones. A day of festive skeletons. A day when we lay out altars, cook our beloved dead their favorite food, try to feel them through the veil. This year, it feels like there are so many hungry dead. All those who have died in the pandemic. All the funerals we haven’t had. I watched my first Zoom funeral last week. My first childhood friend. My running buddy. We were the two oldest and for several years we ran the world together, bossing our younger brothers and neighbors, making the rules for all the games. I haven’t seen him in years, although I stay in his parents’ house when I’m “home.” He’s on my altar this year, as are my brothers, both of them. There’s Denny, who I led trips with and who I loved in my teens and twenties. There’s Gail and Mme. Chau, the mother and mother-in-law of my oldest college friend, the one who has lived in Taiwan all these years. Women I loved, both of them. We have at least three in our social circle here in town, friends who died but for whom we’ve not been able to have funerals. It wasn’t COVID, but COVID meant we couldn’t come together, couldn’t bring food, couldn’t wake them at the Elk’s club with booze and speeches. We’re good at this here. It’s one reason I stayed after my brother died all those years ago — because the community came together, held me for years.
This morning, walking the dog down along the Yellowstone river, it was as beautiful as it ever is. Blue skies, white snow on peaks, rustling leaves, the reassuring sound of the river. I took a picture of Emigrant Peak to the south, the mountain that rises from the yard of Himself’s cabin, the mountain we watch through the skylight as we drink coffee in bed on mornings when we’re there. I have no idea what’s going to happen tomorrow. Last time, I assuaged my fears by driving to Yellowstone the morning after the election. I went to see the bison. I went to sit among the bison, those enormous beasts, who our government tried to wipe out as part of their larger genocidal campaign against the indigenous people who lived here. The bison survived, but their gene pool is dangerously narrow, and the local cattle ranchers are still at war, still trying to keep the largest native ungulate confined to a mere 3000, locked in the Park and a few acres of grassy lowland just outside the Park. It’s the only animal managed not as wildlife, but as a type of cattle. Which is absurd. Nonetheless, they persisted.
When Himself and I first started dating, we were hunting mushrooms in the spring, up a drainage in the southern part of the Paradise valley. “Hey!” I said from atop what I thought was a small hill beside the stream. “There’s vertebrae up here. What is this?” Himself looked around, then started digging somewhat frantically below me. I was standing on the buried skeleton of a bison, a bison whose skull Himself dug up. It was huge, and very very heavy after being buried for who knows how long? Decades? Centuries? It’s a drainage where he’s found arrowheads, and chips. It would be a good place to trap a bison if you had to, if you were trying to kill it with hand weapons.
We have so much work to do, and so much damage to try to fix. This morning, as freaked out as everyone else, all I could do was look at that mountain shining to the south, and think about how the woods are full of bones because they are still, improbably, full of animals. We still have elk, and two species of deer, and antelope here. Elwood saw a moose cow and calf last week when he was hunting. He sent around the video. Improbably awkward creatures. We have bison and wolves, coyotes and foxes, mountain lions and bobcats. We have raccoons and skunks and generations of bunnies who live under the pallet on which the garbage can sits. We have bears. We have eagles both bald and golden, and hawks, and owls, and Sandhill cranes.
And so, this Dia de los Muertos, I’m going to decorate the photos of my beloved dead with the last of the calendula and marigolds from my garden. I’m going to try to stay off the doomscroller. I’m going to try to center myself, and ask my beloved dead to give me strength for what is to come.
May we all meet up on the other side of whatever we’re about to experience as a nation. May our better angels prevail.
It’s been a race around here to get the garden harvested and put to bed. Weekends have been filled with chores like planting 100 tulip/daffodil/grape hyacinth bulbs, along with lavenders and a couple of new rugosa roses in the front yard, to stacking wood, to harvesting the last of the tomatoes, kales, chards, herbs and then burying everything under a layer of straw for the winter. It was a race I think I won, by mere moments, as today we woke up to a full two feet of new snow, with temps projected to go down into single digits or below zero tonight.
I’ve been seeing articles about folks stocking up for another round of COVID, or post-election unrest, and while it’s true that Montana’s virus numbers are shooting through the roof, I’m actually less worried about violence than I was a few weeks ago. The air seems to have gone out of the worst of the Trump-flag jacked-up truck guys. But the stocking up. I have to admit, I’ve been stocking up again.
I have always stocked the pantry when I’m anxious. It was only a couple of years after our parents divorced that my mother put me in charge of shopping and cooking. Our budgets were so tight, and while she had jobs, they were the kinds of low-level clerical jobs that divorced women with no college education could get in the 70s and 80s. And Dad, well, let’s just say that Dad seemed to think the child support was more of a suggestion than an obligation. And so I learned early how to stretch a pot roast, or Mom’s favorite, a cheap frozen turkey, and how to repurpose it over time to make things last. These journeys usually ended with soup.
