I am not Persian, but as a gardener in a northern climate, I’ve taken the Persian New Year holiday to heart because it’s usually when I can start my garden year again. Despite our spell of subzero weather in February, it’s been pretty nice these past couple of weeks. Sunny and 50s during the day, 20s overnight. And so … time to take these tall beds for a test drive.
I didn’t blog about it last year, most of my garden rebuild went on Instagram, but I entirely rebuilt the garden last spring. I panicked as the pandemic hit. The beds I had were okay, but I was having a terrible time with weeds, and I wanted to make sure I could grow food for myself and Himself into my geezer years. So this is my geezer garden. The beds are tall enough that I can toddle out there as an ancient crone using my walker, and still manage.
I didn’t get them in until early June last year, so this is the first year I can see how they do in the spring. The near bed with the hoop house on it has been cooking away for a couple of weeks now. It has lots of cool weather greens seeds that I threw in in January, and then another batch when I hooped it about a month ago. There are also walking onions and some garlic I planted in the fall. There’s a carpet of tiny seedlings coming up under there, and some green onion and garlic shoots. With luck, I should be able to start eating thinnings in a week or two. The next bed I just planted and hooped this afternoon. It has some sprouting broccoli I started indoors about 3 weeks ago that I transplanted out, and a lot of spinach, broccoli rabe, arugula, mustard, and Franchi Italian greens I buy from GrowItalian.com. The next bed down I planted with peas. I’ll have to put some sort of supports in there when they start coming in, but for now, I just planted a bunch of pea varieties, and we’ll see what happens. The near tall bed has herbs in it, and I’m waiting to see which perennials made it through the winter.
This is one of the two long beds I replaced as is when I did the rebuild, and these are my beloved Egyptian Walking Onions. They were here when I bought this house, in feral patches around the yard. They’re always the first thing up in the spring and I adore how pungent they are. Last spring I sliced, vacuum sealed and froze a glut of them, and it got me through the winter. I still bought the occasional bunch of scallions at the store, for the crunch, but the frozen ones were fine to cook with. I also managed to keep myself in home-grown parsley over the winter. I put 4 parsley plants in a planter in the greenhouse room, and they provided me with enough fresh parsley that I never had to buy any. I also froze a lot of parsley at the end of the summer, but the texture isn’t good, so I’ve only used it to cook with. I might have to dig them out and make a batch of Green Soup now, since the parsley I buried in straw for the winter is starting to come back in.
The strawberries also did really well buried in straw for the winter. I’m experimenting with a kind of no-dig/compost-in-place process in these long low beds. I bought a couple of 40lb bags of alfalfa pellets at the feed store — I think I paid $12 a piece? I read on one of the permaculture sites that alfalfa pellets make good green manure, and since part of my goal was to start heating up this straw so it will break down, I thought I’d try it as a green layer. So far, it’s settling right in, the pellets have melted, and it seems to be helping to break down the straw. We’ll see. My garden motto. It’s all an experiment.
And finally, I’ll leave you with this sign of spring. A rhubarb crown, poking up through the straw in the soft fruit bed, where it’s fenced off from the chickens. With any luck in a few weeks we’ll have new rhubarb.
Happy Nowruz! Happy Spring Equinox — I’m off to get a COVID vaccine tomorrow, and here’s to all of us coming out of this year of lockdown, and being able to see one another again.
I planted tomato and pepper seeds yesterday and put them out in the cold frame on heat mats to germinate. I have a little greenhouse space, but, um, I’ve turned it into a writing room. This is an experiment this year, putting them out right away. I hung one of the shop light/grow lights from the lid of the cold frame. We’ll see. It’ll either work or it won’t.
Which is sort of my core gardening ethic. It’ll either work or it won’t. I don’t go to enormous lengths to get things to grow — we’re in a harsh climate — our average is 16” of rain per year. I don’t have automatic sprinklers, and I water by hand when I absolutely have to. I use a lot of mulch. Mostly straw because it’s cheap. Winters used to be harder, but even if it’s mostly in the 20s and 30s we’ll still get a spell of subzero weather. We had one in November, and one two weeks ago. Today it’s 60. And sunny. I had to prop open the cold frame so the seeds don’t cook. I’m sure it’ll snow a few more times between now and June 1, when I can put tomatoes in the ground.
I’ve been thinking a lot about something I want to call the Garden Ethic, but I think that nomenclature is going to be a problem. People hear “garden” and they think the garden aisle at the big box stores. All those poisons. All those fertilizers. All those nursery plants they pick up and bring home like any other consumer good. Another aisle of things Capital wants to sell us.
That’s not what I’m talking about.
