Human Nature/Nature Human

Human Nature/Nature Human

Originally published at Substack, 9/27/2020

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One of the few good things to have come out of this pandemic, for people like me who live in far-flung places, is that we can call in for author events and even little workshops in ways that were unheard of in the Before Times. Last week, I Zoomed in for a terrific conversation with Helen Macdonald and Jeff VanderMeer about her new book, Vesper Flights. It was a terrific conversation, especially when you consider that Macdonald was basically calling in from the dead of night in the UK. Toward the end, VanderMeer (whose work I have yet to read but who I love following on Twitter) asked her how she responds to “people who ask why non-human nature even matters…”

At which point, the top of my head came off.

Macdonald was stumped for a moment (it was midnight her time), and kind of waved her hands around, then quoted Robin Wall Kimmerer’s anecdote in Braiding Sweetgrass, where she asks her students if they’d feel differently about the natural world if it loved them back.

Which is not the direction my head, now in flames, was going. I was bouncing in my seat and shouting into the Zoom void that nature matters because we’re all nature. We are nature. Nature is in us. We live IN nature — it’s not something out there.

The more we learn, the more we discover that we’re what Donna Haraway describes as cyborg reality. In The Cyborg Manifesto (1985) she outlines a concept of cyborg that specifically rejects rigid boundaries, especially those separating human from animal and human from machine. In When Species Meet (2007), Haraway takes this point further, noting that:

“Human genomes can be found in only about 10 percent of all the cells that occupy the mundane space I call my body; the other 90 percent of the cells are filled with the genomes of bacteria, fungi, protists, and such, some of which play in a symphony necessary to my being alive at all, and some of which are hitching a ride and doing the rest of me, of us, no harm. I am vastly outnumbered by my tiny companions; better put, I become an adult human being in company with these tiny messmates” (When Species Meet, p. 4).

But we all know that discussions of the gut biome are not what we mean by nature writing, a topic I’ve studied for decades now, and one about which I still have so many grumbling muttering ongoing discussions with myself. Often, these discussions take place on my dog walks, which because I’m in Livingston, Montana, usually take place in the Paradise Valley. Which is stupendously beautiful. That’s it up at the top of the post, this afternoon, on said dog walk.

That’s what nature writing is supposed to be about, right? That thing out there. In the American idiom, it’s about Sweeping Vistas and Big Adventures (often male). It’s about that thing we’re trying to save with our writing. Wilderness. The Wild.

Again, in the photo, that’s it — the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness area. It starts about halfway up that front range and runs east to about Cody Wyoming. It is huge, and magnificent, and something very much to be fought for and protected.

I’ve lived here since 2002 and have only ever been a couple of miles inside the boundary. I moved to the wilderness and built a domestic life. I live in town. I have a garden. I have pets (couldn’t have the chickens if I lived down valley — too many predators). Himself has a cabin on the lower slope of Emigrant peak, where we share the yard most of the winter with a large herd of elk does and calves. We’ve seen mountain lions and bears and coyotes and foxes and bobcats and birds, and lots and lots of bunnies. There’s a bunny who lives under the pallet where the garbage cans are secured from the winds that blow all winter. That’s “garbage can bunny.” Generations of garbage can bunny have hung out with Himself while he cuts wood, or putters around the place. We love garbage can bunny even if he’s not as thrilling as the very healthy mountain lion we catch on the game camera once or twice a year.

Seems that one of the things we’re all learning in lockdown is how we are, despite all the promises of the techno-future, still nature. The entire globe has been shut down because of a virus, and we’ve all come crashing up against our biological natures. Remember March and April? When we were all sprouting scallions in glasses of water, just to have some contact with the green world? As a way of giving ourselves hope? Nature is both the red tailed hawk who has sailed out of the cottonwood tree to hang, just off the riverside bluff, like a big showoff these past few mornings AND the bacteria that made my yogurt set last week.

Modern nature writing in the US grew out of the great conservation movements of the 1950s and 60s — a movement that brought us the very wilderness area under whose shadow I walk most mornings. That those wilderness areas are still under constant threat from those who would seek to privatize sell them off, log them or mine them them, means that our nature writing here in the US is usually written in a defensive crouch. Is this good for The Wild? Will this leave an opening for enemies of The Wild?

One thing I appreciate in so much nature writing coming out of the UK is that because they don’t write in this shadow, there’s often a lightness, and a vibrancy to it that I think can get lost over here. Writers like Helen Macdonald, Kathleen Jamie, James Rebanks, and even some of their gardening writers like Dan Pearson are doing terrific work exploring the borders of what is nature, and what is human, and what happens when the two meet up.

At one point during the Zoom event, VanderMeer asked a question I heard our late neighbor Jim Harrison ask at UC Davis 25 years ago — what about nature that isn’t scenic? What is its worth? Who is going to save it? What about VanderMeer’s ravines, or all those woodland edges we hung out in on the edge of the condo developments when I was a kid? Perhaps one way to start “saving” the natural world is to begin to think of it as where we live. As something inside and outside of our bodies, as something in our houses and our yards, and yes, also as a sweeping vista to which we travel, when we can travel again, to remind ourselves of the sublime.

But nature doesn’t belong only to the sublime. It belongs also to the local, to the homey, to the scallions in a water glass, the birds at our feeders, the bacteria in our yogurt.

Making a Plan

Making a Plan

Originally published at Substack, 9/13/2020

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Pantry shelf of pickles and jams

When I was young and very broke in NYC, I figured a girl has to eat, and so cooking became my main source of entertainment. And because I was brokety broke broke broke on my $8/hr editorial assistant salary, I started researching the cuisines of places where folks didn’t have much money. Books like Patience Gray’s Honey from a Weed, or Linda West Eckhardt’s American Gumbo, and even the James Beard Theory and Practice books — all of these taught me how people who liked to eat had gotten through lean times.