Someone on Twitter asked for people’s favorite soup recipes the other day and the first thing I thought was recipe? Who uses a recipe for soup? For me, soup is something you make out of what’s at hand. The other day, I made a nice little lentil soup to eat with toast for lunch. I chopped up a leek, and some cabbage, then peeled a couple of carrots and diced them. Into the pot it all went with some olive oil, red pepper flakes, garlic and a little salt to sauté down. When the veggies were soft, I added a pint of home-canned turkey stock, a pint of water, a slug of white wine, and then shook in some of those nice tiny French lentils from the quart jar where I keep them. I put in maybe 1/2 a pint? It seemed a little spartan, so I added a slug of soy sauce, and a good shake of fish sauce to give it a little more umami. Half an hour later, there was a lovely little lunch soup. Made from what I have.
Soup is thrift personified. Soup is what you make from those odd bits leftover in the fridge, and, if you work at home like I do, soup is a perfect lunch. When we were so broke after the divorce, my mother’s great friend Maryellen Smith referred to end-of-the-week soup as “Garbage Soup,” a name we found hilarious as children.
Its been several years since I’ve really paid this much attention to household and pantry management. Since Himself won’t eat most vegetables, there were a bunch of years where I just grew greens in the garden for myself, and flowers, but didn’t put much up for winter. This year, I’ve shifted back to homegrown and home-preserved. I cooked down bushels of kales and chards, sautéed with onion or leek, slicked with olive oil, then frozen in blocks in this silicone freezer mold I bought. Once they’re frozen, I pop the cubes out and seal them with the vacuum sealer. I think I have enough greens, chopped scallions, and tomatoes in the freezer to see me through a lot of the winter.
Householding is a real skill, and one we’ve stopped teaching over the past couple of decades. If you look at any of the older versions of cookbooks like Joy of Cooking, they’re largely concerned with how to budget, and plan meals for a week. The chicken you roast for Sunday can become at least 2 more meals, including a delicious soup. Keeping a pantry stocked with dry goods means that if it’s been a long day at work, you can always whip up some pasta with olive oil and garlic, or a quick tomato sauce.
None of this is news. It used to be common sense to keep a stocked pantry, and perhaps one of the reasons we keep seeing these same articles over and over is that planning ahead, and stocking up on raw materials from which you can cook your own meals, goes against the grain of everything that food media and food corporations have told us for the past couple of decades. The primary message has been that cooking is unnecessary when there are prepared meals in the grocery store. The grocery aisles are full of packaged food items that would have been unimaginable when I was a kid. Not just the frozen meals and meal kits, but things like prepared pot roast in the meat aisle. There are whole generations who have grown up on takeout — who have always lived in a world where you could order restaurant meals and have them delivered to your house.
Now I’m not trying to say that all of that is bad. My mother is 80, and doesn’t really cook anymore, and finds the grocery store terrifying and overwhelming, so she orders from places like Panera, or the local Italian place, as a matter of course. But now that we’ve all been sent home again, perhaps we can recast the notion of a full pantry not as some crazy thing that only “preppers” do, but as a normal way of being in the world.
I’d love to see Home Ec put back in schools, in a gender neutral way, so that everyone can learn some basic cooking skills, as well as how to use a sewing machine and do simple home repairs. Throw in some budgeting and consumer education about interest rates and we’d all be in better shape.
We can also push back against the idea that cooking = restaurant food. Samin Nosrat has been brilliant on this topic on Home Cooking, the podcast she hosts with Hrishikesh Hirway. She likes to remind people that when you’re cooking for yourself, you don’t have to be producing the kinds of plates you might order in a restaurant. Home meals can be as simple as rice or noodles with some sauteed veg and perhaps an egg. Or just cheese. It doesn’t have to be complicated, and you don’t need a recipe to make yourself dinner.
If this pandemic has taught many of us one thing, it might just be that we’re more competent than we thought we were. We can not only make a sourdough bread, but cook ourselves dinner. So many people took up gardening this summer that there were shortages of canning jars and lids. We can take back control of what we’re eating and how, and how we are feeding ourselves and our loved ones. A tiny tiny pearlescent lining, to what has been a very dark time …
Aside from (waves hand) all this going on … it’s fall, which means that my evenings and weekends, which is when I read and try to make headway on this book, are taken up with garden and kitchen chores.
