Write as if you were dying.

Write as if you were dying.

Originally published at Substack: AUG 7, 2023

Cluster of dark pink hollyhocks in front of an apple tree trunk.

Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. What would you begin writing if you knew you would die soon? What could you say to a dying patient that would not enrage by its triviality?

–from “Write Till You Drop,” The New York Times, 1989

I’ve had this quote from Annie Dillard on my corkboard since that interview came out in the NY Times in 1989. At the time, I was writing Place Last Seen and so, spent all my time trying to imagine, and convey, the terror of turning around to discover that your beloved child is simply not there.

And now we’re up against it. There’s a family member who got a terrible diagnosis this week. It’s not my story to tell, but this person is deeply loved, and lives are going to be changed forever.

Those of us who love them — what can we do? What can you say that’s going to make any difference at all? Why do we even do this? The writing of things on pages?

I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately, as I’ve returned to my ongoing memoir project, a project that it’s taken me decades to get a handle on. While the book circles around the experience of losing both my brothers, 30 years apart, it’s taken so long because I don’t want it to be just about that. The dread “misery memoir” of the early aughts. While it’s true that losing the person you survived with is an utterly destabilizing experience, if there’s anything I’ve learned in the last few years watching the generation above me lose their spouses, and their friends, and finally, their own lives — it’s that no matter how happy our passage through this life has been, the Buddha’s first noble truth is still, well, true. All life is suffering. Everyone is, has been or will be subject to suffering. There’s no escape from it. We can’t buy our way out of it. We can’t “wellness” our way out of it. We can’t pray our way out of it. I keep thinking about Marc Maron, after he lost his partner Lynn, so suddenly and out of the blue. “Look,” he keeps saying. “First of all, this didn’t happen to me, it happened to Lynn. And second, it’s utterly normal. This is going to happen to every one of us at some point. It’s terrible, but it’s normal.”

Which doesn’t make it any easier when the gun is pointed at someone you love. When people you love are going to have to suffer. Actually suffer. Real physical and emotional pain. When you can see it coming like this.

I started writing a memoir for a couple of reasons. One, I was a writer, it’s what we do. I was taking notes from the minute the coroner drove away from my curb. But I also started, I suppose, to keep myself company. To keep Patrick near by and alive in my mind, in my heart. What I discovered was the converse. The more I tried to write about him the less accurate it seemed. “No matter how hard I try,” I wrote in an early draft, “I’ll never be able to get Patrick on the page.” A reader, another writer (because that’s who we show our work to, other writers) queried, “why not?” Which seemed to demonstrate a kind of optimism toward writing that I found both touching and alienating.

I could not get Patrick on the page because Patrick was a living, breathing human being with a complex interiority, some of which I had access to, but much of which I did not. He was not a character, not a story.

And he was gone.

I’ve been thinking I’ll send Derek Jarman’s Modern Nature to my person. If you’re ill, the nice thing about books written in small chunks is you can dip in and out of them, and Jarman is good company. He was also up against it. Jarman was one of that wave of irreplaceable human beings we lost to AIDs in the days when there were no treatments. He’s famous in the UK for having been out when that was taboo, during the days of Section 28, the laws that banned “promotion of homosexuality.” You know, the kind of bullshit the right is trying to bring back here, anywhere they can get away with it. But that aside, I thought of Jarman because he was hopeful in the face of dreadful news. “I refuse to believe in my mortality, or the statistics which hedge the modern world about, like the briar that walled in the sleeping princess,” he wrote. “I have conducted my whole life without fitting in, so why should I panic now and fit into statistics?”

Jarman writes precisely and beautifully about illness. He was in and out of the hospital through most of the writing of Modern Nature. He writes about night sweats, and not being able to breathe, and finally, about going blind. And he writes with great joy about getting sprung, even if only for the day, and driven out to his beloved Prospect Cottage, where he was building a deeply odd, and very lovely garden, a garden that changed the course of English garden design ever after. He was also writing and making films and keeping up with friends, some of whom died before he did. He was very much, and very actively engaged with life and the world up until the very moment he was wrenched out of it.

I had a classics professor at Beloit I adored, John Wyatt. A few years after I graduated I contacted him about something, only to learn he’d left Beloit and was working in LA for an organization that had brought him in to teach Classics to AIDs patients. “They’re really up against it,” he said in the most matter-of-fact way possible. “The least I can do is try to give them some context.” Wyatt spent his career at Beloit asking us, a group of fairly spoiled suburban white kids, to think about not just the works we were reading, but about what kind of death we wanted. About how we would live our lives so as to have a meaningful death. Most of what Wyatt taught us came down to thinking about our lives in the context of Spinoza’s concept of sub specie aeternitatis, that we should live under the aspect of eternity, constantly looking at how our actions are impacting the world and the future. Wyatt spent a lot of time pushing back on the American idea that life is a pursuit of “happiness” and instead, like the classicist he was, kept reminding us that a life of virtue, a life well lived, is a specific and more lasting kind of happiness.

Jarman’s Modern Nature is very much written sub specie aeternitatis. It is a book about joys. Joys of the body (including cruising forays into Hampstead Heath) — even as that body fails. The joy that comes from living authentically, despite what the government or anyone else says. The joy of family, in this case, a found family centered on his beloved Keith Collins, a younger man Jarman met at a movie festival, who came to live with him and take care of him and help him make his last several movies, including Blue, the movie he made while nearly blind — and who lived out the rest of his days in Prospect Cottage.

John Wyatt died of cancer about fifteen years ago, too young, but after a life well lived. He was a good and decent man. I wouldn’t have a PhD without the phone call he made one night when after I wrote him a long letter about a crisis, a trap of Theory I couldn’t navigate. I thought I might have to quit. I couldn’t see a way to proceed without giving up principles that were core to my artistic project, core to my personhood. Fifteen years after being in his classes, Wyatt called me on the phone. He talked me through several approaches to the dilemma I was in. He reached out. He did what he could.

Which is, I suppose, all we can hope to do for our loved ones in these situations. There’s absolutely nothing I can do to make this situation any less terrible than it is (well, there may be some wrangling of Problematic Older Relatives, a sword I will throw myself on). We can send packages. We can make phone calls, even if all we can do is sit on the other end of the phone line, breathing together, as my cousin Elizabeth did for me in those months after Patrick died. We can think of Marc Maron’s reminder that this isn’t about us, it’s about them. We can try to channel Derek Jarman’s faith that someone has to be in the right side of all the terrible statistics, so why not us? Why not our person?

As for the other question, why we write when writing cannot save our loved ones? We write, I suppose, because it’s what we do. We write, or make art, or build gardens, or put up the ephemeral peaches of summer in jars because we are alive, and to turn away from that gift is to betray all the people we loved who we have lost. We go on because the world does. Because even as terrible news comes over the phone, even as all my people call and text and circle back with one another in the wake of this, there are hollyhocks of such a deep pink blooming in the yard that they make it clear the world goes on. The world sends up pink hollyhocks even in times like these. And it’s our job to witness them. To celebrate them. To make something of them.

Summer in a jar

Summer in a jar

Making as an act of subversion

Originally published at Substack: JUL 17, 2023

Half pint jar with black currant jam and a silver spoon. On a cutting board with a jar lid and ring in the background.
Backyard Black Currant Jam

When everything burst into flower at once in May, I knew I might be in for a busy summer. Over the years, I’ve planted a lot of fruit in this yard. I have gooseberry, red currant, black currant and raspberry bushes. I have a grapevine (last year I got a single bunch, but since I’d been killing grapevines for years, I was okay with that). I have three sour cherry trees, an American plum, a greengage that seems to be growing a feral plum grove around itself, and four apple trees.

It’s a lot.
Some years, there’s hardly any fruit. If things flower too early they get snowed on, and the apple trees are old, they only seem to really throw a good fruit crop every other year. The greengage has set fruit maybe 5 or 6 times in the 2 decades I’ve lived here, but when it does, they’re delicious. My plum tree hasn’t had good fruit in several years, I think it had to fight off the same fireblight that I fear is killing one of my big apple trees, but this year, it’s laden with fruit. It’s bowed down.

And then there’s my cherry trees. When I moved in, there was a grove of feral cherry trees down the block in an empty lot. I used to sidle down there with a bucket, and harvest enough cherries to put up in jars for a year’s worth of baked goods, and on yogurt in the morning. Then one spring they didn’t come back. The trees were dead. Turns out every cherry tree in town was dead. We’d all forgotten, but the autumn before, we’d had a fluke freeze. It went from 60F to -20F in 12 hours, then came back up into the 40s. It killed a lot of fruit trees in town. I think it was the fall of 2018? (I’m terrible with dates).

