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Lichens, All of Us

Lichens, All of Us

Blue and white plate with two spring onions, and an egg, on a red tablecloth.

The spring onions have come in, the chickens are laying again and I’ve been thinking about bodies. My yard is full of bodies — chickens and cats and the dog and myself. Himself, my love, likes the cats, puts up with the dog, but really does not like the chickens at all. Mostly because they shit in the yard. I clean up after them, but chickenshit is a factor in this space. It doesn’t bother me, but I grew up in horse barns, and mucking out was one of my first childhood chores.

The neighborhood is full of bodies too — the weather has warmed up and all the little kids are OUTSIDE and they are YELLING. After a long hiatus in which we didn’t have any littles in the neighborhood, we now have Roman and Ruby next door who are 7 and 4, and Addison and Emerson who are older, 10 & 12 maybe? and who are here on and off when they’re with their dad. There are twins at each end of the alley — one set who are about 8 and one set who are about 2. Across the street there’s 2 houses full of little people. The neighborhood is alive in the afternoons and early evenings with pent up kids playing, and sometimes, a wee witching hour meltdown. More bodies. The 2 year old twins are in love with my prodigal cat, and after a year in lockdown, helping his mom by carrying a sleepy toddler back down the alley was an endorphin hit that nearly knocked me over.

I keep chickens because I like the eggs, and I like their company. I’d rather have chickens than a lawn (they’re hell on grass). They cluck around out there, they dig up bugs, the dog occasionally runs through and sets them all into a panic and I yell at him for it. There’s a rhythm to our days together, that, along with the two to three eggs they produce, feels like we have a little collective going here. I feed and water them and clean out their coop. I pull the Buff Orpington who goes broody off the nesting box and sometimes I have to put her in chicken jail for a little while so her hormones will cool down and she’ll stop trying to hatch sterile eggs. I bring them treats and they stand on the 2 x 4 in a line and sometimes they want to be petted. They cluck around and talk to me all day long. It’s good. I like them, and I like their little bodies out there, and I like taking care of them.

And the spring onions — those spring onions mean the earth really has turned. They’re a different kind of body altogether. They were here when I bought the house, and for a couple of years I didn’t pay attention to keeping them in the vegetable garden and I nearly lost them altogether. There was just one wee patch left in the perennial bed. The original onions. So I let them grow out, until the cluster of tiny bulbs formed on the top of the sturdiest of the onion greens, then I replanted those in the raised beds. Now, 10 years later, I always have some of these onions in the garden. There are older ones, that get a little woody but they reproduce by splitting off at the bulb, and feathery clusters of new ones coming up where a cluster of bulbils fell last fall. They’re semi-perennial and semi-wild and so pungent that they’ve ruined me for store scallions. That they’ve started to come up through the straw cover, that the chickens are starting to lay again, that the bulbs are coming up, and that we’re starting to get vaccinations has me thinking a lot about bodies.

A year ago, we went into lockdown. It was surprising how quickly it happened. I remember telling my students that even if the university didn’t shut down, we were going remote for the rest of the semester. I remember my tech job shutting down before the university did. I remember people on the department hallway who thought we were coming back from spring break. The lockdown started with people bewildered, and frightened, and so cooped up they started growing scallion bottoms in glasses of water. We got locked down and suddenly having a way to grow some of your own food seemed less like a hobby, and more like something we should know how to do. I remember a conference years ago where I heard Donna Haraway, the feminist scholar discussing “practices of memory” the keeping alive of manual skills that the culture was trying to convince us were no longer needed. As we went into lockdown I was glad of the chickens, and the garden, and knowing how to cook and sew and knit.