What I’m talking about is the sense that we’re put here to take care. For me, that’s what gardening is. It’s taking care. It’s looking at what is actually out there in my yard, asking things how they’re doing, doing my best to keep them going. I plant a lot for pollinators. I have fruit bushes and trees. Since the food distribution economy hasn’t entirely collapsed, I leave a lot of the berries for the birds, and it’s birds who eat nearly all my apples, although on a motivated year I’ll take them over to Bozeman to be crushed and then we’ll make hard cider.
There seem to be two approaches to gardening and sadly the prevalent notion is that gardening is all about imposing human will on the landscape. You know, like topiary trees or my dear Posy Krehbeil’s beautiful Camp Rosemary garden with its “garden rooms” and lawn trimmed like a putting green.
Gardens are problematic in the American nature imagination. For the most part, we don’t have gardens, we have lawns, and more and more, those lawns are tended by landscape crews and watered by automated systems that go on at five in the morning. They’re just green background. Like outdoor carpeting. There’s even a word for it: plant blindness. Across most of America, we don’t have gardens, we have landscaping.
Some of that changed this year, with the pandemic. Just as, after the 2008 crash there was also a spike in vegetable gardening. We’ll see whether it takes, but for the most part, it seems that mainstream America thinks gardens are “too much work.”
Which is kind of the point I’m circling around to. For me, the garden’s work is the point. A garden, like pets or livestock, demands that you get out of your own head and tend to something else. Mid-March is when I start seeds because that’s when they need to be started if they’re to go in by June, and throw fruit by September. I’ve got a week or two wiggle room on either side of March 15, and I’ve started tomatoes as late as April, but seasons are determined as much by length-of-day as by temperature, and so that’s when the tomatoes need to get started.
I’ve become fascinated this year by the naturalistic garden movement. Projects like the Tokachi Millennium Forest in Japan, where Dan Pearson and Midori Shintani have been working on a one thousand year timeline. The garden is built on a piece of land that entrepreneur Mitsushige Hayashi bought to offset the carbon footprint of his newspaper business. The Tokachi Millennium Forest project is intended both to provide habitat for wild nature and to provide a safe space in which Japan’s mostly urban population can engage with nature. They’ve built in a number of ways for them to do this: in a forest, in the sculpted berms of the Earth Garden, in the farm and restaurant, or by riding or walking out into the forest itself. One of the things I’ve found most fascinating about this project is how it’s designed to meet people where they are, to draw people who might have very little experience of nature into the natural world, and to build the kind of experiences that will leave them perhaps just a tiny bit less plant blind than they were going in.
In many ways it reminds me of Yellowstone National Park. The vast majority of visitors to the park never leave the road/parking lot/boardwalk environment. They stay on the short loop paths, and rarely venture into the interior of the park. Which is fine. It’s probably one of the only reasons that the animal populations can withstand the impact of four million visitors passing through the park on a given year.
We’re finally coming to consensus in America that defining wilderness as physical landscapes in which people are absent is deeply flawed. Yellowstone, like the pre-Columbian Americas in general, was always inhabited. White people used instruments like the Doctrine of Discovery and Manifest Destiny to declare that land belonged to those who discovered it in order to impose European capitalist ideas about using and developing it. We all learning about this in school, as though it was a good thing. And hence, these ideas have trickled down into a received sense that the Americas were terra nullis, that there was no one here, and that white people who discovered this empty territory had a divine right to develop it.
As the 20th century enclosed nature into smaller and smaller islands, a group of people who experienced the sublime out in the wild and uninhabited pieces of wild natuer that were left, came home and ignited the first wave of the conservation movement. They accomplished so much, including the establishment of the National Park, Wildlife Refuge and Wilderness systems. However, the movement was, like many social movements, nostalgic for a prelapsarian state that we now know never existed. “The wild” had always been inhabited. The Americas had always been inhabited. Just not in ways that colonizers recognized. To those first conservationists, “the Wild” looked like Eden. It seemed like the natural place from which we had all come, and to which we longed to return. It still does. The entire adventure tourism industry is built on this idea.
All of this is bringing me the long way back around to the idea of a garden ethic. It’s not really mine at all — I think it mostly belongs to Emma Marris, whose groundbreaking 2011 book Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World challenges the notion that the only nature worth preserving is “pristine” in the sense that it is both devoid of people, and relatively untouched by human action. Marris argues that nature is everywhere — in backyards, city streets, even in places we’ve declared degraded by “invasive” species. She’s particularly good on the Yellowstone Model, upon which the park is relentlessly managed to match the conditions of its founding in 1879. Climate change, among other things, is making this increasingly impossible, and perhaps finally demonstrating that this is a foolish, if well-meaning, way to manage a chunk of land.