So the next spring I bought two bare-root Montmorency cherries and planted them in the front yard. One is still very small, it wasn’t sunny enough where it was, and then it got kind of bashed up by the roofers (they tried to be careful, but things happen). So I moved it across to the sunnier side, and bought a Bali cherry, which is a varietal discovered on an abandoned farmstead in the Yukon (they think it’s Russian by origin). My goal is, enough cherries for the year here in my own yard, and perhaps some morning shade eventually on that really hot side of the house.

This year was the first year the big cherry tree produced. There were SO many lovely red cherries, dangling in twos. I had a little trouble with the robins though, so I had to net it. I had a long discussion with that juvenile robin — go down the block, I told him, there’s a whole grove over there. Alas, he didn’t listen, so the whole little tree is now covered in bird netting, and thank goodness I haven’t killed any birds.

I harvested about a kilo and a half of pitted cherries so far, which I put up in a 3/4 sugar syrup. I probably have one more batch to do later this week when the rest of the cherries get ripe, and maybe the temperatures cool off enough? I like to go into a winter with about 10 pints of cherries if I can. They’re delicious on yogurt in the morning, on ice cream, in the almond-yogurt cake I make for every occasion.

I also managed to put up some gooseberries this year. Gooseberries are a pain because you have to “top and tail” them — pinch off the blossom end, and the stem. Frankly, I usually leave the gooseberries for the chickens and the wild birds because they’re such a pain in the neck, but because it was so wet this spring, they were lovely and fat and such a pretty clear green. So I put up about 6 half pints of gooseberry jam with ginger and cardamom, which was nice and tart and gingery and I think would be really nice over toast with goat cheese.

Lastly, we have the blackcurrants. Blackcurrants were illegal in the US for a long time as they were a vector for White Pine Blister Rust, but in the last 15 years or so it’s become legal to plant them again. Mine are about 7 or 8 years old , but they had to be moved around the yard a couple of times before they took. Years past, I’ve just thwacked them in some vodka with sugar and made them into kir, but since I’m not really drinking anymore, I made jam this year. Boy howdy. It’s glorious. Again, we had big fat berries thanks to all the rain, and they cooked down and set up into this delicious, very purple, delicious jam. Tons of vitamin C as well.

Canning seems to have come and gone as a stylish hobby, but I’m still here, putting food up in jars. It’s been a weird couple of weeks. There was a thing I’m not ready to talk about yet, and then an unexpected family health scare, which looks like it will be okay, and has resulted in some useful conversations among people who don’t always communicate well, but it was a real heart stopper. Now that I don’t have siblings anymore, my two younger cousins have stepped in. We were all raised more like siblings than like American cousins, who tend not to even know one another, and that they still like me despite the fact that I was a tiny tyrant who ruled over them with an iron fist, well, I’m deeply grateful. But I’m also not ready for any of them to not be well. They’re all younger than me!

I don’t know why I always feel like I have to explain that I spend so much time every year growing and putting up food. When I started, it wasn’t a thing people really did, you had to use the recipes in the Ball Canning booklet, or in older versions of Joy of Cooking. Then came the Instagram era of canning, which was annoying, but on the other hand, a lot of people learned some useful skills. Sort of like sourdough bread during Covid. It’s not a bad thing to know how to do stuff.

The goal all along on this house project has been to do as many things as I can while I have some money, so that I can live on way less money later. The house is paid off, as is the car. I paid cash for the solar panels, which while they can’t replace my entire reliance on the grid, look like they should bring it down to a range between 75-90% energy independence. I can grow food and put it up so that I can have nice things that are often too expensive in the stores. I learned how to make some simple, and slightly odd, yet stylish clothes of my own, which means that I can wear clothes in nicer fabrics than I can afford in the stores, and I don’t look like everyone else.

This is the part I don’t get, why everyone wants to look like everyone else. I’ve been reading Sarah Schulman again, her brilliant Gentrification of the Mind, and this passage struck me last night:

…gentrified thinking … is a social position rooted in received wisdom, with aesthetics blindly selected from the presorted offerings of marketing … it is a huge, unconscious conspiracy of homogenous patterns with no awareness about its own freakishness. The gentrification mentality is rooted in the belief that obedience to consumer identity over recognition of lived experience is actually normal, neutral, and value free.

We’re surrounded by these strange pockets of homogenous social life.This time of year it’s flocks of men, dressed literally in matching fly-fishing shirts who gather in the Murray Bar at the end of the day. People have built whole identities around companies like Patagonia and whatever the new Patagonia is. For a while, there was a plague of Instagram girls in their early 30s, usually blonde, wearing the same strange hat with a flat wide brim, usually with a naked toddler on one hip. And of course, the really horrific newcomers, the ones in the giant yellow Jeeps and Hummers with the Trump stickers, or who refuse to get rid of their Texas license plates, are just their own kind of consumer identity. White goatees on the men seem to be an indicator of this tribe.

Who knows what it is that I’ve been doing back here in this yard all these years? Writing some things, growing a lot of things, learning to recognize which pests I need to kill (sawflies on the ribes for instance) and which ones I can coexist with. I’ve been making stuff and living with my oddball dude, a guy who builds things and finds things and has decorated his cabin with a world-class collection of garage sale paintings of elk and deer and pretty mountains, most of which were painted by the now-gone railroad workers and their wives, who took classes at the community center. We were that kind of town. And now we are not.

And I have no idea what to do about it other than to hunker down, make some jam, put up more greens for winter, keep making my own clothes, and keep trying to find a way to write about it all that also manages to escape, or at least try to escape, the homogeneity of consumerist thinking.

Studio Days

Studio Days

On puttering as creative practice

Originally published at Substack: JUL 3, 2023

Yellow backyard shed, raised bed garden with lots of flowers and plants. Green metal chair in the foreground.
My backyard experiment after six weeks of unusual and welcome rain and cool temperatures.

I feel like the last few newsletters have been excessively grumpy and it made me realize that I’ve been stretched a little thin. As always, when things get busy, what gets dropped is creative stuff — and so I took this week off work to try to get my mojo back.

Someone I follow on Substack had a piece a few weeks back about how they’d finally gotten a “studio day” and how rejuvenating it had been. I cannot for the life of me find the piece, but the gist of it involved re-entering the physical space where one does creative work, getting it set up, noodling around on ideas, and not putting big pressure on oneself to “produce”.

That last bit might be the most important.

I have a book I’ve been struggling with for over a decade, in part because enough time needed to pass to know how that story ends, and in part because it took me a very long time to be well enough to write from a voice that feels authentic to what I want to say.

I published a novel right out of graduate school, with a Big 5 publisher (I think there were still more than 5 in those days). But because academia and I were a very very bad fit, and I was up to my eyeballs in debt, I got a real job in tech, where I’ve worked full time ever since. I was also part way through a second novel when my brother Patrick was killed in a car wreck. The combination of the two meant I didn’t pursue writing novels as a career, and so, for many many years I’ve been picking this project up and putting it down.

Because the book has gone feral on me so many times, and because I might have had a tiny bit of depression around my abandoned writing career, it often takes a few days of reorganizing spaces, of moving books, of doing adjacent creative projects like playing around this morning with an herb-infused honey, or yesterday’s project of a new batch of herb salt for the year (our wet spring means I have tarragon and summer savory coming out my ears). Sometimes it’s a sewing project.

I felt really guilty about these side projects for a long time, until one day I picked up Bernard Cooper’s memoir My Avant-Garde Education. Cooper taught at Utah while I was there, and although I never studied with him directly, I remembered liking him. He was kind, a quality in short supply in that program. The thing is, Cooper went to art school, not to a writing program. This was a world about which I was utterly ignorant, not about the art so much, as about the kind of education artists undertake. The question that took Cooper’s head off as a young art student was “Is it possible to make a work of art that is not embodied in an object?” As a midwesterner, conceptual art always struck me as pretentious, a con. But reading Cooper’s sentimental education clicked something for me, something about how the concept of process could be useful for a writer. It’s not something we value much. Writers are all about publication, all about the product.

At one point, Cooper says that

“In a classroom in Manhattan, on a rainy day, my perception of art was changed forever. …Vito Acconci’s pedagogy was a mixture of persistent inquiry, faith in the invisible, and nudges toward the unknown. It struck me for the first time that art might find forms beyond painting and sculpture.”

I had a classics prof in college who often spoke to us about St. Teresa of Avila’s thinking on the dark night of the soul. About how faith required a willingness to stay in a state of “persistent inquiry, faith in the invisible, and nudges toward the unknown.” That the beauty and brilliance of St. Teresa’s work on this topic is that it is especially in the absence of faith where faith is required. Wyatt wasn’t talking about religious faith per se, but rather, about the faith we each require simply to keep going, and to do something meaningful with our lives.