Its been a long year of people warring over which bodies count. Once it became clear that black and brown people were dying at higher rates than white people, an entire social and political class of white people decided masks were a hoax, and the virus was a hoax and grew increasingly confrontational and violent towards those who were following the global health guidelines and trying to protect themselves and their loved ones. Which bodies count? Then the murder, on camera, of George Floyd that set off a worldwide uprising to proclaim that yes, Black Lives Matter. Black bodies matter. This shouldn’t be controversial, but this is the United States, a nation founded on not just the genocide of native peoples but the active erasure of that genocide. This is the United States, a nation funded by the work of enslaved peoples, people who only counted as bodies. This is the United States, where working women discovered this year that it is impossible to keep your job while also supervising children who are trying to attend school remotely. Women’s financial security across the board took a gigantic hit this year.

Which bodies count? Which bodies count as people, and which ones don’t?

Even to ask this question is to espouse a belief that we’re not all the same bodies, all the same people. I grew up Catholic, which had its problems, but there’s something useful in attesting each week to being one body in Christ. We were very lefty Catholics, so the “in Christ” part was less of an evangelical call than it was a metaphor. We were all one. We were all the same.

At that same conference a few years back, Donna Haraway gave the keynote along with Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing. They gave the keynote together, as a team. Tsing’s book, The Mushroom at the End of the World had just come out. I’d driven over to Moscow, Idaho because Haraway was speaking and her work, particularly the Cyborg Manifesto and theory of situated knowledges were so important to me as I worked through my PhD. She made me feel less crazy then, and even all those years later, long out of academia, I wanted to hear what she had to say. I found my notes the other day, when I was going through old material to try to get a handle on what I’m doing now and this jumped out at me:

We have never been one.

We have never been singular.

We are lichens.

We are compost.

Mornings I go out and collect a couple of eggs, which I usually eat for breakfast. Hank dog often gets one on his kibble. Hank and I and the chickens are all one body in that sense. We’re also one in that we’re breathing in the same biome, one that includes chicken (and dog and cat) shit. The chicken litter gets composted and goes on the vegetable garden, where the onions come back to life as the sun warms up the straw.

I’m not brave about the people who won’t wear masks. I’m afraid of the systems collapsing around us. The whole world shut down for a year, something I never even considered as a possibility. It feels like we’re all the big ship in the Suez canal. Everyone is stuck. The angry fearful white people who won’t or can’t think of themselves as part of a bigger whole are stuck in that position of anger and fear. They scare the hell out of me, which is probably why I’ve been building this tiny ark in the backyard.

We’ve all been humming along like the global container trade. It’s so normalized that no one even thinks about it until a gigantic ship gets caught sideways in a narrow canal and suddenly the shiny marvel of just-in-time supply chains is clogged. We were all humming along taking cruises and travelling all over the world on fossil fuel jets and commuting in individual cars and believing the tech bros who told us our experience of life should be seamless, that we deserved everything we want, right now.

We’re at some sort of pause point, and it remains to be seen which way we go. As for me, I’ll be here in the backyard with my friendly chickens, shoveling shit.

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.

Signs of Spring

Signs of Spring

These are the chives that overwintered in my mudroom — they started coming back about two weeks ago, which makes overwintering them totally worthwhile. Although it’s warm here — nearly 60 degrees yesterday! And the sun is beginning to shine again, the ground is still frozen, and the garden chives and parsley have only just begun to think about greening up.

Yesterday I got the seeds out, and started organizing them again. I usually start tomatoes and peppers around the fifteenth of march, under lights in the basement. But it’s always an adventure deciding what to plant this year. I have a couple of new projects — among them, completing the fence around the raised beds to keep the chickens and dogs out of the food crops, and I think I want to try a hoop house this spring. I have a couple of square beds, six feet along each side, and I just need to get the Sweetheart, who builds things for a living, to calculate the materials for me, and I think I’m going to experiment with starting early in one bed. It would be nice to have some spinach, or early greens — maybe some Asian greens like tatsoi and gai lan, which are impossible to buy anywhere near here. Into each spring, a little garden project must fall …

Storm Windows, Already?

Storm Windows, Already?