It’s hard to overstate how angry Marris’s book made conservationists, including a few here in town. The book came out just as the idea of the anthropocene was coming into the general lexicon, and the outrage that erupted at the very idea that “The Wild” was now, heartbreakingly, bounded by human action and control is hard to overstate. I had a woman ask me when discussing this, late one night in a local bar after a reading, whether I’d spent any time in the backcountry, and whether I even believed in God. For her, The Wild had the same valence as God, something beyond the human, something I think, that we couldn’t ruin.
Sadly, I think we’re all pretty clear that we were wrong about that, the wilderness part at any rate. It’s really difficult to talk about an ethic that incorporates non-wilderness nature out here in our part of Montana where we’re surrounded by gigantic wilderness areas that are always under threat. Always. So much human energy goes into fending off development into the wilderness areas that I think we often forget that wilderness does not equal nature.
Himself and I spend a lot of time in the summers car camping, often near abandoned mines (someone has a thing for amateur prospecting, and I go along for the pretty rocks). There’s a lot of country out here that’s been logged, and mined, and had roads cut through it. However, it’s still nature. In part because our population is so low, and in part because of class prejudices, we often wind up in lovely campsites in the middle of the week, out in the middle of nowhere, with trees and a creek and a fire pit. Sometimes there are RVs, and often the whine of ATVs or dirt bikes is annoying, but there are a lot of people out there actually enjoying the natural world who are not hiking into the backcountry.
I’m with Marris in wanting to develop an ethic of the front country that values non-wilderness nature. If we’ve learned anything this year, it’s the worth of green spaces where people can go outside and go for a walk. Green spaces in cities as well as the big wild places of the West.
For me, developing a garden ethic is not about bending the world to my will (which is why I have mixed emotions about those raised vegetable beds I built last year), but it’s more about learning to take care of things that are not me. A garden ethic, as I’m trying to define it is based on how take care of one another. How we take care of the earth and the animals (especially if that means leaving them alone). A garden ethic would measure the course of a life not by what you buy or what you achieve, but by what you care for. Did you raise good kids? Did you love someone? Did you make a little piece of the world better than you found it? Were you kind to the animals under your care? Did you take care of your employees or the people you work with?
I did my PhD in the early 1990s, when ecocriticism was in its infancy, and I’ve never quite recovered from the professor who explained to me that the pastoral and the wild were in opposition to one another. That it wasn’t a continuum, as I’d always thought, of nature where on the one end you had say that little copse of woods and creek at the end of the condominium development where we kids used to play, and then somewhere in the middle all those slightly unkempt farms like the one my grandmother lived on, and then at the other end you had the sublime heights of the mountain ranges of the West. No, it was a contest. The pastoral was always in conflict with the wild.
Now, this is the legacy of a kind of tedious false competition of ideas that infests so much of academia, but clearly it stuck somehow, because here I am 25 years later still wrestling with this idea.
I hope you’ll all put up with me as I continue to wrangle with this constellation of notions. It’s central to this book project I’m working on, and that I’m finding these newsletters really helpful as a way to grope my way through the thicket of ideas.
A tiny bit of housekeeping: I’ll be cross-posting Substack letters to LivingSmall blog from now on. I’m not crazy about what’s happening at the corporate level with Substack, and I’m looking for a new home for the newsletter. I really like being able to send you something to your inboxes that you can click on and access as a sort of blog/discussion board. So far, I haven’t found another tool that will do that … but I’ll keep looking.
Hello people of the internets — just a little note to say that I’m finally writing again, I’m even sending things out — anyone who knows me knows that one reason my so-called writing career never really went anywhere, is that I am a giant chicken about sending things out. For too long, it was just too hard.
Writing was the thing I’d always done in secret — ever since my Aunt Lynn gave me a little locking diary the summer I was 8, the summer our funny, adored, 2 year old brother was dying of cancer, the summer I forbade anyone EVER to mention that possibility. Our parents were splitting up too. It was not a good time, and fierce superstitious little creature that I was, I refused to talk about it. I refused even to talk about talking about it. So Lynn invented the Secret Friend, who sometimes hid tiny presents for us around the house. The Secret Friend left me a locking diary, and Lynn told me no one could ever read what I wrote in there. That it was secret. And personal. And safe.
And so for years I was that kid, the one in the corner, either curled up behind the living room curtains or outside up in a tree, with my nose in a book or my pencil in a notebook. My notebooks saw me through a lot.
I wasn’t listened to well as a child, and I was projected on a lot, by both parents. My inner life felt like something precious that I had to guard carefully (except from Patrick. I could tell him anything.) All those years of workshop just felt like more people telling me what to think, how to be, what to say. I liked the academic parts of grad school for the most part, but not workshop so much.