Cooper’s book sent me on a kind of deep dive into books about the art world and artists. There’s a terrific series of anthologies, the Whitechapel: Documents of Contemporary Art anthologies that I’ve found enormously useful. There are volumes on topics like Memory, Ruin, Animals, Ethics, The Rural, Craft and many more. Each one contains essays putting into context the theme’s significance to contemporary visual culture. Plus, they’re gorgeous little books. This period of slight obsession with visual art and artists also coincided with Celia Paul’s two astonishingly strange books: Self Portrait, and Letters to Gwen John.

For a couple of years, most of what I was reading was about inventing new art forms, about how artists organized their lives to do so, about what worked and what didn’t, about how to keep working through these artistic dark nights of the soul.

There’s a discourse out there that crops up every so often on social media that pits those of us who don’t have to earn a living from our writing against those writers who can, or do, or are willing to risk penury to try. Since there’s no real discourse of practice among writers, no studio tours, no discussions of what your artistic project is and how the work you’re doing now is trying to accomplish those goals, the entire conversation around writerly success comes down to publication. And writers who rely on publication to make a living tend to call those of us who don’t, hobbyists. Which, since this is America, where the only real standard most people rely on is money, makes a kind of sense. But it doesn’t leave much room for people who do have serious artistic goals, but who can’t dedicate more than bits and chunks of time here and there to accomplishing them.

Once again, capitalism ruining everything. But anyway …

What I found, and continue to find useful in reading about visual art process, is that visual artists describe art as a set of practices in a way that allows me to position all the making I’ve done over these years — the learning to sew in order to define the shape I make in space, for example; or the process of building a garden that is both productive of food, full of flowers, and a place where I can find refuge while hoping to navigate the effects of climate change — all of these making projects, which for so long I thought of as stealing time from my writing — could be conceived of as a larger art practice.

As tempting as it is to claim that my 20 year experiment here in making and growing things is part of some larger performance art piece, I think that’s a stretch. However, I have learned to see the ways that these ancillary creative practices feed into the work I’m trying to accomplish.

But sometimes it takes a few days of not having deadlines, or meetings, or social events. Sometimes it takes a few “studio days” of noodling around, and writing in notebooks and playing with recipes or making a new sewing pattern or figuring out how to rehab those few beautiful family linens that survived my mother’s apartment. And so, that’s where you’ll find me this week. Dog walking and gardening and drinking tea and walking in circles and writing in notebooks and with any luck, unlocking that part of my brain that has something to say about the constellation of grief and love and making and wilderness that I’ve been wrestling with for years now, and getting another little chunk of that down on virtual paper.

So I’ve given myself a studio week — a week to make friends again with my project.



The tourists and the rain and my dying cat …

Originally published at Substack, JUN 19, 2023

The rain has been fabulous for the garden

It is a rainy Sunday afternoon and it seems that Betty Boop, the wizened elder-kitty of indeterminate age, is probably dying of kidney failure. It happens with old cats. She spent yesterday having a series of small seizures all day long, including one where she lost control of her bladder while sitting next to me on the couch. While we had guests. Which wasn’t a big deal, but was totally uncharacteristic. I tucked her into her cozy lair in the greenhouse room overnight, where she snoozed on her kitty heating pad, and where she’s been hanging out pretty much all day. She’s not seizing anymore, so that’s good. Maybe it’s just an infection? But my hunch is, it’s her time. We have no idea how old she is but I’ve had her for at least 12 years, and she was not a young cat when she came to us. She’s somewhere in her upper teens. Her teeth are all broken, and she’s missing an ear and the tip of her tail, and she hasn’t made her characteristic chirping sound at me for a few days now. I am very sad, but I do not want her to suffer. We’re off to the vet first thing in the morning.

It’s been raining steadily all day, and I even fired up the woodstove a little bit, although we don’t really need it. Harriet, the other kitty, is stretched out on the hearth and Hank-dog is hiding in the basement from the thunder.

It’s lovely and peaceful, which is good, because I’ve been all worked up the past week or so by the frenetic pace of change that’s befallen our little town. I fell in love with Livingston in large part because it was a real place, where people actually lived. It wasn’t just a tourist town like Telluride, or Bozeman (of Big Sky we shall not speak). When I moved here, everyone socialized together — the writers and the contractors and the actors and the painters and the plumbers and the fishing guides. Sure, there were tourists — mostly groups of guys on fishing trips in the summer, all dressed in the same outfit, hanging out in the Murray Bar after a day on the river. They were fine. We made fun of them a little, but they were fine. There were just enough of them to keep our one or two restaurants going.

But the past few years it’s all gone turbocharged. The Paradise Valley between here and Chuck’s cabin has filled up with ugly log homes with pointy “great room” windows and green metal roofs, each perched in the middle of fenced five-to-20 acre lots that impede the wildlife but give the illusion that those people from Texas and the red parts of California, and Missouri and Minnesota have bought their little piece of the Yellowstone dream. Each one, a tiny Dutton on his manifest destiny ranch. That they live in for only part of the year, but that is still a fully-built-out home, one that’s heated all winter, cooled all summer, even when people aren’t living there. These aren’t the “summer cottages” of my childhood in Wisconsin, nice little uninsulated cabins with screen porches, where you’d drain the pipes before you left for the winter. These are second and third homes. These aren’t even the stupendously wealthy people who have bought up all the big ranches, fenced them off, posted them and put up webcams to keep out the public. These are just that 10% who have, as wealth inequality has risen, eaten up a bigger and bigger chunk of the economic pie.

Meanwhile no one under 50 can afford a home at all.

And the town of Livingston has apparently decided that our salvation lies becoming the entertainment satellite for Bozeman. Summer is an endless series of outdoor concerts and festivals and the weekly Farmer’s Market (which has very few farmers but a lot of food trucks, and more amplified music, and people selling beaded bracelets). Those of us who miss the quiet, who go to city council meetings to ask where you’re planning to park the 500-900 people you’re building a pavillion to host at more summer events, well, we’re told all this is “good for Livingston” and that we must be terrible people if we “don’t even enjoy outdoor music.”

I think we have a problem, not just in America, but on our heating planet. Tourism as we currently practice it is just not sustainable. People are frantic. Is it some strange mania to go everywhere while one still can? National Parks, Paris, Prague, Thailand, Australia, poor Hawaii where the locals have been begging people to please stop, there’s no more water. Nepal where Mt. Everest, the Mother Goddess of the world has been turned in 30 years into a giant, high-altitude garbage dump. There’s a kind of denial lodged in this frenetic tourism, in the urge to see everything, travel everywhere, tick all the destinations off all the boxes, as if travel itself is an unimpeachable good.

I drove down valley the other day and in the northbound lane, coming out of Yellowstone, I passed line after line of rental RVs. Then there are the privately owned ones, which are bigger, and usually towing a full-sized SUV. All I can think any time I see them is all the fossil fuels, burning, and for what?

The funky little town I loved is being Brooklyn-ified. We have a new store that sells handcrafted western hats that cost $700 -1500 dollars. I’d say that’s a month’s rent for most people, but now that the Airbnbs have littered up the town, you can’t even find a place to rent for that. Who is the market? It’s not people who live here. It’s rich people. Tourists. People who think buying a very expensive hat is a way to buy the experience of being in the west. People who will pose in their fancy hat for Instagram, and move on to the next place, where they’ll pose against another backdrop. We have a fancy little trattoria that gets written up in places like Food and Wine, where the journalist quotes the chefs wondering whether the locals were “ready for food like this.” The locals I know have been cooking “food like this” for decades. My ex, the hunting guide, a guy who grew up here, a guy who is definitely rough around the edges, is also an excellent cook who wooed me decades ago with first-class haute cuisine out of cookbooks by Jean-Georges, and Charlie Trotter, and with perfectly grilled quail. We were hardly rubes.

Why don’t you just sell then? They say, the people who are angry that I think Earth Wind and Fire covers are noise pollution. “Revitalization is good for the town,” someone replied on Twitter. But is relying on tourism to the extent that we are a sustainable way to build a town? And how much disruption are those of us who don’t make our living in tourism supposed to withstand?

I’m not selling. I’ve written before about how even if I wanted to move, there’s no place to move to. I’m dug in. I just put solar panels on the house so I’ll have affordable heat for my old age. I’ve planted fruit trees that are starting to bear. I have a recently-rebuilt raised bed vegetable garden (that’s mostly herbs and flowers this year) that’s in place for when I need it. And I have Chuck, who I love, and who also isn’t going anywhere. But who misses his old neighbors, the ones who worked for the railroad, or the city, or pounded nails like he did for all those decades.

I feel increasingly alienated in my own town. I’m wandering around muttering about $700 hats, and getting in spats with the cranky bakery lady when they’re out of baguettes an hour after they come out of the oven. I’m wearing noise-cancelling earbuds in my backyard while I pull weeds because it’s gotten so loud I can’t think. I’m walking around quoting Gary Snyder under my breath, that the “most radical thing. you can do is stay home.”