It’s supposed to go down into the single digits tonight, so this afternoon, despite the fact that it was only 25 degrees out, and snowy, I got the storm windows out of the shed, and put them up.

Every year I forget what a colossal pain in the ass they are. I replaced all the old windows in my house except for those in the living room. They’re really old double-hung windows, so old that the glass is wavy, and I just fell in love with them. So I kept the clunky old wooden storm windows that go with them, and there I was, on a ladder, cursing and banging at them with a hammer to make them fit. Ugh.

But now they’re up, and the storm-door insert is in my screen door, and the house is feeling all cozy and battened down for winter.

It’s supposed to go back up into the 60s next week, so I buried the garden in straw and covered it in plastic. I’m hoping to keep at least the hardy greens alive. I decided this summer that what I really love are the spring and fall crops, I’m not so much for the mid-summer heat crops, and I’d hate to lose all my greens.

We also got the chickens stet up with a (ridiculously expensive!) heated base for their water unit, and a 100 watt light bulb to heat the coop. They sort of hate the light bulb — it goes against their urge to roost someplace dark in the evening, so I ordered a red heat bulb for reptiles. However, tonight they’re going to have to sleep with the lights on — it was 16 degrees outside this morning when I got up, and 28 degrees inside the coop (I’m a little obsessive about remote-control thermometers). So if it goes down to 0 tonight, it’ll only be about 10 degrees in the coop, and that’s too cold. We’ll have to see how they do … I hope I don’t wake up to chicken-sicles tomorrow (or frozen eggs!) …

Seed Saving: Tomatoes

Seed Saving: Tomatoes

Galina Tomatoes, saving seed
Galina Tomatoes, saving seed

I was picking tomatoes this morning when it occurred to me that part of my problem with seed saving is managing to remember which tomato is which. I planted nine varieties this year, and many of them are a lot alike — Perestroika and Grushovka, for example. And I tend to pick in a big basket, where they get mixed up.

So tomorrow, I have to pay more attention, because it’s time to start putting some seed aside for next year. This morning I did Galina, this yellow cherry that I love, and Mountain Princess, which gets mangled by the flea beetle but which is my most dependable early producer (yes, I realize it’s September, hardly anyone else’s definition of “early” but we had a cold summer this year).

Seed starting isn’t difficult but you have to be willing to put up with some uckiness. The seeds need to ferment, and mold, and get sort of disgusting in order to break down the gel packs in which the tomato encases them. My method is generally to squeeze out the seedy part into a jar, add enough water so they won’t dry up, and stick them in a corner until they start to do their business. For a good step by step guide to this process, check out this link.

Last year I saved my favorite, Jaunne Flammé and it was really fun this spring when instead of a few tiny seeds in the bottom of the package I had a whole honking bunch of them. And not only do I have enough seeds for several years, but I have seed from tomatoes that have already done well in my own yard, in our weird climate. I like the idea of saving seed across the years, and winding up with personalized seed that is uniquely adapted to my particular microclimate (now if I could only get them to grow out of the reach of chickens).

At any rate — it’s September, but I’ve finally got tomatoes, and zucchini, and even a few green beans. It’s been a very odd growing season this year, and because I was so busy early in the summer trying to save my job, I didn’t spend as much time out there as I’d have liked, so it’s all a little odd. But every summer is a new learning experience (like who knew that marigolds and calendula get so bushy? I didn’t — next year, space them further apart).

Unemployment, Week One

Unemployment, Week One

So far, so good on the unemployment thing. While it’s never ideal to be the one voted off the island, I find I don’t miss the job at all — I miss the people I worked with, but I don’t miss being chained to my desk from eight in the morning until six at night; I don’t miss the anxiety of thinking someone might send you an instant message while you were getting a cup of tea and then decide you’re slacking; I don’t miss being treated as an incompetent by my manager, and I’m beginning to get over the numbness that has been plagueing my right arm and shoulder for the past couple of months.