And so, publication was weirdly upsetting. My novel that had been mine, was out there in the world. It wasn’t that people had opinions about the book. That would have been fine. A lot of people hated my “unlikeable” mother character, which I found sort of sad because I loved her in all her brittleness and wild intuition, and which made me happy because it meant I’d written the character I meant to write. That was all fine. What I found weird and upsetting was that people had opinions about me because of the book. The very first question at my very first reading was “So, have you had any tragedies in your own life?” I remember looking at Patrick standing at the back of the room, in a sort of panic, terrified I’d start laughing hysterically. What business is it of yours lady?
And this was all before the internet.
But anyhow, I’m starting to pull these essay chapters I’ve been working on for so long into pieces that can be sent out. I gave myself a goal of one submission per month. I’m applying for fellowships even. Residencies are … trickier. I’d love the excuse to shut out everything else and just work for a bit, but I don’t want to leave home. I have animals and the garden and well, Himself and I, while we don’t share a house we’ve also never gone longer than a week away from one another. We like each other. And I get nervous about everything disappearing if I go away. So I’m not really applying for residencies, even though they’re the kinds of thing that can help a girl get an agent again.
Oy. That part. All of it. I have to start over from scratch and I never liked any of the business part of writing. The selling end. Self-marketing. Readings were okay, but mostly sad — three people off the street. It was a first novel, I didn’t expect anything more. I’m bad at book parties — I hid in the mezzanine at the only one I went to in San Francisco, alarmed by the dudes in porkpie hats, alarmed that I was supposed to go down and schmooze with them. The parties we used to have here, back before the keystone writer dudes all died were fun though. Out on Nina and Elwood’s back porch in the Paradise Valley, packs of half-naked children shrieking and running through the adults holding plates of food and glasses of wine. Those were great, mostly because no one talked much about writing. Gossip about writers, sure, but not much shop talk about actual writing.
But I made a little resolution, so I’m going to keep sending out missives that are longer than a tweet, and we’ll see where they land. Not being glued to CNN and Twitter all day wondering if the government is falling has been a relief. Just being normal-angry at the Democrats has been a relief. There’s enough work to pay the bills, and the light is starting to come back. It’ll be time to plant the tomato starts soon. I might try some early broccoli seeds this weekend. The carnations I started from seed a year ago are about to bloom — we’ll see if the black ones are really black. Maybe I’ll try propagating from cuttings. And the apple scions I ordered should be arriving. Experiments in fruit tree grafting are on the horizon.
And I have another essay to pull together. There’s a March 1st deadline I’m shooting for. It’ll be messier than I’d like, but I’m sending it out anyway …
I had a bunch of new project meetings this week, which inevitably lead to that sentence I hear all the time. Montana?! Oh! You’re so lucky to live there!
I am deeply, profoundly grateful for the life I’ve built here in this small town in Montana. But it wasn’t luck that got me here. It was a combination of claustrophobia and a burning drive to find a house. Some of my women friends describe feeling that drive about having children. I love kids, and nearly melted last week when one of the twin toddlers down the block held up his arms to be carried around my backyard, but I never felt that I had to have a child of my own or I’d die. I did feel that way about finding a house. And not just any house. A house I could pay off. A house I could fully live in. A house with a garden where I can grow food, and chickens, and fruit. A house in a town where at least some of the people were looking for ways to live outside the homogenized corporate norms. A house in a town with artists, and outdoors people, and in my case, an iconoclastic builder like Himself.
I went looking for this because I did not believe in the promise of corporate life. I went to California after graduate school in search of a job, but I wasn’t searching for a career. I was still trying to get an agent then, still trying to sell my novel. I thought writing would be my career. It was the mid-90s. We still thought such things were possible then. But even if writing was going to be my career, I knew it was most likely not going to pay the bills. I needed a job.
I remember driving up I-80 with Patrick one night, going to dinner with some people, and looking at all those tall buildings with lights left on overnight. There has to be a way into one of those, I thought. How hard can it be? Thousands of people do it every day?
I wanted a corporate job that was interesting enough, and had things like paid vacations and a 401K and health insurance. I had grad school debts to pay off, no one was going to leave me any money, and even as spinsterhood loomed at 35 I knew I had no intention of relying on a husband for money. I’d seen the disaster that had caused in my mother’s life, my Aunt Lynn’s life, my grandmother’s life (until the generation above her died, left her money, and set her free).
I didn’t want a career, I wanted to be some useful little cog in the machine so I could pay everything off, and find a place to live. A place I could pay off. A place I could hope to set down a tiny stake of self-sufficiency.