There’s no solution. There’s just the solace of a rainy Sunday, and a small fire in the woodstove, and my dying cat beside me on the sofa, and the books I’m reading, and the next chunk of my book I need to get back to while waiting for Chuck to come over at dinner time. There’s just staying home, and trying to keep my head down for the next three months until the summer mania passes. There’s just staying home and shoring up my resources against the collapse that’s coming, and mourning as my real town becomes a simulacrum of itself, an imitation that bears as much relation to reality as a $700 western hat has to the ballcaps that most ranchers wear to keep the sun off.

And there’s gratitude for the rain, which we haven’t seen in these quantities in years. Rain which keeps falling, rain which is feeding the roses and mock orange and nepeta and daisies and bright yellow yarrows I’ve planted along that one sunny fenceline. It’s glorious, my border. I keep trying to cling to that beauty, even if I have to wear noise-cancelling earbuds to do so.

Gardens and time

Gardens and time

Always the same. Never the same.

Originally published at Substack: JUN 5, 2023

Spring lasted about two weeks this year, but it was a glorious two weeks. I’ve never seen the trees bloom like that. Seemingly on the same day, every apple and crabapple tree, every plum and cherry, every pear tree, and the banks and banks of lilacs that often serve as borders between our city lots here in town — they all burst into the heaviest bloom any of us have seen in decades. The lilacs lasted almost two weeks. I’ve never seen anything like it. The white lilacs Himself and his ex planted back in the late 80s when they moved here, they were magnificent.

And now we’ve settled into the Ordinary Time of early summer. I’ve been pulling spring greens for a couple of weeks now. One day I pulled all the spinach, the next, the broccoli rabe.Yesterday I pulled everything that still seemed edible, the bolting spinach tops, the mustards that hadn’t gotten woody. I’ve been blanching and draining and freezing and vaccuum sealing them so I can eat my own greens for breakfast over the winter. Then today I pulled up all the remainders, the ones that had gone woody, the ones that had only just sprouted but were thin and weedy, I pulled them all up and threw them into the chicken coop/compost heap.

A layer of new compost to top up the beds, and in went the tomatoes and the peppers, tucked down deep and covered with hoops, and a light layer of fleece to keep them from burning up on a hot afternoon, keep them safe from the inevitable hailstorms of June.

The gardener digs in another time, without past or future, beginning or end. A time that does not cleave the day with rush hours. Lunch breaks, the last bus home. As you walk in the garden you pass into this time – the moment of entering can never be remembered. Around you the landscape lies transfigured. Here is the Amen beyond the prayer.

Derek Jarman, Modern Nature, 1994, p.30.

The thing about the garden, the thing about the garden that I love, that I have come to rely on, is that it doesn’t change much. Some things change. Details change. For instance, I finally figured out that the strawberries were not thriving as ground cover for the berry bushes, so I cleared out a raised bed that hadn’t been a good home for anything else, topped it up with some new compost, and planted a dozen new strawberry plants there. I ate my first one this morning. Growing your own strawberries will ruin you for store ones. I interplanted borage that self seeded elsewhere, put some nasturtium seeds in, moved some self-seeded calendula in there too. It’ll be a riot of berry plants and flowers before long. The details change but the process, planting things, watering them, watching them grow, harvesting; none of that changes. It’s the same cycle every year. Twenty years I’ve been doing this in this yard.

For a long time, I thought gardening was something I was going to get “right.” I thought I’d find the ultimate combination of plants and hardscaping, the perfect configuration of raised beds, the One True combination of perennials in my flower bed.

This was nonsense of course.

What I love about the garden is that, like art, it’s always different and always the same. Every time you sit down to write it’s exactly the same. A blank notebook, a blinking cursor, a yellow pad, or all of the above when you can’t get started. And then it happens, you start following the thread of your thought, you print it out, read it over, circle around, weed out the bad bits, throw them to the chickens. You start again. During the fallow period, during those winters between projects, you read and plan. You mark passages in other books the way you dog ear the seed catalogs in February. You pin index cards and postcards and photographs to a board. You walk around in circles.

And if you can find the space, if you can find the time away from the lunch breaks and the emails and the last bus home, eventually you can tease another paragraph, another essay, another short story out of the fallow ground of your own self.

And when you can’t? There’s the long beds outside, where bindweed needs pulling, and the glut of summer savory that self-seeded last year needs thinning, and that perennial bed, it’s missing something in that blank place in the middle.

Whole days go by. Whole weekends. And there you are, with dirt under your nails, and a paragraph that’s come alive in your head, clutching a handful of walking onions. The Amen beyond prayer.

Flowers and Smoke

Flowers and Smoke

Abloom and ablaze at the same time …

Originally published at Substack: MAY 21, 2023

Apple blossoms, lilacs in bloom, and a sliver of momentarily-blue sky

We’ve had such a late spring that all the flowering trees have burst into blossom at once. One day, nothing was greening up, and the next day, the entire town is awash in blossom. The apple and crabapple trees are glorious. I don’t know if it was the cold winter or what, but I haven’t seen this many flowers in the 20 years I’ve lived here. Every fruit tree is covered in spurs all up and down every branch. Apple, crabapple, lilac, cherry, and plum trees all burst into flower on the same day. Daffodils and tulips came up at the same time, along with all the little blue scilla and grape hyacinths.

And then came the smoke. Northern Canada is on fire, and we’ve been buried in smoke for a week. I’d drive down to walk Hank and you couldn’t see the mountains from Mallard’s Rest — we’re only talking a distance of 3 or 4 miles. They’re right there, these mountains, but all you could see was thick yellowish haze. I’ve written before about the toll the smoke takes on us. Three years ago it was California on fire, now it’s Alberta.

Chuck had to go to Bozeman to renew his driver’s license. He came back shaken. Driving the pass, visibility was terrible. Giant trucks were passing him at 90. And to the right was a coal train, being pushed up the grade by three engines, each belching black clouds of diesel into the air. “We’re fucked,” he said.

And yet, this afternoon I was working in my office when I saw a white van pull over across the street. A guy got out, cut a small bouquet of lilacs off the giant hedge in front of the blue house, stuffed his nose into them and jumped back into his van. Washington plates. The beauty is irresistible.

Everything sounds like bees in fruit trees.

I spent the weekend harvesting greens and putting them up for later. I have two raised beds where I usually put the peppers and tomatoes, and where I started greens under plastic a couple of months ago. They too burst forth this week. Beds solid with broccoli raabs and spinach and mizuna and pak choi. All about to bolt as the weather went from daytime temps in the 60s to temps in the 80s. We usually get snow on Memorial Day, or hail, but this year, it feels like summer has sprung forth. And so I pulled greens. A couple of bushels got blanched and frozen, and a couple of bushels went to the soup kitchen 2 blocks away. The walking onions are about to set scapes as well, which is why they’re perennial. They make these heads of mini-bulbs on a long scape, which weighs it down so they take root. Hence the “walking”. The scapes are hard and unpleasant and render the onions not really usable. There’s a stretch of early summer when I wind up in between onion sets. The early ones go to scapes, but the new ones haven’t really come up yet. So I pulled up a bushel of onions, and cut and salted them to ferment. I did a test run 2 weeks ago and it worked, so I’m hoping to preserve the specific pungency of these onions, a pungency I miss in the winter when I’m forced to buy regular scallions at the store. I’m going to wind up with a lot of jars of fermented onions on the bottom shelf of the fridge, but fingers crossed, I’ll have enough to see me through next winter.

I’ve been thinking about shame a lot lately, and how corrosive to the spirit it is. I grew up in a suburb where people attached, and still attach, enormous value to things like: which country club you belong to, which neighborhood you live in, where you “summer”, what you wear and drive and where you send your kids to school. Because we flamed out so early and so spectacularly — my mother was only 32 when the baby died and dad left and we had to move off the horse farm in the country and move back to town to an ordinary suburban house and then he bankrupted himself and there was really no money. So I was spared the pressures of having to climb the social ladder. I was invited to a few of the fancy pre-debutante dances, but we could barely afford the ticket, and I was usually safety pinned into a skirt my mother had made because although she could sew, she coudn’t do zippers or buttons. So she’d make a pleated cummerbund for a waistband, and safety pin me into it, and off I’d go, to the country club we didn’t belong to, where I’d lurk around the corners until I could go home. I could never compete, so I didn’t compete, and left town as soon as I could.

For most of my 30s and early 40s I felt this relentless undertow of shame for not having a real house and a real husband. I had my brother Patrick, and we loved one another, and teaming up the way we did in our late 30s was probably the healthiest thing either of us ever did — we learned how to live in a house with someone without drunken scenes or hysteria or accusations. We learned how to pay the bills and put some money away and we bought furniture. We each got better jobs. I managed to put together the tiny down payment on this house here in Livingston and while I couldn’t save him in the long run, when California went south on him, he had room in my basement while he got back on his feet.

But everyone we grew up with had bought suburban houses, and gotten married, and was having kids.