It’s also that time of year where all of us leave fruit on one another’s doorsteps. Sophie left a bag of apples a couple of weeks ago (they’re in the basement, keeping, but I need to do something with them). Jamie left half a wine box of plums. I’d just finished putting up the Montana peaches I found when our Utah provider didn’t show up this year (frost, COVID, who knows?). I’ve put up gooseberry, red currant, sour cherry and peach preserves. I made some terrific sour pickles, and have some green tomatoes fermenting (should check on them). And today, when faced with Jamie’s beautiful plums, I turned to the Ukranian/Persian/Romanian cookbooks I wrote about last week. There’s a sour plum sauce I’ve been kind of fascinated by — Tmelki.
This turns out to be one of those things for which there are a million recipes. I found 2 different versions in 2 of Olia Hercules’ books, one in Naomi Duiguid’s Persia, and another several dozen online. The key ingredients for the red version (as opposed to the even more sour green version made with green plums) seemed to be plums, garlic, and chile. Then there were a couple of flavor profiles — one was Blue Fenungreek/Dill/Coriander seed, and one was Blue Fenungreek/Summer Savory/Mint. So here’s the thing, Himself hates fenungreek. I like it, but there’s no point putting up a huge batch of something I can’t use at all for meals we share. So … I sort of fudged it. I have a spice blend from World Spice out of Seattle that I love called Advieh — Cinnamon, cumin, coriander, cardamom, rose petal, black pepper. It’s supposedly Persian, and I adore it.
I cook by smell much of the time. I smelled the plums cooking down, and smelled my Advieh blend, and thought of garlic and chile and smoked paprika added … I made a little test bowl … I fiddled. And then I had to run the cooled pot of plums cooked until they popped, through a food mill. That was messy. There was a lot of fishing around for pits. But eventually, I had a fairly large amount of plum sludge. I ground up 2 heads of nice, local, hardneck garlic in the mini-chop and dumped it in. I used about half a cup of bottled lemon juice to rinse out the mini-chop, as I was a tiny bit worried about canning this. It doesn’t have any sugar in it, so you want to make sure it’s acidic enough to not botulize the garlic.
And then I started playing. I use my great-grandmother’s silver set for everyday, and the bouillon spoons measure out to a tablespoon, and the small round teaspoons to … a teaspoon. So, I started with a couple of tablespoons of salt, then about the same of Advieh. About 2 tablespoons smoked paprika, and 1/2 a tablespoon cayenne. Whenever you’re working with chile powders, remember to taste as you go. They all vary. Some are sweet/hot, some are just hot/hot … these were brand new spices I bought this afternoon. We’re lucky enough to have a local spice company that stocks our grocery store on the regular. I stirred, it cooked down, I tasted. Added a little more ground coriander, some pomegranate molasses. Stirred, cooked down. Tasted. It started to thicken up. It had a nice heat. Not too hot, a slow heat along the back of your mouth. The sour is lovely. The spices were warm without being cloying.
I bottled it up in 1/2 pint jars, and processed in the water bath for 20 minutes. It should round itself out nicely over the next few weeks before I send them out as Christmas presents.
By the time I was done, I felt that despite everything going on, despite the political chaos, and my job being, you know, a real job, and worrying about the non-communicative person who was supposedly bringing me firewood (were they bringing 1.5 cords, or 3? I didn’t know! They weren’t going to get here until after dark. Was the wood going to be any good? Did I pay too much? Would the cords be short?) … despite all that, I’d taken the half a box of beautiful plums my friend Jamie grew, and I’d made them into something. I’d turned to the cookbooks from a culture where they’d had to make the best of things for millenia, as waves of invaders political regimes had waxed and waned, and I’d used it here, in Montana, in my little kitchen during a time of turmoil.
Winter is coming, but there’s a pile of what looks to be nice firewood in the alley that needs to be moved tomorrow, and a shelf full of preserved fruits, and pickles, and Christmas presents, and I got the new peonies planted in the front yard where the grass is now buried under layers of compost and soil pep, and later this week, I’ll figure out where to plant those daffodil bulbs.
It’s all such a lot. But sometimes, all we can do is what we can do. Make sauce from plums that show up on your doorstep. Stack the wood. Prepare for winter.
One of the few good things to have come out of this pandemic, for people like me who live in far-flung places, is that we can call in for author events and even little workshops in ways that were unheard of in the Before Times. Last week, I Zoomed in for a terrific conversation with Helen Macdonald and Jeff VanderMeer about her new book, Vesper Flights. It was a terrific conversation, especially when you consider that Macdonald was basically calling in from the dead of night in the UK. Toward the end, VanderMeer (whose work I have yet to read but who I love following on Twitter) asked her how she responds to “people who ask why non-human nature even matters…”
At which point, the top of my head came off.