Lean times are upon us. Here in the West, everything is on fire, and this spring demonstrated how fragile the supply lines are that bring supplies from afar. We’re lucky here in that we’re still an agricultural community, and one that has, since the 2008 crash in particular, been working to build a robust local food system. We have lots of meat, from game to pork, beef and local chicken producers. Vegetables are a little trickier, although we’ve seen several recent MSU Ag school grads go into hydroponic greens production in the Bozeman area (I suspect those greenhouses are actually investments in a future when pot is legal here, but for now, we have lettuce).

I’ve gardened and canned since I moved here in 2002, and in fact, it was one of the reasons I did move here. Joan Dye Grussow’s great book This Organic Life was my north star as I learned to grow and put up food. And then, since what I can grow best in this climate is greens — Paula Wolfert’s Mediterranean Greens taught me how to cook with them. (Although I’m currently in love with Samin Nosrat’s Persian Kuku Sabzi). Most of the project of building gardens and learning to put food up is documented over on my blog Livingsmallblog.com.

I think what we’ve been through the last six months is just the beginning of a long, rough period in our history. The upcoming election promises chaos at the least, probably outbreaks of violence in places (including, I fear, here), and if we can’t displace this current kleptocratic regime, we’re looking at both real political repression and accelerating climate crisis of the sort that currently has the entire West in flames. This could get quite bad.

And so, as I did all those years ago when I didn’t know how I was going to pay rent and feed myself, I’ve turned to cookbooks written by people who survived. Right now, I’m deep in cookbooks from the former Soviet Union — a place where folks survived political repression and huge food supply problems largely through a culture of growing and making food outside the official channels.

Olia Hercules is a writer who grew up in Ukraine and moved to London as a young woman. She’s written three cookbooks now, and Summer Kitchens has been on my bedside table all summer long. It’s been so hot here the past few summers that I hardly cook inside anymore, and I bought a new gas grill setup in part because it had both a pizza oven attachment, and because I can take the grill box off and use the 30k BTU burner for the huge canning pot. Once Himself builds me the platform he’s promised, it will be a sort of outdoor kitchen that I can use for both dinner, and project cooking.

Mostly what I cook from Olia’s books isn’t even cooking — it’s fermenting. She has so many great techniques for fermenting and then preserving vegetables, from fermented green tomatoes stuffed with garlic and herbs, to perfect dill pickles. Her Instagram is a great appendix to her books, for it’s there she really shows us how these foods work in everyday life. Her soup method is one I’ve completely taken on the past couple of years. Make a broth, then use the fat from the top of the broth to sauté up some onions and perhaps some carrot and celery. Add some of the meat, a little sourness from one of the pickle ferments, perhaps some greens. She has real recipes in her books, but what I’m always looking for in cookbooks from cultures different to mine is techniques. The ways you can use them to cook with what you have. The entire landscape of food has become so restaurant and recipe focused the past few years, and that is very much not how I cook. I’m much more interested in looking around, seeing what you have, then finding ways to make something delicious from that, than I am in going to a grocery store with a list and trying to recreate some restaurant meal.

The other writer whose techniques I’ve been studying is Irina Georgescu, who like Olia Hercules lives in London now, although she’s Romanian instead of Ukranian. Her book Carpathia: Food from the Heart of Romania is another one I’ve been reading over and over. Both books are filled with stories of the writers’ parents strategies for finding, cooking and preserving food in tricky times, and both come from food traditions that seem to prioritize technique over the specific recipe. For instance, Georgescu has a dough recipe that’s used for all kinds of pies, savory and sweet — and I’ve been using it to make hand pies from leftovers. A little leftover chicken or sausage or hamburger? Leftover mashed potato? The dough is easy to pull together, and not as high in fat as pie crust — a quick rest, roll out some circles, pop a few tablespoons of leftovers and a sprinkling of cheese inside and it’s a new dinner, or, in my case, a lot of them have gone into the freezer for later. Georgescu also has a whole section on Pickles, Preserves, Compotes and Drinks that I’ve been poring over.

There were two fabulous Russian cookbooks that came out recently — Salt and Time by Alissa Timoshkina who grew up in Siberia, and Beyond the North Wind by Darra Goldstein. Again, the emphasis is on fermented flavors, and since I’m currently in a phase where I’m obsessed with dumplings, there are Piroshki, and soups, and crunchy salads made from winter vegetables. As we go into a very uncertain winter, reading about how people kept themselves fed and warm during longer, darker times is helping me feel like I’ve got a plan.

And more than just having a plan to keep me and my Himself fed this winter, learning how to grow and preserve food outside the corporate systems that currently have us all hamstrung feels like a set of skills I can use not just for us, but for my neighbors. I’m casting around to figure out mutual support networks. Who has what skills? Who is willing to share what resources? How can we all keep one another safe as a period of real political and economic and, here in the west, physical danger descends on us? If we haven’t been already, it’s time to start making plans.

Garden/Wild/Landscape/Art

Garden/Wild/Landscape/Art

Originally published at Substack, 8/29/2020

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One of my major coping mechanisms during this … time has been Monty Don garden videos, especially his garden tours series: Around the World in 80 Gardens, French Gardens, Gardens of Italy, American Gardens. Most of them are available on YouTube, (with a few weird gaps) and it’s been an interesting crash course in the history of garden design, as well as a meditation on my favorite cluster of ideas: what is a garden? What is nature? What is the wild?

This is a photo of one of my favorite spots in the valley. It’s a concrete catchment where the irrigation ditch emerges after being funneled underground down 50 yards or so of very steep grade. I love the square angles and the hard concrete against the swishiness of the long grasses, and the tall cottonwood trees. I posted a couple of Instagram video clips of the peaceful gurgling the water makes as it emerges. I love the way this quotidian structure frames the ditch, which runs straight for a mile or so from this point. If I was a Fancy Person building a landscape garden in this place, this would be what I’d choose for a water feature.