And we were not. We were just barely keeping our heads up above the waterline.

Twenty years later, when my house is pretty great, and paid off, and my student loans are paid off, and I have a lovely partner and raised beds I built in my backyard full of greens, it’s sometimes hard to remember how sketchy it all felt. Livingston is hip now. People where I grew up know what it is. But when I first got here?

There were people I love back in the town where I grew up who are still deep in that shame cycle, and it makes me enormously sad. Aren’t we old enough to all know now that life is hard? Bad things happen to even the best of us, and sometimes people don’t bounce back. But it doesn’t mean we don’t love one another.

If living with your own shame is difficult, there should be one of those German compound words for the deep sorrow of watching someone you love suffer needlessly by being ashamed for things that couldn’t be helped.

The First Noble Truth is that all life is suffering, and maybe that’s what all of this is. The smoke from the northern boreal forest in flames. The challenges of burying our parents, and the ongoing ramifications we all still feel from the children who died when we were just little kids. Worrying about where we’ll live and how we’ll pay our bills in our impending old age. Wondering how on earth people buy all those trucks that cost as much as my house, and the snowmobiles on their bed decks and how they pay for the gas to drive it all. Gas that winds up heating the atmosphere and causing the fires that we’re all breathing. Ongoing worry about Covid and the long term effects on people we love, too many of whom have had it multiple times.

And then you wake up one morning and the entire town is in blossom. Every block you walk with the dog there’s another apple tree aflame in white flowers, a pink crabapple like an explosion, and bank after bank of purple and white lilacs, lilacs so glorious strangers pull over, cut off a few branches, and burying their nose in the scent, drive off in an old white panel van, that now smells like lilacs.

It’s a mystery this world.

Funerals and greens

Funerals and greens

The power of spring after a week away, and a funeral for my mother

Originally published at Substack: MAY 7, 2023

Spring happened while we were in Chicago to bury my mother, and I returned to raised beds full of mustard greens, spinach, arugula, spring onions, Chinese garlic chives and … ASPARAGUS!

I have no pictures of the asparagus because I cut it for lunch the afternoon we returned, sauteed it with some spring onions and greens, added a splash each of mirin and light soy sauce, and ate it over rice. It was delicious.

It tasted of home.

It was home.

Chicago has also had a very late spring, and Thursday, after we buried my mother just outside the family mausoleum at Cavalry Cemetery with my youngest brother Michael, who died as a toddler in 1972, we went to the Field Museum for the afternoon. It was perfect. I had the chance to show Chuck the lakefront, which was resplendent with flowering trees, blue skies, a bright turquoise lake, and people enjoying the spectacular public spaces that characterize Chicago. We took a little detour to see the building where my mother grew up, right next to Francis Parker School where my grandmother worked for 60 years, where my aunt taught for 30. We saw a few more buildings in which I lived with the parents who kept moving and moving and moving. We saw where my great grandparents lived. We drove down Lake Shore Drive with the city skyline gleaming above us and pulled into that row of gorgeous buildings: the Field Museum, the Shedd Aquarium, the Adler Planetarium. The museum was great — groups of manic schoolchildren, towering dinosaurs, some cool gold artifacts from the Balkans, lots of Native American exhibits, and thankfully, some wonderfully old-fashioned wooden cases with meteorites and mineral samples, and the Hall of Birds where yes, they’re all taxidermied, but as the sign points out, they’ve been dead a long time. It was a good end to the week of my mother’s funeral.

Which was perfect. It was exactly how I wanted it to be. My cousins Dede and Elizabeth did the readings, and my friend of 40 years (and platonic prom date) Greg, who knew and loved my mom, did the first eulogy, then I said my piece, and then the really lovely, smart and funny Episcopalian rector who I’d met with earlier in the week gave a homily that hit just the right note of thoughtful piety without being pious.

I’ve been reading Ross Gay’s new book, and I talked about his thesis that joy is not the absence of sorrow, but joy is what emerges from our entanglment with one another. Joy is how we carry one another through our sorrows. My mother was not great at many things including sobriety and being supportive of me, but she was very good at entanglement. My mother understood the power of visiting. She knew everyone’s story, and how they were connected, and she understood that when trouble comes, we can’t forestall it, but we can gather together, and keep one another company through our sorrows. My mother, like Ross Gay, knew that joy was collective. And so, on a beautiful spring Wednesday, in a church absolutely bedecked with flowers chosen by her oldest friend who could not be there with us, we did just that. We prayed that if there is a G-d, they are the G-d that Sister Bremner taught me was infinitely wise, and just, and loving — and in whom we can trust to relieve us of the burdens of our shortcomings, and welcome us into the kingdom.

And then everyone moved into the Parish Hall and ate the delicious lunch. There were people who hadn’t seen one another in years. There were my cousins, brothers who don’t get along but who forgot that, and spent the entire afternoon, with their wives, all at one table telling stories. I saw people I haven’t seen in ages and talked nonstop and there was a lot of hugging and kissing and some crying. It was perfect.

The next morning, my 93 year old godmother Daphne, and my cousin Dede, and Chuck and I met our priest friend at the cemetery, and buried my mother along with the ashes of her beloved dog Charlie. With my brother Michael. And we all took a moment and really thought, in the most tender terms, about what it meant for my mother, for all of us, to lose Michael all those decades ago. And then to lose Patrick 30 years later. And for me to have now lost all of them. Then Daphne and Dede went off to their family plot to visit for a minute with the baby their family lost, and Chuck and I got in the car, drove down the beautiful lakeshore, and went to the museum.

So to come home to my garden full of mustards and broccoli rabe and the spring walking onions I adore, and then on top of it all, my first real asparagus spears, some fat ones, some tall skinny ones, all emerging from the crowns I planted 3 years ago, well, it made me grateful. Grateful for the people who came to be with me last week, and 20 years ago when we buried Patrick, and 50 years ago when we buried Michael, and for how we all remain entangled, despite time and distance.

And it made me grateful to be home, in my house and my garden, with my dog and my cats and my chickens. And my lovely partner. Here in Montana where there’s sunshine beginning to peek through the clouds, and the fruit trees and the lilacs are getting ready to bloom, and where I have spent 20 years building a life that very much works. That simple lunch of sauteed greens and asparagus and rice, it tasted of joy, and gratitude.

Terrestrial Sourdough: On Thinking Through Bread

Terrestrial Sourdough: On Thinking Through Bread

Dark Mountain: Issue 23 – Dark Kitchen

(Post originally published on Substack, April 18, 2023)

The Dark Mountain Project has long been a haven for my writing, and I was thrilled last fall when they asked me to contribute to their first Dark Kitchen issue. Dark Kitchen is “an assemblage of writing and art that investigates food culture in times of collapse.”

If you can, please join the online celebration of launching the issue – Thurs 20th April, 7pm BST. It should be great fun.

Terrestrial Sourdough appears in the print version of Dark Kitchen. Like all of The Dark Mountain Project’s issues, it’s a gorgeous, hardcover volume. Mine is still wending its way across the ocean, but I can’t wait to get my hands on it.

Since I couldn’t figure out how to excerpt this essay in a way that I was happy with, the good folks at Dark Mountain said I could publish it on my site. I hope you enjoy, and please go check them out. They’re doing terrific work.

Terrestrial Sourdough: On thinking through bread

It’s a Saturday morning in December and I am making bread. Sunshine pours through my kitchen window, the winter sunshine upon which I placed my hand and vowed 35 years ago never to go back to the Midwest, never to go back to those low grey skies, to snow turned black from traffic, to wet winters in houses with screen porches wrapped in plastic.

I saw sunshine from the top of a Colorado mountain one January in my early 20s, skies so blue you felt like you were inside a Navajo turquoise, and said ‘never again’. It’s a vow I’ve kept, moving from Colorado to California to Utah to Montana, but never east of Denver.

It’s a sunny Saturday morning and on the other side of the country, my spouse’s mother is alone in a hospital room on the seventh floor of a Boston hospital, hurled by the shock of breaking a hip into a nether world where she does not know who she is, who we are, or where she is. And so, because she is a person of iron will, she is refusing. Refusing to eat. Refusing to drink. Refusing to take the few prescriptions she needs at 90.

And because she’s now testing positive for Covid after a week in the hospital, they’re not letting my brothers-in-law, my father-in-law, in to see her. We’re afraid we’re losing her, our tough nut, and are determined that even though at 90 her time is limited, we’re going to pull her back from the wilderness of her own mind, pull her back into the world so she can go out as she went through, bossy and fired by a fierce love.

The hospital, they only see a confused old woman. They are letting her go. We’re in a battle. Yesterday I dug the quart mason jar of starter out of the back of the fridge where I’d shoved it when we were trying to find space for the Thanksgiving leftovers. It had been a while since I baked, the liquid had settled out, gone that black colour. After all these years, it no longer alarms me. The starter isn’t dead. It just looks like it is.