The Bay Area scared me silly. It’s lovely. The food is great. And oh how I miss produce, and flowers, and those little artichokes they sell in giant net bags in the Farmers’ Markets in the spring. But there were too many people on too little land. The temperatures were rising every year, and neighborhoods were burning even then. The sea was set to rise. And no one knew how to do anything. No one knew how to build anything or fix anything or grow food or butcher an animal.
Well, that’s not totally fair. I did know some people who knew how to do those things, but they were few and far between, and land prices had started to skyrocket already. There was no cheap land left to buy like my teachers Will Baker and Gary Snyder had done. I didn’t have grandparents in Sonoma. Those open ranch lands above our townhouse in Castro Valley were never going to be sold as anything other than more subdivision lots.
While my family was a disaster, I had two things working in my favor. One was that as people whose money was, as my mother liked to joke, “so old it’s all gone,” there was a certain disdain for striving, for careerism. This was a problem in graduate school, when I fundamentally did not understand how to curry favor, and was outraged that the only women who got the big fellowship at Utah were the ones who babysat for a couple of specific professors. But this disdain for careerism left a lot of room open for envisioning what kind of life a person might want to lead. In my family, success wasn’t defined by following a preset path. Of the nine of us cousins, who were raised like siblings, there’s a lot of variation in what we wound up doing. Two of us have PhDs, two are union guys (laborer and pipefitter). One runs such a good baby day care that her clients plan their pregnancies around her availability and one went to jail for a while, but got his act together eventually. One was an FBI agent, one runs a small trucking company, and Patrick was in the event business. None of us has ever been considered better than the others because of what we do for a living.
The other thing I had going for me was that we largely escaped the standard suburban upbringing. I have friends who grew up in a world bounded entirely by malls and swim teams and school and chain restaurants and group activities. It was an indoors life, a life of buildings and cars. The only suburb I lived in was Lake Forest, which is old, and very rich, and beautiful, and riddled with deep ravines that are small wildernesses. We had woods, and little creeks, and the Lake Michigan beach. And because my family was horsey, I grew up around barns and horses. There’s something very freeing about having spent much of your childhood terrified on the back of a large animal who is moving very fast through the woods. It teaches you right off that as a puny human you are not in control of the world. And eventually, as I grew legs long enough to have some effect on a horse, and gained skills, I also discovered the joy that is learning to work with an animal. I learned how to be in the physical world, and how to do things. I learned to go outside and entertain myself.
I keep making a category error, which is thinking that my subversive outlook on the world is the norm. When did we all start believing in the marketing? When did we stop having contempt for “aspirational” bullshit like luxury brands and the Yellowstone Club? I think it’s why the “you’re so lucky” comments bug me so much. What I hear when someone says that is envy for the aspirational Montana. The Montana of ugly orange log houses with “great room” windows like the prow of a ship, pointed at a “view.” The Montana of peeled log furniture and chandeliers made from elk antlers.
Whereas I actually live among the people who deal with the housefly outbreaks in your stupid great room, the one that you can’t heat in the winter and that fades your Pendelton blanket upholstery in the summer.
I didn’t move to that Montana. Although increasingly it has moved to me. The Paradise Valley is increasingly cluttered with ugly houses on small lots that chop up all the migration routes, that clutter up what used to be hayfields, and that are being sold to people who think it’s great that we have so few people of color here. Realtors are using that as a selling point. It’s deeply, fundamentally upsetting.
I moved to Montana nearly 20 years ago because I needed someplace I could still afford a house, and Livingston was in between bouts of being discovered. I came here so I could buy myself a house that I can live in and work in. A house where I can make things. I built myself a life where I can write some, and work some, and garden some, and go for a long walk with the dog. I’ve been preparing for disaster for decades. I didn’t think it would be a pandemic — I thought something else would break our fragile food system and the trucks would stop coming and we’d have to feed ourselves and our neighbors. I planted black currants and elderberries and rugosa roses in case we need the vitamin C.
Moving here wasn’t luck. It was a calculation. There’s a major river for water. There are beautiful mountains which I don’t thrive without. I’m not good in cities, which doesn’t mean cities are bad, but if I’d been locked down alone in the Bay Area or New York I’d be in big trouble about now. I never thought that our shiny world of eternal progress was real, or was going to last, or was in any way sustainable.
What I keep finding startling is that other people have not made these same kinds of calculations. That when the music stopped so many were stuck in houses they couldn’t live in, or cities that aren’t home, or some other limbo of modern techno-nowhere.