The idea of what counts as landscape and what counts as garden really comes into play with the landscape garden tradition. Capability Brown is usually credited with implementing this mode of estate design in the 18th century. Of course, the very idea of the landscape garden is problematic, as it’s predicated on the consolidation of private land ownership and hence, deeply implicated in an exploitative capitalism from which we all still suffer. That a single landowner can sculpt the landscape itself to suit their aesthetic preferences implies a landscape devoid of people, or purpose. It is an ostentatious display of great wealth. A local analogue might be the American Prairie Reserve, which is doing interesting work in conservation and habitat restoration, but in service of a political vision that seeks to replace public lands with private ownership. And while the Monty Don garden tours are really interesting, the ones I found most compelling were when he visited smallholdings, and allotments, and people growing fruit and veg using methods that had evolved over a long period of time.

My father was a landscape architect, and his father was a nurseryman and landscaper as well. Once our parents divorced, my brother Patrick and I spent many a Saturday driving to job sites with Dad, looking at hills that had been sculpted into the flat Chicago landscape with bulldozers, checking the progress of artificial water drops at the entrances to housing developments and corporate headquarters all across suburbia. I can still spot those jobs when I’m back — the style is distinctive. And while my father had a good eye for design, one of the few things he and my mother actually shared, he wasn’t at all passionate about landscape architecture. He wasn’t even that interested in it. His father had told him he’d pay for college if Dad would do the LA program at Michigan State, and then he’d leave him the company. And so, my father became a landscape architect.

The landscape jobs he did never appealed to me because he was essentially working at an industrial scale. The projects weren’t particularly creative, the design vocabulary varied a little bit from job to job but for the most part they were working with a handful of plants, and a short palette of forms: ponds, bulldozed hills, small artificial waterfalls, a weeping willow, a couple of crabapple trees, some evergreens. (We did like playing with the rubber stamp sets at the office though — trees and bushes of many sizes and shapes. We designed many an office park on a boring afternoon waiting for Dad to finish whatever it was he was doing.)

I moved to Montana in 2002, but I don’t live in the Paradise Valley, where the irrigation ditch photo was taken, I live in the town of Livingston itself. The Paradise Valley runs south from town to Yellowstone park. The Yellowstone river runs along the bottom, and on the one side (seen in the photo) is the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness area, and on the other is the Gallatin Range. Livingston is at the head of the valley, where the river turns to the east. It’s an old railroad town, formerly the headquarters of the Northern Pacific railway, and because it was always transient, most houses don’t even have much yard. One reason I bought this house, was because there was a 15 x 25 foot overgrown vegetable garden in the backyard, along with several fruit trees.

This is not a landscape garden. My 1903 house sits on a typical 50 x 100 foot lot, with privacy fence down either side. I put a white picket fence in the front, and the back is a mix of fruit trees, a long perennial border that’s turning out to be pretty much shrub roses, and my large raised bed vegetable garden. It came with 4 apple trees and 2 plum trees and I’ve put in a lot of currant and gooseberry bushes. There’s a chicken coop and a shed that was once a garage for a Model T, but won’t fit any modern car. My vegetable garden is designed to be both pretty, and productive. In a good year, I can grow probably 80% of the vegetables I eat, especially on years like this when I’m a little panicky and so, I’m putting up greens and tomatoes for the freezer. But it has to be something I want to look at too. I’ve planted roses and iris around the cattle panel fence that keeps the pets and chickens out, and and lots of annuals in among the vegetables. Right now there are pink roses, sunflowers, nasturtiums from hot orange to palest yellow, deep orange marigolds with dark dark green foliage, lots of sunny yellow calendula and some borage to break up all those hot colors. There are so many greens — herbs and tomatoes and kales and chards and huge bushy pepper plants and spiky onions. It is a joy and a pleasure this garden, and it’s what I dreamed of all those years in rental apartments, when I grew tomatoes in pots, and flowers on balconies, and even grew a few greens and onions in the tiny veg patch behind the converted garage I lived in at 9000 feet elevation in Telluride.

I moved to a place of stupendous wild beauty, and I built a very domestic and pastoral garden. Is this a contradiction? There is a long strain in American nature writing that claims the domestic is the enemy of the wild, and that “the wild” is the only nature that really counts. I’ve been reading Derek Jarman these past few weeks, in particular Modern Nature, and I find it interestingthat for Jarman, one element of the wildness among which he gardened in Dungeness was the nuclear power plant in the background. The nuclear power plant didn’t negate the wildness of that location, it enhanced it.

There’s an idea that gardening is imposing order on nature, that it’s an imposition of human will on the natural world, but for me this has never really been the case. I garden using organic methods, and because I feel a moral obligation both to what was here when I bought the place and to anything I’ve planted, I more commonly feel that I’m obligated to my plants. That white shrub rose that somehow seeded itself in the back by the chicken coop, I could no more rip that up than I could murder my dog. It grew there. All by itself. It’s also a pretty nice plant, and so perhaps that’s why I don’t feel the same affection for the self-seeded box elder that shoots up every year, inconveniently through the slats of the large back gate where I load firewood for the winter. Every year when it’s time to load wood, I saw those shoots, sometimes 12 or 15 feet high, down to the ground. Same for the aspen shoots that come under the fence from my neighbor’s yard, and that would take over my veg patch if allowed. But for the most part, I feel less like someone making a plan and imposing it on the yard, than I do like someone who has planted some things, and is now responsible for their well being.

Next week we’ll come back to Derek Jarman. I’ve been circling around and around Modern Nature, which is a book about a garden built both firmly in the vernacular of the English garden, and one that explodes that vernacular in ways that also have something interesting to say about how we define the natural, and the wild. That Jarman built his garden in the early days of the AIDs pandemic that eventually took his life makes it feel somehow deeply relevant to our current situation. Or at least it feels relevant as I’m struggling to put some kind of framework of meaning around our current situation.

Thanks for reading along, and if you know anyone who might like these little essay/missives, please encourage them to sign up. I think there are 14 of you right now! Hello friends!