Sourdough starter bubbling

I added four heaped spoonfuls from the flour bin, measured by the round silver soup spoons that I inherited from my namesake great grandmother. People seem surprised sometimes that I use them every day, this silver set a remnant of the long-lost family fortune. But I like knowing that a Chicago brides’ wedding gift from 1909 is still in use, here in the Montana she only visited as a tourist. To the flour in the jar, I added water, made a slurry and set it in a warmish corner of the kitchen, and by evening it was ready. Enough small bubbles to show the whole thing was alive.

Into the old yellow pyrex bowl went two cups of King Arthur all purpose flour and a cup of the local Conservation Grains Flour, a blend of hard wheat, spelt, rye and Kamut, grown and milled up on the High Line near the Canadian border, 200 miles north of here. In Montana, that’s considered local. The King Arthur I fret about. The wheat is grown here but milled on the East Coast. I tried the local flour, but it’s not as good. I don’t know why, but it never works as well, and so after experimenting with it for a year or so, I went back to King Arthur. During the pandemic, when I got spooked, I ordered a 50lb bag. It lasted about a year.

Does knowing your flour matter, or is it an affectation? As we watch the blockade at the Ukrainian ports, see the ripple effects of hunger from disrupted grain supplies, fussing over the brand of flour feels like the worst sort of first world problem. Is using local wheat one of those things we make important in our own minds so we feel that we’re accomplishing something authentic? My own sourdough. Made with Montana wheat. A bread that is rooted in place, a place where I did not grow up, but where I have deliberately built a home, and a garden, and a family, and a life?

Those big Ukrainian grain elevators, pouring grain into the holds of ships, there are elevators like that all across the midwest where I grew up, loading rail cars, or in Duluth, loading ships like the ones blockaded at Odesa. The commodification of grain is what made Chicago, my home city, a great industrial power in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It’s what paid for my great grandmother’s wedding silver. We were weaned on the early morning farm report, the first show on the television when we were small, the litany of wheat and corn and soy prices. The price of pork bellies. My grandmother explaining the hedged bets that were grain futures, deciding with her broker what price to sell the corn or soybeans off our family farm.

In his early work, Nature’s MetropolisWilliam Cronon argued that commodification was the innovation by which natural products lost their ecological identities and were converted into capital. A standardised grading system and the rise of the grain elevator meant crops could be consolidated into a anonymous , almost liquid, substance, one that could be stored in elevators, poured into rail cars and ships for transport. In the case of meat, the vast Chicago meatpacking industry, enabled by the rise of refrigerated railroad cars, converted cattle and pigs into disassembled cuts of beef and pork, distancing consumers from the flesh-and-blood reality of the animals themselves.

It’s this commodification I’m resisting, there in my kitchen, mixing my small bags of bespoke Montana ancient grains, ground into flour in a restored mill in the nearly-deserted downtown of Choteau, with the commodified flour from King Arthur, standardised to the point that the gluten content is stamped right there on the front of the bag. All purpose flour at 11.7%, cake flour at 10%, bread flour at a whopping 12.7%. For sourdough, I like the all purpose – it’s soft enough to let the big bubbles rise, strong enough to form a crust that sings when it comes out of the oven. And yet, my bread is different every time. Some loaves have big air bubbles, most do not. Sometimes it rises to a near-sphere, other loaves stay flat, rising only enough to justify themselves as a bread at all. The ingredients are the same, but variables of temperature and how recently I’ve fed the sourdough and whether our humidity levels are in the low teens or, on a wet day, in the 20s, these all save my homemade loaves from the standardisation of commodity products.

They are each mine these loaves, they are of my hands and my home. These wild yeasts change across the seasons, but they are of this yard, this town. When I’ve had to travel, it’s the first thing I do when I get back. Set the starter to feed, start making a loaf of bread. There’s a reason every culture has its breads, the bread of home.

While I am stretching and folding bread dough, and my husband’s mother is barricaded inside her own mind, he is in the air, crammed miserably into a seat in a metal tube, hurtling through space. His parents have, over the past few years, made the same journey as millions of older people, moving from a house, to an apartment, to a smaller apartment in a facility where there’s a dining room for meals, where there are other people for company, even if their only common denominator is being old. They’ve entered that dark wood where one fall, like the one Joyce took, losing her balance getting up from the table, a hip bone cracking like the dry sticks we use to light our wood stove, and it’s off to a hospital, to a nursing home, to the grave. No wonder she’s refusing. She doesn’t know who she is, or where home is, but she knows this is not it. She is not home. She is not safe. And so, she refuses. All of it.

You have to admire her will. Old age is another thing we’ve commodified. Another thing we’ve made ‘modern’ as Bruno Latour, the French philosopher of technology and science, might say. In much the same way that commodification modernised animals and grain into capital by divorcing both from the dirt of the farm, the blood of the packing plants, so Latour notes in Down to Earth that the injunction to modernise ‘is at the core of every sacrifice: for leaving our native province, abandoning our traditions, breaking with our habits, if we wanted to ‘get ahead,’ to participate in the general movement of development, and finally, to profit from the world’.

The trajectory our elders face is only one example. We all became modern. We grew up and moved away from our families, sometimes, for some of us, that was for the best. But in the wake of this atomisation, Capital has rushed in to fill the gap, to take money from us all, from elders who need help but who desperately want to hang on to smaller and smaller pieces of their autonomy, from us, their children, who desperately want them to be safe.

I pull the pyrex bowl out of the proofing oven, do a quick fold-and-stretch, then stash it back in the oven. An hour or two later, a few more fold-and-stretches until the dough feels alive, feels like a new animal in the house, and out comes the Dutch oven. Tuck it in and fire the oven up to 450F, leave it for another 10 minutes after the beep for temperature, then into the hot pot goes the dough. Twenty minutes with the lid, 20 without, and onto a baking rack to cool. The bread sings when it comes out of the oven. A tiny, high-pitched whistle of steam, an audible crackle from the crust as it settles. I have been making this bread once or twice a week for the 20 years I’ve owned this house and that whistle, that crackle, it still feels miraculous. Every time. That I can do it in my sleep, that I can do it with sourdough, or add a light sprinkle of instant yeast if the sourdough is looking tired, is one of the psychic rocks upon which my mental health rests. Hence the 50 pound bag of flour, the brick of yeast, I ordered during the pandemic. If I can make bread, we’ll be OK. When it all goes sideways, there’s always bread. If there’s bread there’s a meal. If there’s a meal we’re OK.

Round loaf of sourdough bread cooling on a rack

It was the summer I did field biology in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness on the border of Minnesota and Canada that I learned how forgiving bread is. The thing about wilderness stations is that they depend on good housekeeping. It was Becky, the camp cook, who made all of our bread, who taught me this. We were an hour’s drive from town, and while she made a store run once a week, and could have fed us on the cottony sliced commercial bread that is all that was available in the mid-1980s, she didn’t. She baked for us. It was Becky who taught me the rhythms of bread, that it wasn’t finicky, that it could accommodate leftovers. If there were leftover mashed potatoes, or leftover oatmeal we hadn’t finished, they went in the bread dough. I learned a lot of things that summer, the biology of the fish and birds of the northern boreal forest, how to be in love, what to do when you’re in the bow of a canoe and a moose is standing midstream as you come around a bend, but decades later what remains is the sense memory of Becky teaching me to make bread, to roll the loaves, settle them in their pans before bed, so they’d do a long, slow, cool rise and be ready to bake in the morning.

How we cook is how we do everything else. If sourdough shows us anything it is how the wild and the domestic are not a binary. I was in the Northwoods to escape the domestic expectations of my parents, that I’d finish college, meet a nice boy of our social class, and get married. I was fleeing domestic life. I thought marriage would kill me like it had my Aunt Lynn, who drank herself to death when she couldn’t get away. But despite my rejection of domesticity, it was during my years in wilderness camps and leading trips that I learned how to keep house.

Earth, House, Hold. The title of one of Gary Snyder’s earliest books of poetry, a collection of poems about working as a fire lookout, a collection that has trails and trail crews, fires and cooking, and wilderness threaded through. I was lucky enough to study with Gary in graduate school and if there’s one thing he taught us is that it’s all the same. “Everything is phenomena,” in the Zen sense, undifferentiated in essence, coming into being and then passing back into the Tao. The Earth is our home, and how we do anything is how we do everything. The etiquette of freedom, he calls it in Practice of the Wild:

‘We can enjoy our humanity with its flashy brains and sexual buzz, its social cravings and stubborn tantrums, and take ourselves as no more and no less than another being in the Big Watershed. We can accept each other all as barefoot equals sleeping on the same ground. We can give up hoping to be eternal and quit fighting dirt. … The wild requires that we learn the terrain, nod to all the plants and animals and birds, ford the streams and cross the ridges, and tell a good story when we get back home’.