This week, frankly, I’ve been sleeping a lot. This feels a lot like the summer after I finished my Phd exams, when I slept, read plotty, unchallenging books (that summer it was the Raj Quartet, this summer it’s the Inspector Montalbano mysteries by Andrea Camelleri), and just went into recovery mode.

The first thing I did last week was to re-organize my office. Out went the big desk that was too high, and which I think was a major contributing factor to the arm numbness. Up from the basement came the ugly-but-comfy armchair and the tilty table from Levengers (really great when I have to type in quotes from books for the new freelance gig). Also up from the basement came my wee desk from Target — when I took the finials off the bottom of the legs, it’s exactly the right midget height for me to sit in a chair with my feet on the floor and type. I pulled out my old corkboard and tacked a few note cards with article ideas up, and purged all the stuff from my office bookshelves that I’m not going to need anymore. A vase of flowers from the garden, and I’m set. A new office for a new era.

I also managed to get a lot of things done that I’ve been working too much to address. I got the snow tires off my car (well, it did snow in June, but not that much). I washed my kitchen floor. I weeded the vegetable garden, picked the peas and the favas and planted some endives for fall. I rebuilt the chicken coop (a proper post on that later) so the chickens can’t get out.  Chuck and I went for a 10 mile hike. I went up to my Milk Lady’s farm and relocated the rooster (he’s cock of the walk in the hen house apparently — very much the new guy in town and loving it) and bought some hens from her. I went big-grocery shopping and went to Costco and got some acupuncture for the bad shoulder. I took the dogs swimming in the Yellowstone and then for a short hike (Owen’s robo-leg held up great). I got my hair cut.

And yesterday I finally got back to my new office, finished up one freelance project, got started on another, and figured out how to re-write the opening section of the novel I now have no excuse for not finishing. A week off was delightful, but now I can hear the clock ticking. I have six months to figure out this next part. Six months to finish my novel, and drum up enough freelance projects to keep the little ark afloat. Six months minus one week, and counting …

Tomato Seedlings for Sale

Tomato Seedlings for Sale

For all of you in the Livingston area — I have tomato starts for sale. They were started from seed on March 15, and although you could put them in this weekend (the traditional start time) I’d suggest using Wall o’Water’s if you do. We’re more than likely to get another snowstorm before it’s over, and I’ve had great luck with the Wall o’Waters in the past.

Seedlings are $5 per plant, and all of them are cold-hardy varieties. They’ve been in the cold frame for about 3 weeks, so they’re hardened off and although they’re small right now,  a week or so in a nice warm weather in a wall o’water and they should sprout right up. (Plus I transplanted them deep for better root growth.) Also, since I started them myself in sterile soil mix, you shouldn’t have to worry about picking up verticulum wilt.

I have the following varieties available:

Milano Plum: this is a determinate plant (bushy, not viny) and last year it gave me a bumper crop of heavy plum style tomatoes (about 4-6 inches long). These tomatoes were fabulous for salsa.

Mountain Princess: Another determinate plant that sets nice round mid-sized tomatoes (about 3 inches in diameter).

Marmande: From Seeds of Italy. This is an old French tomato that I’ve had great success with the past few years. It ripens fairly late in the season but sets bunches of slightly flat, ridged tomatoes. Great flavor. Semi-determinate plant (responds well to heavy pruning).

Grushovka: A Siberian variety from High Altitude Gardens. Determinate plant that sets clusters of rose-colored, oblong fruits. Very productive.

Olga’s Round Yellow Chicken: A Siberian variety from High Altitude Gardens. I admit it, I plant this one for the name. Indeterminate plant that sets bright orange, very round tomatoes.

Galina: A Siberian variety from High Altitude Gardens. This is one of my favorite tomatoes. It’s very indeterminate, and will sprawl up and across any trellis you set it on, and it’s also highly productive. This plant sets large yellow cherry tomatoes that have a wonderful balance of sweetness and acid. I’m not a fan of very sweet tomatoes, so I love this one. Kids love it too …

Black Cherry: another sprawling indeterminate plant that bears dark purple cherry tomatoes. Again nice acid-sweet balance. Not quite as early as Galina.