Macdonald was stumped for a moment (it was midnight her time), and kind of waved her hands around, then quoted Robin Wall Kimmerer’s anecdote in Braiding Sweetgrass, where she asks her students if they’d feel differently about the natural world if it loved them back.
Which is not the direction my head, now in flames, was going. I was bouncing in my seat and shouting into the Zoom void that nature matters because we’re all nature. We are nature. Nature is in us. We live IN nature — it’s not something out there.
The more we learn, the more we discover that we’re what Donna Haraway describes as cyborg reality. In The Cyborg Manifesto (1985) she outlines a concept of cyborg that specifically rejects rigid boundaries, especially those separating human from animal and human from machine. In When Species Meet (2007), Haraway takes this point further, noting that:
“Human genomes can be found in only about 10 percent of all the cells that occupy the mundane space I call my body; the other 90 percent of the cells are filled with the genomes of bacteria, fungi, protists, and such, some of which play in a symphony necessary to my being alive at all, and some of which are hitching a ride and doing the rest of me, of us, no harm. I am vastly outnumbered by my tiny companions; better put, I become an adult human being in company with these tiny messmates” (When Species Meet, p. 4).
But we all know that discussions of the gut biome are not what we mean by nature writing, a topic I’ve studied for decades now, and one about which I still have so many grumbling muttering ongoing discussions with myself. Often, these discussions take place on my dog walks, which because I’m in Livingston, Montana, usually take place in the Paradise Valley. Which is stupendously beautiful. That’s it up at the top of the post, this afternoon, on said dog walk.
That’s what nature writing is supposed to be about, right? That thing out there. In the American idiom, it’s about Sweeping Vistas and Big Adventures (often male). It’s about that thing we’re trying to save with our writing. Wilderness. The Wild.
Again, in the photo, that’s it — the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness area. It starts about halfway up that front range and runs east to about Cody Wyoming. It is huge, and magnificent, and something very much to be fought for and protected.
I’ve lived here since 2002 and have only ever been a couple of miles inside the boundary. I moved to the wilderness and built a domestic life. I live in town. I have a garden. I have pets (couldn’t have the chickens if I lived down valley — too many predators). Himself has a cabin on the lower slope of Emigrant peak, where we share the yard most of the winter with a large herd of elk does and calves. We’ve seen mountain lions and bears and coyotes and foxes and bobcats and birds, and lots and lots of bunnies. There’s a bunny who lives under the pallet where the garbage cans are secured from the winds that blow all winter. That’s “garbage can bunny.” Generations of garbage can bunny have hung out with Himself while he cuts wood, or putters around the place. We love garbage can bunny even if he’s not as thrilling as the very healthy mountain lion we catch on the game camera once or twice a year.
Seems that one of the things we’re all learning in lockdown is how we are, despite all the promises of the techno-future, still nature. The entire globe has been shut down because of a virus, and we’ve all come crashing up against our biological natures. Remember March and April? When we were all sprouting scallions in glasses of water, just to have some contact with the green world? As a way of giving ourselves hope? Nature is both the red tailed hawk who has sailed out of the cottonwood tree to hang, just off the riverside bluff, like a big showoff these past few mornings AND the bacteria that made my yogurt set last week.
Modern nature writing in the US grew out of the great conservation movements of the 1950s and 60s — a movement that brought us the very wilderness area under whose shadow I walk most mornings. That those wilderness areas are still under constant threat from those who would seek to privatize sell them off, log them or mine them them, means that our nature writing here in the US is usually written in a defensive crouch. Is this good for The Wild? Will this leave an opening for enemies of The Wild?
One thing I appreciate in so much nature writing coming out of the UK is that because they don’t write in this shadow, there’s often a lightness, and a vibrancy to it that I think can get lost over here. Writers like Helen Macdonald, Kathleen Jamie, James Rebanks, and even some of their gardening writers like Dan Pearson are doing terrific work exploring the borders of what is nature, and what is human, and what happens when the two meet up.
At one point during the Zoom event, VanderMeer asked a question I heard our late neighbor Jim Harrison ask at UC Davis 25 years ago — what about nature that isn’t scenic? What is its worth? Who is going to save it? What about VanderMeer’s ravines, or all those woodland edges we hung out in on the edge of the condo developments when I was a kid? Perhaps one way to start “saving” the natural world is to begin to think of it as where we live. As something inside and outside of our bodies, as something in our houses and our yards, and yes, also as a sweeping vista to which we travel, when we can travel again, to remind ourselves of the sublime.
But nature doesn’t belong only to the sublime. It belongs also to the local, to the homey, to the scallions in a water glass, the birds at our feeders, the bacteria in our yogurt.