I think we’ll get out of lockdown again, but I also think pandemics are here to stay. I think the days of just getting on a plane are coming to an end. I’ve seen articles about people moving back to be near their families, because when push comes to shove, if you have that kind of family, that’s who you want. My friend Nina came back up here, and brought her five kids, the ones I’ve been lucky enough to get to help raise, with her. Right away. It’s the biggest reason they kept their house here during all these years E. has been building his career down there. They didn’t believe it either, that it could last, that the system was robust enough to survive a disaster. They’re my family and I’m grateful to have them on the other side of town. Even if we don’t see each other because pandemic.
I despair of our ability as a culture to cope with the climate disaster that is upon us. We can’t even get people to wear simple masks to keep from killing their fellow citizens. We can’t get them to understand that the masks work. How are we going to get anyone to make the kinds of large-scale changes we need to make? As pandemic hit, we were awash here in selfish white people driving RVs bigger than my first apartment in New York, towing an SUV behind them. It was like there was some urgent call to burn up the last of the fossil fuels as fast and as brazenly as possible. Accompanied by all the current political and cultural markers — the smirks, the bumper stickers, the hats.
I have no real advice or answers, although I do think it’s probably useful that this year most people learned how to cook for themselves. Maybe more people are thinking about where they live, about what constitutes a home. But mostly I fear that when this wave is over, everyone’s going to rush to “go back to normal.” They’re going to want to forget this ever happened.
We’ll have to wait and see how it’s going to play out. Livingston isn’t the town I moved to anymore. There are fewer artists and writers, and way more second home owners. We still have people who know how to do things though, including grow food and butcher animals. So far, we’re all working together to build a more resilient community. So far our sense of community is holding.
It isn’t going to be luck that saves us, or technology, but if anything sees us through, it might just be our communities.
Last night we were awakened by something barking outside the cabin. Barking for a long time. I think it was a fox — Himself isn’t so sure. He thinks it could have been a coyote. It sounded to me like a fox that had treed something — one of the bobcats maybe? We spent one Christmas Day years ago watching a bobcat who had curled up under that tree. It napped on and off all day, supremely unbothered by my bird dogs (who we kept in the house). We see them on the game cams, and there’s been a suspicious lack of bunnies lately. Usually means a bobcat has come through. The reason I think it was a fox is not only because we’ve seen some, but there’s a den I found walking Hank-dog one morning that’s down that direction, and I’m pretty sure it’s a fox den. Smelled like it.
I’m lucky enough to spend a lot of time in the cabin Himself built it years ago. It’s on the border of the wilderness area and while he rents it most of the year to vacationers, because the road can blow in with snow, he takes it off the market for winter. Most mornings, we drink coffee in bed, looking out the big window at the mountain and wait to see what the animals are doing.
We see a lot of animals from that window in the morning. In years past, we’ve awakened to the Dome refuge elk herd in the yard. Sometimes it was a core group of about twenty, other times we’ve had as many as a couple of hundred elk come through on a morning. You’d be pouring the coffee and right there, on the other side of the kitchen window, would be a cow elk trying to eat the buds off the ash tree.
We haven’t had any elk this year. We’ve hardly had any deer.
And we’ve been wondering why.
I’ve been trying very hard not to think that the entire population has collapsed. It’s that kind of a year after all. Climate change is one cause of the pandemic, and if the entire world can be shut down, what’s to say that the Yellowstone elk herds couldn’t just collapse?
Himself said he’d seen the herd when he’d been hiking. They were still there, they just weren’t in our valley.
I think a lot about Claire Vaye Watkins essay from a few years back, On Pandering. In it, she asks the question: who is it for? In the case of the essay, she’s talking about the internalized misogyny that causes so many of us women to dismiss our own experience in favor of writing for men, in favor of writing for the the “little white man deep inside of all of us.”
In this instance, I’m not necessarily thinking about who is the story for, but the idea of who are the animals for? When I say we watch animals in the morning, it sounds so passive. As though we’re sitting there waiting to be entertained by the animals, as if it’s a Disney film (although Himself does have longstanding relationships with specific families of hummingbirds and falcons. The hummingbirds have been known to fly at his face when they arrive, then fly up to where the feeder should be if he hasn’t put it up yet. As though they’re saying “Hey! It’s been a long flight! We’re hungry!”). Rather, we tend to watch animals as though we’re solving a puzzle. Where are the elk today? The deer? Have we seen anything else, anything interesting?
One morning we’re looking out the window drinking coffee, and we see two of our resident coyotes go past. Which isn’t unusual, but they were slinking. Along the ditch, from sagebrush to sagebrush like little boys playing army man. A few minutes later, Himself was scanning the mountain through the telescope in the bedroom. “Wolves,” he said. Sure enough, it was a pair of wolves, probably a couple of miles away as the crow flies, up on a ridge. One was curled up against the subzero temperatures and snow that had come in over night. The other was sitting, and looking out over the valley, and every so often she’d howl. We went outside. You could hear her.