Marglobe: From Seeds of Italy. Old heirloom variety, indeterminate, clusters of medium-sized deep red fruits. Great taste, mid-season.

Principe Borghese: From Seeds of Italy. A classic. Semi-determinate plant, not too sprawly, that throws clusters of small, thick-walled, delicious plum tomatoes. These are the tomatoes that they make sun-dried tomatoes from. I like them for sauce.

Jaunne Flammee: This is one of my favorite tomatoes. Indeterminate and sprawling plant that throws clusters of bright-orange, egg-sized fruits. These are delicious tomatoes that come in about mid-season and continue to ripen all the way through.These seedlings are from seed I saved myself, so they’re acclimated to Montana.

Perestroika: A Siberian variety from High Altitude Gardens. Indeterminate plant that throws nice round medium sized tomatoes. Red-orange fruits with nice flavor.

Prairie Fire: Bushy determinate plants. This is historically the first tomato of the season. Nice round orange-red fruits, on the smaller side but taste really delicious. Plant is prone to flea beetle damage, but that never seems to affect the tomatoes much.

Clean Beds

Clean Beds

pb280024This was my other weekend project — cleaning out the garden beds and turning over the soil. I used straw mulch last year, which was a great success, but it was a seedy batch, and I wound up with a sturdy winter cover crop of wheat. I experimented a couple of months ago with just turning it over. But like the grass that I also have troubles with, it kept coming back.

So this weekend I went through each bed, digging out the wheat, and the carcasses of dead vegetables, and turned over the soil, breaking up lumps along the way. It was good solid physical work. It felt good after a long winter inside. And it’s the sort of quiet, repetitive task that gives you time to think about the things going on in your life.  The sun was shining, it was warm, I was back in the garden, and all was good.

pb280025 This compost bin was nearly empty when I started pulling wheat sprouts. I think it’s going to make a nice start to the season — by default it’s a pretty good mix of green and brown. We’ll see — maybe it’ll heat up. But it was a good weekend of real work.

And now I’m ready to start planting.

Gearing up for spring

Gearing up for spring

overwintered herbs in spring rain

It’s raining today — a nice soft spring rain, so I took the poor scraggly herbs from the Winter Herb Garden and put them outside the back door. The rosemary seemed particularly crunchy, but it did it’s job — it didn’t die. The thyme has been remarkably successful — the last few weeks it’s been sending out delicious little soft green shoots.

seed organization

I also got my act together last weekend and organized my seeds. As you can see — my “system” is nothing fancy. A couple of cheap bins from Pamida and a paper bag — but by the end of any garden season they’re a mess — some are in the basket with the cheapo tongue depressor/craft sticks that I use for garden markers (easy to write on with a sharpie, and they compost nicely), some wind up on the seed starting shelves, some sleeves were empty, in general, it was all a mess. So I went through and got everything organized by type — tomatoes, greens, herbs, cucumbers, beans, peppers, etc. Some people organize by planting order, but that’s too daunting and frankly, feels a little constricting. I know the spinach and broccoli rabe will go in first, but I’m never entirely sure beforehand what I’m going to put in next. So there we are — ready to start seeds this weekend or next, and ready to put some early cold crops in the garden beds.

I don’t have a picture of those, but they’re starting to shape up. I loved the straw mulch I used last year, but it had a lot of seeds in it so there’s all sorts of wheat growing in my garden — and it overwintered just fine, so it must be winter wheat. At any rate, I had a lovely half hour or so after work last night turning over the soil in a couple of my raised beds, pulling all those wheaty bits out for the compost. I have two beds now that are all fluffy and ready for seeds. This weekend I’ll clean up the rest, and start with the cool-weather greens. I’m so excited! Another year!