Well That Worked Until It Didn’t

Well That Worked Until It Didn’t

(8/23/2020)

Originally published at Substack

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During all those years I blogged, I often got pushback from people who felt compelled to convince me that the local was over, that we were all living in a glorious techno future where multinational corporations were going to take care of all our needs. We had Ikea for furniture and home goods. We had so many food systems, including those like Trader Joes and Whole Foods who pretended to be local, and friendly and “organic.” We had takeout and things like Uber Eats and you could just order in from any restaurant and have it brought to your house (well, not so much in Livingston, but I hear tales from the world out there …). Capitalism had won and our glorious future was here.

I actually had a woman make this argument in the most local place I know, Leland Illinois. Leland is the tiny town where my great-great-great grandparents bought a railroad section in 1864 (family lore has it, with the proceeds of selling bootleg whisky out the back door of their mercantile). The Farm. Initial caps. When my mother was a child during WW2, my grandmother had all four children memorize how to walk from their apartment on Lincoln Park to The Farm. They had to recite the directions over breakfast. So that if the Germans invaded, they could at least get to The Farm where Omie, the hired man, could feed them from the flock of chickens and vegetable garden and the milk cow.

My aunt Molly lives there now, and a few years back she built a riding arena onto the existing horse barn. She raises and trains reining horses, and pays for it by taking paying customers. I was home for a visit, and we’d gone the 1/2 mile into town to have lunch at “the restaurant” — a tavern that serves beer and very good hamburgers. It’s just about the only business in town. What was the main street is deserted. There’s an ugly bank built in the 60s. When passenger rail stopped, and the interstate was cut through 30 miles north, Leland, like a lot of small towns, pretty much died.

So there we are, eating good burgers and I must have been telling Molly about my cookbook review gig at Bookslut (in advance of meeting up with my editor back in Chicago that evening), when Molly’s customer, who worked for Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) felt compelled to tell me that cookbooks were a quaint anachronism, because their corporate research showed that “in a few years” no one was even going to want a kitchen in their house anymore.

Well that worked until it didn’t.

Until we all had to go home, and the gears of global industrial everything came to a grinding halt.
And we all discovered that the local does still matter, and that we all still actually live in our homes, and our neighborhoods. We’re also getting a crash course in why government matters, but that’s a topic for another day.

As someone who wrote for a little over a decade about growing food in the backyard, about making bread — both sourdough and with yeast, about raising chickens and most of all, about being saved by my community when disaster struck, it felt like maybe it wasn’t a bad time to get back in the conversation. My little town lot with chickens and a vegetable garden owes a lot to my mother’s lifelong conviction that if she could just get to

The Farm, it would all be okay. A 50×100 foot lot in Montana is hardly a farm, but I feel much the same about my tiny chunk of home.

So stay tuned, and I’ll try to send you some Thoughts about once a week, on everything from which cookbooks I’m turning to in this time of crisis, to what I’m thinking about landscape/nature/wilderness/art, to what the chickens are doing and even maybe try out some chunks of the book I’m working on for you all.
Like the blogs were back in the day, seems like this is an evolving medium, and I’d love it if you’d stick around, and tell your friends if it’s something they might like.

Newsletter! Sign up!

Newsletter! Sign up!

Hi everyone — I’ve been missing the blog lately, but also, it feels like a town that was bypassed by the internet highway, just sitting over here off the 2-lane, wishing someone would pass by.


So, if you too miss my little essays on food, and gardens, and making things (land art! I’m obsessed with land art and Derek Jarman at the moment), sign up and I’ll drop you a little missive in your email box once a week.

The signup is here: LivingSmall at Substack

Food Resiliency and the Pandemic

Food Resiliency and the Pandemic

Making breakfast this morning I realized that everything on my plate was homegrown or foraged, and that this is not an accident, but rather, the result of nearly 20 years of being “weird” about food, about cooking, and about the coming disaster.

This is the first morel of the season, sauteed up with some butter (oh! KerryGold. Totally not local), some backyard green spring onions, and a backyard egg. Toast from my own sourdough no-knead bread. Even the plate is thrifted, and the silverware was my great-grandmother’s.

The thing is, I’ve been doing this for years. I haven’t really chimed in on the pandemic food stuff too much, because I feel like I have posts on food resiliency, on local food systems, on growing your own and eating locally going back to the beginning of this blog. In 2002.

And now, here we are. In a global crisis which is exacerbated by decades of people believing the marketing, believing that they didn’t need to know how to cook because there is takeout, and restaurants, and frozen meals in the grocery store. People believing that the engines of industrial food and just-in-time supply lines were as inevitable and natural as the air. People who couldn’t understand why I won’t buy lamb from Australia or grapes from Chile.

While I’ve always advocated for living smaller, buying less, spending less, growing and making more … that it’s all caving in so suddenly, that we’re all living through this global catastrophe together (even with the ones who are denying there is any catastrophe at all) is as upsetting for me as it is for everyone else.

Yes, I have skills, and twenty years ago I deliberately moved to a place where there is fresh water, a lot of non-industrial agriculture, and people who still know how to do and make things. But that doesn’t mean I want everyone else to suffer like this. Or that I’m somehow feeling smug about it. I’m heartbroken. This isn’t something I wanted to be right about. I wanted to go on being the kooky aunt with the bolshie opinions.

And yet, here we are. I’ve ordered enough flour and olive oil and coffee to get me through to the end of the year if supply chains take a while to rebuild. If they can’t well, there’s local flour, and probably rapeseed oil. Will we have to learn to live without coffee? Am I going to be scouring the roadsides this summer for chicory roots?

More than that though, is this the fulcrum? And if it is, for what? A better, greener, more equitable society in which we finally break the back of the exploitation beast that is Big Capitalism? Or the other option, where the guns in the hands of all those white supremacists are called to action?

When you’re raised in chaos, you get a pretty good sense for that moment just before it all kicks off. That moment when you need to get the fuck out of there, and on my worst days here in the backyard, starting tomatoes and new baby chickens, this moment feels like that. My instinct is to hide. To hunker down here in my backyard, the one I’ve been cultivating for 18 years now, the one where I might be able to grow enough stuff to keep us alive. If I have to. Which I don’t want to.