I’ve heard wolves a few times over the years and it is never ordinary. It makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck.
Below them, Alvin our rancher neighbor was rolling out a bale of hay for his cattle, who were getting pretty close to calving.
So now we know why the elk haven’t been hanging around.
I’ve had students write me papers about how there are too many wolves, about how the state should “control” them so there are more trophy elk, trophy deer. I’ve had students write me papers about how the point of the endangered species act is to bring species back so that they can be hunted. As trophies. For these students, as for so very many people, probably for most people, the point of animals is how they meet our needs.
Anthopocentrism of this sort is probably as old as the glorious, hidden cave paintings at Lascaux. It’s as old as the Bible.
Who is the world for? Is it for us?
Or have we made a category error for millennia? Is the world not for itself? Do the wolves exist for the wolves just like the bunnies exist for bunnies and we exist for ourselves?
I’m not any kind of sanctioned Buddhist, but I have spent enough time on a pillow meditating on the idea that the distinctions we make between forms, between mountain and human, between wolf and rabbit, are delusions. It’s all phenomena, as my teacher Gary Snyder used to say. It’s all just phenomena.
I bought Himself a set of game cameras a couple of years back for his birthday, and they’ve given us a tiny porthole into what is going on around here when we’re not there, or are asleep, or for instance, have let us watch what’s going on down in the gully behind the cabin. We’ve seen everything from bears to mountain lions to bobcats to coyotes and foxes and some very festive skunks. The birds like to fly right into the lens of the one that’s in a birdhouse-like box, and the deer and elk have occasionally knocked down the camera in the gully.
What I find fascinating is not so much that we’re not the highest thing on the food chain, but that they all are just out there, going about their lives, keeping out of one another’s way, and occasionally showing up on our camera because the road that goes through our place is as useful for them as it is for us.
The old idea that nature is “red in tooth and claw,” that predators are some sort of bloodthirsty killing machines, is, from what I’ve seen in nearly fifteen years on this little bench, not particularly true. I’ve watched Alvin’s cattle calve in that field right below us, the one where I’ve also routinely seen the very large and healthy coyotes crossing, or hunting mice and voles. A few years back, when we’d been seeing the mountain lion on the cameras, I asked my friend who ranches sheep just at the bottom of the valley if she’d had any trouble with it. She hadn’t, but was pretty sure it had snagged a deer she shot late one afternoon during the season. The deer went down into the creekbed, and she went looking for it. She knew it was a good shot, but couldn’t find the deer. She’d seen that big mountain lion crossing the road earlier, and “just had a feeling.” So she left the deer, hoping the lion would take it as tribute, and leave her sheep alone.
They know we’re here, the animals. Himself has circled back on a hike, or while hunting antlers, and had both mountain lions and wolves walk directly in his boot tracks. They’re letting him know they see him, but he’s never had them menace him.
The question of who is the world for seems to be the central question we’re wrestling with in all our human societies. Is the world just for a bunch of white men, who are outraged that they might have to compete for privileges they were previously just handed? Are the resources of the world for us humans alone? What are we willing to sacrifice so that those wolves can continue to live up on that ridgeline? And who gets to decide these things?
I’ve been thinking a lot about making things. That I have not managed to publish a book in the 20 years since Place Last Seen came out, is an ongoing source of frustration and shame. I’ve published some essays, and I’ve written a lot of blog posts. There’s a mystery novel manuscript that needs some fiddling with on the front end, and that half a novel about academia, farms, the horse business and social class. I haven’t managed, despite all those efforts, to publish a second book, but I have made a lot of things.
Right now, I’m noodling around with making a pair of Fair Isle mittens. I couldn’t find a pattern I liked, so I’m kind of winging it, using a book of Fair Isle charts I bought several years back. We’ll see — I have concerns. I’m not entirely sure that these very pretty yarns are mitten-weight. They’re very light. Perhaps I’ll wind up with a pair of Fair Isle fingerless mittens to use in the chilly greenhouse room where I write. Perhaps I’ll rip them and start over, with heavier yarns. I don’t know yet. I only just started them yesterday.
This is what I love about making things. You learn to do a real thing with your hands and your mind and your imagination. You think of something in your head, and maybe you start with a recipe, or a sewing pattern, or a general template for how to make a mitten that you’ve learned from making several pairs of fingerless gloves for the now-grown kids for Christmas. (No Fair Isle patterns on those. The Twins are anti-pattern. They’re 16. They have strong opinions). You think of a thing, then you start making something, and you see what happens.