Wilderness travel relies on good housekeeping. When you pull your canoes ashore at the end of the day, the first things you do are set up the tents, build a fire, start prepping a meal, figure out where the toilets will be, assign spaces for washing. Shelter, food, and cleanliness are the mainstays of wilderness travel as much or more so than are courage and passion and physical stamina. I first led trips in my late teens, and it was the first thing we had to do, teach the kids to be clean. Teach them how to scour cooking pots, how to wash their hands with soap and to do it away from camp. The biggest dangers we faced were not bears, or drowning, or twisting an ankle, but giving everyone the runs from bad camp hygiene. A messy camp is a contagious camp.

And yet, in the wake of everything, our parents failing, the creeping fascism that is currently ascendent in our corner of the world, wars and famine and pandemic and climate crisis, the engine behind it all, I find myself fretting over this 20 year experiment I’ve been conducting, I find myself questioning why I’m compelled to spend so much time and effort feeding us from our local foodshed. My large vegetable garden, the fruit trees and bushes, the chickens, the elk and venison my neighbours hunt and gift to us as non hunters, the local beef or pork or lamb we can buy on the carcass, have cut and wrapped locally for the freezer, the question haunts me, does any of this even matter? The whole concept of the local, of being a local is so fraught in a world where climate change is cascading into political xenophobia, and especially here in this corner of the United States where the white supremacists, Christian nationalists, and cultist preppers are all heavily armed and taking over our state legislatures, are storming the US Capitol when they don’t like election outcomes. How does one dig into place, without becoming a xenophobe?

How does one dig into place on land stolen from the tribes who still exist? Who are still here? The Paradise Valley, where our cabin is located, on the shoulders of a dormant volcano called Emigrant Peak, was summer grounds held in common by the Blackfeet, Flathead, Shoshone, and Crow. Their only real presence here now is in the winter, when they exercise their treaty rights to hunt buffalo exiting Yellowstone National Park. Our family farm in Illinois has an ‘Indian Creek’ running through the pasture. Which Indians? Who did the railroad run off before selling that section to my Irish great-great grandparents? How far back should we go? My grandmother’s father was a direct descendent of William Bradford, the Mayflower dissident who started it all.

Who is local? At a city council meeting to discuss development planning, the folks in the back of the room, in their ranchwear of pressed jeans, wool waistcoats and boots jeer when I mention my 20 years here. To them I’m not local because I’m not a rancher. I don’t go to their evangelical church. I don’t even go to the Catholic Church despite having been raised in that tradition. When I note that I brought a good remote job to support the tax base, that I’d like to see our open space preserved, that I think the network of walking and bike trails are a good idea they talk louder in the back of the room, until another man, always a man, asks them to keep it down, to let me have my say. This kind of partisanship came with the same waves of new people that I did. It’s accelerated in the last few years, as a popular television show is once again propagating Manifest Destiny, telling the story of an empty land waiting for a white man to colonise it. It’s brought yet more waves of newcomers driving giant trucks, visions of Rugged Individualism in their heads, looking for a place where there are no brown people, where they can lean into old ideas of dominion and white supremacy, where they can play out fantasies that the United States is a well-armed Christian nation.

My husband has to keep reminding me, when I’ve gotten in spats on dog walks, when I’ve lost my temper in parking lots: ‘They’re armed,’ he keeps saying. “They’ll shoot you’.

So how do we resist the commodification of globalisation without falling into the old ideologies of ‘blood and soil’ that are blooming once again, especially in places like this one? Because I have an academic background, I go to the literature when I’m fretting like this. Bruno Latour has been tracing these ideologies for decades, and it’s his small book, Down to Earth, published in the wake of Trump’s election that I find most useful when I’m in this space. Latour argues that the violence of this culture war is not irrational. He outlines the ways in which, faced with the looming threat of climate change, the world’s elites deliberately turned away from the idea that the rising tide could lift all boats, indeed, they rejected the notion altogether that there is one common tide, that there is a common fate. As capitalism shifted to globalisation, Latour points out that what had to be abandoned, in order to modernise, was the Local. Globalisation deliberately destroyed the Local, and the fury I encounter at city council meetings, or while walking my dog on a public but out-of-the-way road is a logical, if terrifying reaction to living in the wake of the broken promises of modernist globalisation.

In this way only, these furious locals are like my mother-in-law, waking in a strange world, manhandled by strangers who are telling her what she doesn’t want to hear, that she’s fallen, that she’s broken, that she’s old and probably going to die soon. That she’s obsolete. Like stubborn Joyce, the hostile locals around me are refusing.

While I find Latour’s analysis of the brutality of the forces of global capitalism that have brought us to this predicament compelling, it’s his concept of the Terrestrial that gives me a tiny bit of hope. I mean, there has to be some way to live in this broken world, and no matter how personally fulfilling and grounding I find making bread to be, making one’s own sourdough, even from locally-milled wheats, is not any kind of solution for the situation in which we find ourselves. Latour, who hailed from the wine family, understood terroir, and his concept of the Terrestrial seems to stem from a winegrower’s relationship with land, one that goes back generations.

‘There is nothing more innovative, nothing more present,’ he notes, “nothing less rustic and rural, nothing more creative, nothing more contemporary than to negotiate landing on some ground.”

This was the impulse that drove me here from California, from a townhouse development perched in the hills above the San Francisco Bay, a development that I could see even then was about to be swallowed by more townhouses, on more cul de sacs, creeping across the East Bay hills. I fled. I wanted a place. I wanted some ground on which to land.

The Terrestrial, Latour argues, differs from the Local by containing two contradictory impulses: ‘attaching oneself to the soil on the one hand and becoming attached to the world on the other’. It’s a way of grounding oneself while not building a barricade, not filling your basement with weapons to protect your barrels of freeze-dried food from the civil wars you believe are inevitable. He then borrows the term worlding from fellow philosopher of science Donna Haraway, and continues: ‘the Terrestrial is bound to the earth and to land, but it is also a way of worlding in that it aligns with no borders, transcends all identities’. Like Latour, Haraway’s life work has been thinking through how we can escape the binary view of the world in which grain, and meat, and ‘raw materials; are all commodities that exist for humans to exploit. By gerundising the noun world, she seeks to make active that which has been considered a passive, inert repository of commodities.

Stories matter. The stories we tell ourselves, that we tell one another, are the means by which we know the world. For years I’ve had a quote from her 2016 book, Staying with the Trouble, tacked to the board above my desk:

It matters what matters we use to think other matters with; it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with; it matters what knots knot knots, what thoughts think thoughts, what descriptions describe descriptions, what ties tie ties.

Stories matter. Stories are how we know ourselves, our world. That my story involves pulling out my jar of wild yeast when trouble comes, that my mother-in-law’s story involves an iron will and brilliant mind, these are not immaterial.

The way we do anything is the way we do everything.

Which might be one way to think through my long practice of cooking and eating as locally as I can, here on my tiny town lot, in the middle of the latest skirmish in the battle for the American west. If it matters what matters we think with, then my sourdough starter, that not-quite-domesticated wild yeast I feed and use to feed myself and my family, then it’s perhaps more than just an empty gesture. Perhaps it’s a mechanism for worlding, a practice like Gary Snyder’s Zen lessons back in the day, a means of being in the world that can, by keeping practices alive, be one of the tiny bridges by which we might all get through what’s coming next.

Perfect Yogurt

Perfect Yogurt

On not following recipes

(Originally published at Substack, April 14, 2023)

I accidentally made perfect yogurt the other day, after thinking I’d blown it.

It’s hard to express how perfect this yogurt is. It’s set almost like a panna cotta. It’s fresh and creamy and only a tiny bit sour. It has perfect mouthfeel and hardly weeps whey at all.

Perfect yogurt, if not a perfect photo

I’ve been making yogurt off and on for years. For ages I used the method listed in that I got off the early internets from a food scientist back East (lost to the link rot of the early intertubes, alas). Then I kind of got lazy, or gave it up again until Priya Krishna’s Indian-ish was released. She has a terrific recipe, which is mostly an anecdote about her father’s perfect yogurt method. So I started making yogurt again, and it was delicious, and eventually life got busy and I stopped again. Then I heard Homa Dashtaki interviewed on the Good Food podcast about her BEAUTIFUL new book, Yogurt and Whey. She was talking in particular about how making yogurt with her father, in their Iranian tradition, helped her slow down and get through a bad patch.

Slowing down sounded good again.

So I found myself in the kitchen the other day, putting a little over a quart of milk into a pan, setting the pan on a flame tamer, and heading off to do some other things while it heated up. The thing about scalding the milk is you want to do it really slowly, otherwise it scorches on the bottom, sticks to the pan, makes a mess and makes your yogurt taste burned.