This is just to let you all know, that even though I have a beautiful backyard egg, an egg so orange that it takes your breath away; even though I have morels starting to come up, and the Egyptian Walking onions have come up with abandon, even though I have a years supply of flour and a sourdough starter and there’s still gas coming through the pipes so I can make bread, even though I’ve set all these things up deliberately — I’m just as freaked out as all the rest of you.

On Leftovers …

On Leftovers …

Amanda Mull tweeted this morning that nearly every food culture except “modern American food culture” has a host of recipes and techniques for dealing with leftovers, and I replied in a way that made me feel like the 10,000 year old crone. She’s not wrong at all, but I tried to say something that can’t be said in 280 characters, about why “modern American food culture” makes me cranky, and I just came off like a finger-wagging boomer.

And then my friend Sara, who stayed here last night (sadly because of the virus, we didn’t get to see one another) texted me as she’s driving east for a second day, trying to get home to her ailing 91 year old mother while she still can. “What was that dahl you left?” she asked. “Can you send me the recipe?”

I’d left her some wine, and bread, and there was a pot of dahl/soup in the fridge I made a day or so ago. But I don’t have a recipe. What I had was a 16 ounce yogurt container of leftover red-lentil dahl in the freezer, and a tray of yellow beets and carrots that came in my CSA box that I’d roasted with some commercial schwarma spice a local spice company sells. And extra Aleppo pepper, because always extra Aleppo pepper.

I didn’t like the texture of the roasted carrots and beets, and I knew there was leftover dahl, and that I also wasn’t crazy about the texture of that. Sometimes red lentil dahls taste gritty to me. Combined, and cooked more with some water and white wine, I thought they might make a nice soup. I eat a lot of soup for lunch. I’ve worked at home for most of my career, and soup with a slice of toast is a staple around here.

Making leftovers into something else meant that when my brokenhearted friend needed a place to land for a night on a long long drive, I had a pot of soup to leave her, with some bread, and some wine. Enough that she took a Talenti jar with her as she headed out across the unsafe oil patch that is the Dakotas. Which made me even more happy.

Any of you who are getting notifications that I posted have been following me long enough to know that I have been pushing against “modern American food culture” for a long time. We have a whole generation, maybe two, who don’t know how to feed themselves. They have a few pretty party dishes, but faced with a situation like the one we’re in now, where they are bereft of restaurants and prepared foods, there are a lot of people out there really struggling.

They’re struggling because we all believed the propaganda. Believed that we didn’t need kitchens anymore. Believed that corporations could provide us an endless stream of pre-cooked and prepared meals in a bag. Believed that we don’t need to teach home economics anymore, and that knowing how to shop and budget and cook your own food and clean up your own home are chores of drugery.

They can be, but they can also be something more. They can be the means by which you build a home. I made a dahl-ish soup because I looked at those three yellowish things, spiced with warm spices like ginger and cinnamon and cardamom and coriander and thought — oh, those could go together. Maybe I’d like them more together than I do separately.

And I do. Topped with a dollop of yogurt, and some green onions that are the first things growing in my garden (it snowed, again), it’s delicous.

One reason I don’t pitch much “food writing” is because I find the entire machinery of food writing and food blogs and food photography so alien. It’s all still in service to the same consumer capitalist maw. It’s all about what’s “on trend” this year. It’s about what looks pretty in an Instagram photo.

In my second tweet replying about American leftovers, I tried to be more constructive. There’s a fabulous value cookbook from the mid-80s called American Gumbo from which I learned a lot in my brokey mcbroke years. The hippie cookbooks of that era are also good — lots of things you can do with cheap staples like beans and grains. I’ve written on a number of occasions about my deep love for Patience Grey’s Honey from a Weed, in which she describes all the ways she fed herself and the scupltor as the knocked around the Mediterranean with no money. Vine twig fires and an earthenware pot of beans.

If we’re going to survive this planetary sea change we’re seeing start to play out, we must change our lives. We’re going to have to think about the actual realities of food and food systems. We’ve been burning the planet alive so we can jet ourselves and our food around the world. That I’m looking at Australian oranges in a supermaket in Montana is insane.

Maybe a place to start is to learn to cook with what we have. It’s a good place to practice that kind of creativity. Don’t think of it as “leftovers” think of is as one of those cooking challenge shows. You have a container of leftover dahl. You have two gigantic yellow beets and some big carrots that came in your CSA box. Now what?

The Weather Is Real

The Weather Is Real

Here’s a little essay I wrote a few years back about the domestic and the wild, the virtual and the real. It’s part of the longer project I’ve been working on, both in print and in the real world of my backyard. That is: how do we survive enormous grief? How do we prepare ourselves for hard times, times when we might need to rely on ourselves and others? Times like these.

Scott McMillion was nice enough to publish it in Montana Quarterly, but since the archives aren’t online, I thought I’d post it in case it’s useful for any of us during this strange planetary time of trouble.

Garden in the Wild

I park my car at the cattle guard and let Hank-dog out. We’re going for our daily walk, on a gravel road about ten minutes outside of town. There’s a trailhead at the top of the road, and as much as that trail is one of my favorites, during this year of recuperation after ankle surgery, I’ve fallen in love with walking the road. For one thing, there are fewer people on the road, and since dog walks are when I think, and in particular when I think about writing, I don’t want to talk to people. And the other thing is that this trail, the Suce Creek trail, is where I’ve been both barked at by a very large bear, and charged by a bull moose.

Thrilling experiences both of them, but sometimes a girl just wants to walk the dog, look at the scenery, and let her mind wander to whatever is going to happen next in the novel she’s writing back in town.