During these long years when I have been wrestling with how to write this story, wrestling with trying to invent the kind of book I want to write, rather than slotting the events that happened to me into some template that imposes sense on it, during all these long years when writing has been a site of angst, and the place where I’m tasked with plumbing the depths of grief, making things has been my solace. I might not have been able to figure out the story I was trying to tell, but I could make a frangipane raspberry tart to take to a party, or make a dress that expressed the shape I want to present in the world, or build new garden beds and fill them with greens and nasturtiums. I could physically bring something into the world that wasn’t there before.
I’ve been listening to and reading a lot about art lately, and art process. Process isn’t really a concept we use much in writing. Writing tends to be about the object, about publication. Driving down valley to walk the dog, Tyler Mitchell was on the TalkArt podcast interview, and he described his process as starting with planning a production day with a mood board and sourcing the looks he wants and the location and then “going out and running around and making a lot of cool stuff, and coming back and seeing what we can do with it.”
I feel a little bit like that’s what I’ve done with this house. I’ve built myself a big studio where I can make a lot of cool stuff and then see what I can do with it. I have a sewing space in the basement, and this greenhouse room where I write and start seeds in the spring, and the front garden where I’m replacing the grass with flowers and fruit trees, and the back garden where I grow roses and vegetables, and the front office where my books are and that I mostly use for my day job. The living room has things I love on the walls, and music and the wood stove and all the yarn. Knitting and sewing are when I feel like I can watch junk TV, because I’m doing something. Then there’s the kitchen, with the crammed bookcases of cookbooks, and the pantry with shelves of pretty fruits I’ve put up, and lots and lots of herbs and spices and dry ingredients. Even before the pandemic, I could pretty much always rustle up something delicious just with the stuff in my house. I know people are tired of cooking, but I’ve cooked for myself, and Himself, as a matter of course for decades. I like my own food better than most restaurant food, and I find the process of figuring out what I want to make for dinner from what I have, and then pulling it together enormously satisfying. I blogged about cooking for what? Nearly 15 years?
For a very long time I thought of all this making as the thing I was doing instead of writing.
But for the past couple of years, I’ve been thinking of all the making as the thing itself. Buying this house, and moving here was always a project. I spent my adult life trying to find a way to live authentically, and while there are many things I’ve loved about my career in the tech world — from the people to the fact that it’s paid off the student loans and my mortgage — that world has always just been my job. It’s a good job, and one I like, but I never wanted my job to be my life, I wanted my job to pay for my life.
My life, it turns out, was making things. And making things in the service both of trying to subvert the overbearing messages of consumer capitalism, and to learn the skills I might need to keep me and my loved ones afloat as the disaster we’ve all been pretending we can’t see bears down on us.
Just as I’ve struggled to find a form to write about the double-whammy of losing both my brothers, a form that isn’t a predetermined narrative of redemption or survival, so too I’ve struggled to build not just a place where I can make things as self-expression, but a safe place where I can learn to make the things we’ll need to live. I can cook, and raise small livestock, and grow food, and sew clothing, and knit (sometimes lumpy) objects to keep us warm. I could probably get by here on very little cash money if I had to. And not only can these things sustain physical life, over these past 17 years since Patrick died, I’ve figured out how to be happy in my own skin, and in my own home, largely by making things. All of this has come in very handy as we’ve been in lockdown. While I miss people, I’m really pretty happy noodling around here. I’ve stayed home in part because I have a lot of creative things to do here. There are books — so many books. There are things I’m thinking about, and writing about, and when that gets to be too much, I can go outside and clear out the chicken coop or plant a rose. There’s fabric and yarn to make clothes from, and all summer there was garden produce and fruit from my trees to put up. There are chickens and cats and a dog to keep me company. There’s Himself to have dinner with either here or at his house. And there’s a valley with a couple of places left where I can walk the dog without seeing people, and where, as they did this morning, a breeding pair of bald eagles, and this year’s juvenile, soared overhead in big circles, riding the thermals coming off the bluff (and in the case of the juvenile, swooping every so often to taunt the dog).
Is making things the way I do Art in the way that I’d hope this second book I’m wrestling with will be Art? I don’t know. I could probably spin up some convincing artistic statement about purpose and project and use the blog as evidence of documentation. I could probably sell it as an art experiment. But then it’d just be another thing for sale, when really, it’s my little life here. The life I chose and built for myself.
So as we head into 2021, as we head into this new era of climate crisis and social chaos, I’m going to see if I can make those mittens work, and take a run at writing this book using a structural scaffold I’ve been sketching out, and order some seeds for next years’ garden. Nothing that different, really, from what I’ve been doing here for nearly 20 years.
Here’s hoping more of us can find ways to be creative with what we have. If I have a New Year’s wish, I think that’s it … that we learn to make our own happiness, collectively somehow even as we’re forced to be apart.
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.