I did it so slowly I forgot all about it until I walked through the kitchen and thought “what’s that smell?” It wasn’t burning, it was just simmering away over there. It had been for a while. The kitchen smelled nice, it was a warm smell, almost caramel, but I worried. When you make yogurt, you’re supposed to bring the milk just up to a simmer, then cool it down. I had NO IDEA how long the milk had been simmering. I gave it a quick whisk to break up the skin on the top, turned it off, and left it to cool down.

Now, despite having started my writing career in cookbooks, and having reviewed cookbooks for about five years for the late lamented Bookslut, I am terrible at actually following a recipe. What I love about yogurt and sourdough bread and my beloved French Yogurt Cake from Clothilde’s blog, is that they’re less recipes than they are methods, techniques.

I had stuff to do, so I let the milk cool down, scrubbed a few wide-mouth mason jars clean, and figured I’d give it a shot. What’s the worst that could happen? If it was ruined I could throw it away in the morning, but maybe it’d be okay? So I put a smear of yogurt in the bottom of every jar like Priya’s dad said to do, and I cooled the yogurt until you could hold your pinkie finger in there for a solid 30 seconds like Homa said to do. I added the yogurt to the warm milk and whisked it for a full 3 minutes like Priya’s dad said to do (not sure if it’s 3 minutes, but I knew it was a long time so that’s what I picked). The mixture was aerated and bubbly and smelled good and I poured it into the jars, put clean lids on.

And then, the best yogurt trick, the one I learned back in the early aughts from the food scientist online — you put the jars in a small cooler, and fill it with hot tap water to the lids. Close the cooler, and put it aside until the next morning.

The next morning I took the jars out of the now-room-temperature water, and tilted them. No movement! I like a really set yogurt. I was thrilled. It was really set! So I put it in the fridge for another rest and I have to say — this is the best batch of yogurt I’ve ever made.


Which brings me to recipes vs. techniques. I’m continually annoyed by the way people rely on recipes. I used to rant, when I was reviewing cookbooks, about recipes for bruschetta. Bruschetta is toast. People need recipes for toast?!? For gods sake, make some delicious crunchy toast and put things on it that you like! You don’t know what you like? Then try things! Experiment!

It’s not a science, and no matter what that annoying man in the bow tie tries to tell you, there is no one perfect way to cook anything! I have my bread technique, and my roasted chicken technique, and my pizza technique, and now an even better yogurt technique — but they’re all, always, a tiny bit different every time. That’s the glory of making things. That’s the glory of learning HOW to make things.

So I guess this is where we’ll sign off on my first post-notes Substack … with an exhortation to experiment. Let’s try new things! Let’s not box ourselves in! Who knows? you might get the best yogurt you ever made from what you thought was probably a mistake …

The Sun on our Faces

The Sun on our Faces

February is still frozen, but the days are getting longer …

(Originally published at Substack, February 19, 2023)

Eagle flying across Yellowstone River with mountains in backdrop
It might be gloomy, but there’s an eagle soaring across this sky.

February. The gloomiest, windiest month of the year. It’s a tough month to live in the northern-tier states, but I have to say, this February, I find myself coming back to the surface, breathing deep, turning my face to the sunshine that has come back to us. The days go on past five o’clock again. There have been whole days at a time in my greenhouse shed addition at the back of the house where I feel like I’m working inside one of those lamps people use for seasonal affective disorder. On a sunny day with snow on the ground, it’s glorious out there. Warm. Bright. And most important for Livingston, protected from the wind.

Thanks for reading LivingSmall: The Subversive Power of Scaling Down! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.


Cow with brand new calf in field, trees in background.
Days-old baby with his momma in the bottom field.

The babies are back in the bottom field. Alvin, our rancher neighbor has been calving. He takes them back over to his home place for the actual calving, and then they start showing back up in the bottom field. Two or three cow-calf pairs. Then ten. Then the whole herd. The calves are so funny as babies — they’re not really cows yet. “Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.” The idea that the development of individual organisms (ontogeny) follows  the same phases of the evolution of the organism itself (phylogeny). Baby cows kicking up their heels, racing one another around the field, bold calves trying to stare down my car as I drive out from the cabin, only to skitter away at the sound of the automatic window going down. Cows with a little wild left in them. 

My Himself and I have been through a grim winter this year, but we’ve been through it together, and even though our families handle these things in very different ways, I’d venture to say we’ve done pretty well together. We’ve given one another space. We’ve been there when the tears come. We’ve kept one another company, and held space for each other through a big life transition, losing our mothers. It’s been a lot, but I think we’re each grateful to have had the other through this big life event. 

Coming to the end of this story with my mother feels for me like coming out of a long walk through a difficult landscape. There were swamps, and dark woods, and soaring vistas along the way, but I’m deeply glad this journey is over. I hadn’t realized how it had been weighing on me until I could feel my creative impulses coming back. There’s this book I’ve been working on forever, which seems to be housed in stacks of notebooks that are currently open all over my house. There are notes I want to find about Derek Jarman, and gardens, and ideas I’ve been working on for decades about nature and wilderness and gardens and Zen concepts of non-dualism. They’re in those notebooks. Threads of ideas. And so now I’m doing that part of the writing where I go back in and try to collate them. Try to see what I have. Try to figure out how to say what I want to say. 

But creativity is mysterious. Creativity has something to do with craft, but it also has more to do with life. Creativity is something that is a steady stream, in the subconscious realm, in the realm of the spirit. And if you tap into it and you’re blessed enough to have something come from that stream into reality and manifest on your desk, it’s not because of anything other than that’s what God wanted to be so. Jon Batiste to Suleika Jaouad

Garden office room with desk covered in notebooks, twinkle lights, and plants on shelves.
The office in summertime, during a previous bout of notebook excavation.

Part of this upwelling that’s happening is not just collating piles of notebooks, but thinking about sewing again. I’ve mostly done utility sewing all winter. Some tops — I have one I’ve turned into a kind of uniform. I’ve made it in probably a dozen different fabrics. I also made a bunch of slightly-austere wool vests/waistcoats, a Japanese pattern. Very plain. With the wide-sleeved shirt, and a pair of corduroy pants, that’s been the winter uniform. Warm. Nice looking. Comfy. 

But I’ve had a jacket in my head for a couple of weeks now. I bought some beautiful tweeds last fall off eBay from a company in the UK. There’s a blue tweed with bright pink and periwinkle flecks in it, and there’s a floral lawn I bought last spring that will be perfect for a lining. I want a light, soft, slightly-structured jacket for these days when the house is cool, or as the weather warms up — something lightweight but warm. I can see this jacket in my head. Yesterday afternoon I cut the wool, and today I’ll probably go cut out the lining. Maybe I’ll get it sewed up today, I’m not sure. 

Because this is the problem when the creativity genie shows back up. There are so many things to make. There is the book, but there’s wanting to make things to wear that make me as happy as my winter uniform has this year. There’s cooking too — my bread mojo appears to be back, which is pretty great. We finally have a real bakery in town, but I still like my own bread better than anyone else’s. 

Six sourdough buns just out of the oven.
Sourdough hamburger buns, right out of the oven.

Every once in a while I go into a tailspin about the writing career I didn’t pursue. In part it was because, without a real mentor I had no idea that my tiny book, and the offers I was getting for conferences and to teach a few workshops — I had no idea that *was* the career. The beginnings of it. And part of it is that I really didn’t love that. People who teach workshops and who really love being a part of a creative community are so important. But that wasn’t for me. Writing was always so personal, so interior, that I felt weirdly exposed doing those events. I didn’t like it.

And of course none of it pays. And I had to make a living. 

But when I get into one of those spin cycles about having wasted my life and squandered my talent and all the rest — it’s like meditation, when you’re on the cushion and your brain spins out — all you can do is return it gently to the task at hand. Breathing. Counting. Living in this moment. Here. Right now. 

I love the life I built. I love my wee house, and my garden, and my basement sewing room where I can cook up projects, and my greenhouse room where I can sit on a sunny winter day and feel the energy of the sun concentrating and bouncing into my space. I love the cats and the dog and the chickens and Himself. I love my little town, and my community (even though since pandemic I’ve been even more hermity than ever). 

It’s all good. I did what I wanted to do. I found myself a safe space, and I built a life in which about 80% of my days are taken up with doing something creative. Even my job, which most people wouldn’t see as such, is creative. I write little stories about internet security, which go out into the world, and even though it’s capitalism and marketing — I’m shilling safety, and security. With nice people who are also trying to figure out how we can do this work in a creative way. 

And so on a February morning when the sun is trying to break through the snow flurries, I write to you from my little creative ark of a house, where I have a glorious plethora of creative projects spinning up, where I’m making things with my hands and my brain, bringing stuff into the world that wasn’t here before. May you too start feeling the surge of spring, even if it’s buried deep in the still-frozen earth. There are days when we’ve got the sunshine on our faces again. The earth still turns, the sun is coming back …