The Suce creek road starts with a fairly steep little climb — maybe a couple of hundred vertical feet in that first quarter mile. Uphill, fir forest rises unbroken to the ridgetop, while below lie a couple of fields with horses, and a ranch house where an elderly herding dog barks as we walk past. Next, the road winds through an aspen grove, and comes back out into the open with a beautiful view down the drainage and across the Paradise Valley. The Gallatin range hoves into view on the far side, and most afternoons, the skies light up as the sun sinks to the west. This stretch of road is open, and warm enough in the wintertime that there’s a cow moose who beds in the sunshine here sometimes, we’ve come across her impression in the snowbank, steaming a little where she left it. Sometimes the cattle are loose up here, which can be a trial with a two year old border collie, but they’re fierce, and he’s getting better about listening when I tell him no, no freelance herding. Then the road winds through a deep wooded stretch. I love this half mile. It’s like a forest from a children’s book, deep and cool even on a hot summer afternoon. Past that, is the trailhead, and if the parking lot’s empty, we’ll keep going, up through the willow thicket to that open piney stretch where we startled that bull moose two years ago, got charged. He rolled the puppy as I jumped off the trail, hid behind a terrifyingly thin fir tree. But we all came through unscathed. Terrified, but unscathed.

Then, down through the aspen grove littered with slash piles from where the Forest Service decided to improve things by cutting down the fir trees. A perfect bureaucratic project. Count aspens, cut down firs, count new aspens, declare it a success. Entirely unnecessary to anyone but the Forest Service ranger who got herself a promotion out of it. She’s happy I hear, up in Helena.

After the manicured aspen grove, the trail passes through a sweet little meadow where I scattered the ashes of my last two dogs, we say hello as Hank pees on their rock, then follow the trail where it drops steeply down into the creekbed, crosses with a ford and a little one-log bridge. Hank fell off that bridge once as a puppy when he stopped to lick himself, toppled backwards into the creek. There’s another ford about a half mile up, just past that clearing where years ago, I found a large bear standing on the game trail just uphill from the big Wilderness Area boundary sign, chuffing at me in a puzzled, yet deliberate manner. I called the now-dead dogs and remarkably, they came. We backed slowly out of the clearing, clutching the bear spray, thinking about the book my friend Scott McMillion wrote about grizzly attacks. What did Scott say to do? I remember thinking as I didn’t make eye contact, as I backed away, as I talked to that puzzled bear like he was a big drunk man in a bar. Hello bear. Nice bear. Didn’t mean to bother you bear. We’re just leaving bear.

Again, everyone was fine. Spooked, but fine. I called Doug Peacock to tell him what happened. “Congratulations,” he said. “You had a real experience out there.”

 Although the trail does cross the boundary into the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness area, and although I’ve had more wild animal encounters in this drainage than anywhere else in the county, we’re still in the front country. It’s wild up here, but there are people on this trail, folks on horseback, in fall there are hunters. It’s wild, but it’s not what we think of when we think of wilderness, it’s not pristine, it’s not remote, it’s not untouched by humans.

It took me twenty years to get to Montana, and even then, it wasn’t Montana I was after so much as Rocky Mountains. I’d lived in Telluride, and in Salt Lake, and from California, all I wanted was to get back to the Rockies. There’s nothing wrong with the Sierra, and my first novel is set there, but they’ve never been my mountains. You imprint, I think, on your first real western landscape. I remember watching a graduate student when I was at the University of Illinois, one of the climbing club guys, clicking through a carousel of slides from a summer trip: granite peaks, white snowfields, blue skies. I was seventeen years old, stranded in a sea of cornfields, marooned among the sorority girls. We’d spent a summer out west when I was ten. Watching those slides, I could smell the specific scent of willows in a sandy midsummer creek bottom. I knew in my bones I had to get back there somehow. To those mountains, those snowfields, those willow bottoms.

I finally made it west in the late 1980s, and the first time I found myself on the top of a Colorado ski hill in January, wearing only a sweater, in warm sunshine under a clear robins-egg sky, I told myself I was never going back east. And I didn’t. It was part of what scuttled my academic career, refusing to go East again, but I didn’t care. I went West, to the Bay Area, got a job in high tech, desperate to pay off my student loans. Three years into my tech job, I was commuting back the long way, the way I chose most nights because even if it was about fifteen minutes longer, most of the time you weren’t standing in traffic, and it took you through some of the last open agricultural fields in the Bay Area. But they were filling up. Houses were going up on perfectly good farm land, just as I’d watched the last few migrant workers hoeing a zucchini field that was doomed, to become the new Cisco “campus.” I wished I’d had a camera that day. I was stopped in traffic, and across from me were several guys with computer cases standing at a bus stop, while behind them, four or five Mexican guys hoed zucchini rows, and behind them, another three story Cisco building, identical to all the others, was going up.

It made me nervous, California. It had been good to me career-wise, twice. Once when I left Colorado for UC Davis, once when I left Salt Lake City after my PhD, came back out to live with my brother and find a job. But it was getting so crowded and I could feel the big change coming — whatever we want to call it, climate change, global warming, the anthropocene, the great acceleration — I don’t know what it is, but having been raised by unreliable parents you develop antennae for impending doom. You can tell by the energy level, the degree of frantic vibration, that something bad is about to happen. And that’s how I felt in California. I couldn’t put a finger on it exactly, but I knew something wasn’t right, and I wanted to get out of the way.

I was trying to figure out how to do that, when I heard a little voice in my head while driving to Whole Foods one Saturday morning. An actual voice, saying what about Livingston?  I knew about Livingston from running writers conferences, knew there were writers there, knew house prices hadn’t spiked yet. It was like there was someone in the car with me, that’s how clear the voice was. It spooked me, but I went home and looked up houses online, called a friend in Bozeman to see if she’d put me up.

Six months later, I was living in a small town smack in the middle of all the wild country a girl could want. It had been two decades since that slide show in the central Illinois flatlands, but I’d finally made it. I’d bought a house where I could see peaks and blue sky and snowfields from my front porch.

I bought a house in town, in part because I was moving alone, and feared if I bought a place out in the valley my agoraphobic tendencies would kick in, I’d hole up, never meet people. But I also bought a house in town because it already existed. I wasn’t cluttering up some hayfield with another new house, wasn’t chopping up the country with another five acre tract. In town, I could walk to Happy Hour on Fridays, to the dog park where I met the people who are now my family. It helps that I moved to a town full of writers. Writers, and painters, and fishing guides and carpenters and used-to-be-movie-stars. Who all get on together, who all wind up at the same happy hour, the same parties, the same art walks. It’s a good place, inhabited by people who wanted to live someplace beautiful, who needed to be near Big Wild Beauty, and who (with the exception of the rich summer people) were willing to take a hit financially in order to be here. We’d all rather be here than be rich, which is good since we’re mostly fairly broke.

Fifteen years later, it turns out that while I moved here for the wilderness what I did was build a garden. On my town lot, one I bought in part because there was a gigantic vegetable patch in the backyard, I hammered boards into raised beds and erected trellises. I moved dirt with a wheelbarrow and grew tomatoes and cucumbers and greens. I pruned up the fruit trees, planted currant and raspberry and gooseberry bushes. I built a coop and got chickens. I learned to can and freeze and put up my produce. With a gift of sourdough starter from another writer, I now bake bread once or twice a week. I moved to Montana for wildness only to find myself diving deep into the domestic.

If there’s anything that’s sacred in Montana, it’s wilderness. And the domestic, we are told, is the inverse of the wild. The mere presence of the domestic nullifies “the wild.” Just look at the outraged essays coming from old-school eco-warriors like George Wuerthner who collected a bunch of them in   “Keeping the Wild: Against the Domestication of Earth.” If there’s anything profane in this part of the world, its domestication. Just try being a single woman here, walk into the Murray Bar and watch the fishing guides react with terror, as if you’re only there to kill their fun, rope them into domestic life, tie them down with babies and houses and gardens. In the same way, there are plenty of people I know who would sneer at my Suce creek walk, especially the part I do on the road. I can hear it now, you moved all the way to Montana to walk a road?

But in Montana, the domestic and the wild are not always entirely separate. One of my neighbors, who bartends for a living, told me he’d been on his front step late one night, having an after-shift cigarette, when he thought he saw a dog coming down the sidewalk. Turned out to be quite a large bear. “She peed in the street,” he said, pointing. “Then went off that way, toward those apple trees.” He wasn’t freaked out about it. It was both perfectly normal, and very cool to be sitting on your front step at one AM and have a little visit with a very large black bear sow.

Visiting Chicago and Seattle, I see Montana scenery plastered on city busses. Glacier and Yellowstone, the big animals, bears and moose and elk, are what we use to lure tourists. No one is luring tourists with photos of the jars of applesauce and jam I put up, the sauerkraut I make when the Hutterites bring cabbages the size of a beach ball to the Farmers Market in the fall.

I make my living online, and like everyone else I know, I waste too much time on Facebook and Twitter, reading meaningless gossip about people I don’t know, losing whole hours diving into virtual rabbit holes. I did much of my academic work studying the ancient human conflict between the wild and the domestic, and while I’ve never quite bought the argument that the wild and the pastoral cancel one another out, it seems we’re now faced with a bigger conflict, the one between natural and virtual realities. My friend Amanda Fortini, for example, who wrote a very good article for Good Magazine about what a shock weather was when she moved to Montana. She’d never realized that weather could be something that impacted your daily life, that you had to think about. She grew up in suburbs, and then spent her twenties in New York. Her description of how it sunk in one evening when she and her husband found themselves stuck in the snow outside White Sulphur Springs, where they’d driven up for a soak in the hot springs then decided on a whim to drive north to Helena for the night. Someone will come along, she told Walter, who knew that no one would, they were on a small side road, and so he dug them out with the windshield scraper. It wasn’t until the hotel clerk when they were checking back in in White Sulphur acknowledged that it was a good thing they got themselves out, they only send someone up that road every couple of days in the winter, that it sunk in. Weather is real.

While those of us over on the environmentalist front have been squabbling over whether acknowledging the anthropocene means the end of wilderness (and hence somehow magically believing that if we deny the anthropocene, wilderness will be saved), we lost sight of the bigger problem. For too many people, the physical world has faded away altogether. They live online, or in their phones. The distinction between the wild nature I encounter hiking on the Suce creek road and the domestic nature I encounter in my kitchen when kneading sourdough bread, seems less important than the fact that both of these activities require tangible interaction with the physical world.

Like I said, I make my living online. I moved to Montana but kept my tech job, and my working day is spent handling documentation files, and logging in to meeting software that allows my team, located here in Montana, in Seattle, in San Jose, in Dublin, in London and in Warsaw all meet with one another. We can see one another on our laptop cameras, we can share documents on the screen. I just spent two weeks training my replacement at that job, a woman who lives in rural Texas. We did it all over the meeting software — sharing screens so I could talk her through the program she needs to use. We don’t need to be physically co-located anymore. And yet, as my job has become more virtual, I’ve found myself more and more driven to get outside into the garden. I take refuge from the virtual by diving into the biological. Coaxing seeds to germinate, keeping them alive and watered and making sure they neither freeze nor burn up, requires a level of attention that keeps my head on straight. Too much time in the virtual world at work sends me back out into my yard, armed with a spade, eager to turn over the actual earth.

Its the same with the animals. I have chickens out back, chickens I raised from day-old hatchlings in a box with a heat lamp, chickens who lay more eggs than I can use, and provide compost for the vegetable garden. It’s a small closed system, and one that isn’t going to change the world, but simply having built it over these past years keeps me tethered to the reality of the physical world.

There are a lot of reasons we need to get past our binary thinking that the wilderness is sacred and the domestic is profane, but perhaps the most crucial reason is because we’re making the wrong argument. We’re arguing about degrees of difference between categories of experience in the natural world with people who have lost sight of the natural world altogether. My high school sweetheart for example, who arriving after a drive through Yellowstone said “well a lot of it was really boring. It was just forest. There weren’t any peaks or anything.” Yellowstone experienced not as a natural wonder, but as a slightly disappointing consumer experience. The difference then between the domestic and wild natural worlds collapses entirely when we’re dealing with people who have never stepped outside the human bubble of automobiles and roads and tourist boardwalks and malls. Who have never considered, for example, that the weather is real.

And so I cling to my hybrid life here. The one where my encounters with sourdough starter are as important to me as the blue grouse Hank spooks up on our morning dog walks. If sometimes it feels like the domestic has taken over my Montana life, something happens to remind me that our town is small and sits between several enormous wilderness areas. In the fall, at the dog park trail five blocks from my house, we’ll encounter big bear shits, purple with chokecherries, while, in spring you have to watch out for the moose that calves there, in the willows and creek bottom.

All those years when I dreamed about moving to Montana, I saw myself in the wilderness bagging peaks, or skiing across the Yellowstone backcountry. Instead I find myself living in a small town, puttering in the garden, complete with an old-lady straw hat, or in my kitchen, over a steaming canner filled with tomatoes during the hottest week of the year. But every time I go to some city where zombie-people walk around staring at their phones, I’m grateful to live in a place where people float the river, walk the trails and trade mason jars of canned goods at Christmas. We meet on Friday afternoons for happy hour, or show up for one another at readings and art openings and funerals.

And at night, sometimes we go out and get wild ourselves, put our party hats on and dance, while in the moonlit darkness, wild bears walk through our town in search of apple trees.

Routines in a Time of Trouble

Routines in a Time of Trouble

Montana road, dog in distance, blue sky, ocher cliff.

I must have a million photos of this bluff, that sky (this dog, and Raymond before him). This is my usual dog walk — in the winter we do it early in the day to catch the warmth and light, in the summer, late afternoon to catch the shade as the sun drops behind the mountains to the west. It’s about a mile each way, through a creekbottom, then opens out at the north end of the Paradise Valley.

This is not a wilderness walk — although last spring a moose calved in there, so we had to be careful. And two years ago a very large cinnamon black bear and I startled one another badly. But it’s not a wilderness walk — it’s a county road, and just on the far side of the creek is Hwy 89 south, the main highway serving the Paradise Valley and the north entrance of Yellowstone National Park. It’s very busy. In the summer it’s a parade of RVs. Don’t get me started on the RVs. I’m the old lady in the straw hat shaking my fist at your selfishness, RV people.

At any rate, this is the walk we take nearly every day. We have a couple of others, but our routine is a walk, then breakfast, then yard chores, then settling down to work. I’ve worked remotely since 2002, and until the last three years when I’ve had to drive over to Bozeman to teach at MSU, I’ve made my entire living while working from home.

For me at least, routine is key. It’s a real job. I log in about 10 most days, and work until 6. Or another way of putting it is that I work a regular 9-5 on California time. Which doesn’t mean I don’t putter. While writing this, I just got up to water the geraniums in my office that I only just noticed are looking peaky. I’ll do a load of wash — hang it on the line. But for the most part, I’m at work. Writing copy. Answering emails. Taking meetings. Just like I would if I was in a cube in San Jose, or Seattle.

So for those of you new to working at home — treat it like work. Do your morning routine — including working out if that’s part of it. There are a ton of workouts online that you can do at home — I’m a huge fan of Yoga with Adrienne — her neck and shoulder yoga videos have nearly rehabbed my left shoulder which froze up last summer. Then take a shower and get dressed. You don’t have to dress as formally as you would if you’re going to the office, but dress nice. Dress comfortable. I’m planning to put on my Teaching Lipstick when I start holding classes online on Monday.

Most important — learn how to log off.

When work is done, close up shop. I used to have a real rule about no screens when Himself and I are together for dinner and after. I’ve been bad about that the past few months — Twitter has crept up on me. I’m going to really try to return to Books On Paper in the evenings. And knitting. Things are terrifying out there, and while I love scrolling Instagram in the morning and looking at pretty pictures, I might have to give that up for a while too. Poetry. I think it might be time to turn back to poetry in the morning.

The thing is — figure out what works for you and impose some structure on your day. It will help fight back the terror, and the madness. Take advantage of these weird times and figure out how to limit what comes into your brains. If you have a yard, now’s the time to start cleaning up after winter, planting some things, or even just sitting outside in the evening and listening to the birds who have returned.

We can all get through this somehow. Together, but apart.

Pandemic Projects

Pandemic Projects

Three chicks in a box inside a dog crate

I was going to wait until later in the spring to get new chicks, but with everything shutting down, it seemed like time. On the way back from dog walking this morning, stopped at the ranch store and picked up a new Buff Orpington, a Silver-Laced Wyandotte, and a Dominique chick.

This was the year I was going to start replacing old hens with Bantam hens, in part because my yard is getting pretty torn up, and in part because I thought “Oh, my chickens-for-the-apocalypse thing is overblown.”

So here I am, with a new batch of chickens for the apocalypse.

My current flock is made up of one ancient Silver Laced Wyandotte who I kept, even though she doesn’t really lay anymore, because she’s such a matron. She’s a fat old thing now, but I find her presence reassuring, and she waddles around the yard like the queen she is.

The other four are one Delaware, not as charmant as the late Miss Delaware (a hen I regret culling, but back then I was trying to be “professional” about my backyard agriculture), one Buff Orpington, and two Amerucanas. None of them have much personality, although this Delaware is also the leader of the pack. The sad truth is that as these three get big enough to start laying, I’m going to have to cull some of the older ones — it just depends really on whose laying, and who I will miss the least.

I hate this part.

But the truth is, at three years old, the majority of my wee flock isn’t laying much, and with times like they are, well, it seemed only prudent to replace them with hens who will.

And the ranch store chicken manager is in a bit of a fix. She was really trying to get me to take the older chicks, which I would have, had I room. She’s cancelled some orders, but there are a bunch of chickens out there if anyone else local wants to start keeping them. Personally, I love my chickens in the backyard. They cluck around. They eat bugs. They lay eggs. (They tear up the lawn and they do poop everywhere. Himself is not a fan.)

And for the moment, they are also providing entertainment for bored pets. Here’s Harriet the new kitty, and Hank, watching chicks:

Grey cat and border collie watch new chicks in a box inside a dog crate.