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Blue linen jacket with three pockets, hanging on a door.
My Monty Don Jacket

I hit a writerly speed bump the past couple of weeks. This happens. I’ve made a lot of progress on this book project since New Years, even if sometimes it doesn’t feel like it. There’s a shape I can see. There are several new essays that need honing, and some older ones that need reworking, and it feels like a narrative trajectory is shaping up. I’ve been sending things out, and a couple of them have caught, and a few have come back and for the first time in years that process does not feel life or death, does not feel like a referendum on my ability to do this thing. But about two weeks ago, I hit a blank. There just wasn’t anything in the tank. This too, used to freak me out, but now, I know not to fight it, know that when I find myself looking at the cursor, or dicking around on Twitter too much, that means it’s time to go do something else for a while.

So I’ve been out in the garden getting that up and running for the year. There are greens and onions and parsley all coming up already. In the front, the bulbs I planted last fall are blooming, and the cherry trees are getting ready to burst into blossom, and I’m starting to see some seedlings sprouting from the buckets of wildflower and poppy seeds I’ve strewn out there. And I’ve been reading fiction again! I’ve been tearing through Maggie O’Farrell’s novels (while I wait for Hamnet to come out in paperback because I read it on the kindle, and I want to read it in my hands). And sewing. A lot of it is utility sewing — more pants (I have a pants template that is easy, fits my odd bod, and only takes a couple of hours to run up), and a couple of simple long skirts. But I also made a jacket. The Merchant and Mills Foreman Jacket. It’s a menswear pattern, but I made it in a lovely soft robin’s-egg blue linen, and I love it. I told my bestie that I’d made the Monty Don jacket of my dreams and she said “It’s a garden show! Not fashion!” But really, that’s my favorite look — rumpled, comfortable, lots of pockets. So now I have my much shortened Monty Don jacket in soft blue, and a bunch of new pants and long skirts in brown and olive linen, and I’m ready for spring.

The past couple of years it’s people talking and writing about making art who have been the most useful when I get stuck. I think its because of the way contemporary art has shifted it’s focus from the object, to the practice. I haven’t sold a book in decades, and I really only publish a couple of pieces a year, so my production of literary objects is … sparse. But I write, and make things and garden pretty much every day. If I have a practice, this is it. The Talk Art podcast, for instance, is a joy. Driving down valley to walk the dog I listen to Russell Tovey and Robert Diament talking to artists about what they make, and how they make it, and what they want to make. It’s very joyful, and manages to almost never be about the commerce of art.

It’s always been the commerce side of writing that I’ve found impossible. I got paid so little for my first book that it was very very clear that I was not going to be able to make any kind of a living as a writer. And I sold it to a big publisher. When Patrick died three years after my novel had come out, I was about half way through a new novel, which I abandoned. It was about horse people and class, and my grandmother and in that moment of crisis it seemed absolutely dead, and meaningless, and I put it away. It seemed clear to me that I was going to have to write about the experience of losing him, of losing a second brother as an adult after we’d survived the death of our toddler brother as children. Patrick and I had been dining out for years on stories about our family, about the bad behavior of both of our parents, and at that point, in the early 2000s, the misery memoir was just gaining steam. People were telling me this might be the time, the time for that story. But I was such a wreck, and couldn’t see any trajectory at all.

We used to have a little film festival during the winter on Sunday afternoons, and that winter after Patrick died, the Andy Goldsworthy movie, Rivers and Tides, came to town. Goldsworthy went out every day to make something, and he didn’t know what he was going to make until he did it. There’s a point in the movie where he sort of bellows that at his wife (in a funny way, not in an art monster way). And he made things that essentially could not be sold. Icicles stuck together that then melted. Leaves pinned together with thorns, and suspended from twigs that eventually showered down upon his head. Rocks piled in shapes. That they couldn’t be sold brought me a real kind of joy. That he was just out there making things. For a while I had this Goldsworthy-inspired practice where I pulled a slip of paper with a topic on it out of a jar every day, and wrote about it. I wasn’t striving for a particular word count. And if it was too painful a topic, I put it back for another day. It was a really useful practice that year, when I was so sad, and missed my brother so much, and was tasked with rebuilding myself as someone who didn’t have siblings, someone alone. I generated a lot of content that way, content I’ve used over the years in various forms.

I’ve written some other things since then, but I keep coming back to the idea of writing that memoir. It became a sort of white whale. I need to write the memoir. I need to get it out of the way. After a really great workshop with Alexander Chee a couple of summers ago, I came home and wrote out the whole narrative of the trauma that was losing Patrick. It’s not bad. I got it down, and said the things I needed to say. But it’s still not the book I want to write — in part, because of the commerce aspect. Just as I was so panicked about clearing up Patrick’s so-called estate all those years ago, just as I recoiled at the prospect of having to sell all his belongings in the street, I discovered in the process of writing that material out that I don’t want to sell our story, don’t want to have to go on the road and answer questions about it.

And it’s fine! I wrote it all. I found that out. It was great practice.

All that work was not for nought. I have all that content, and a lot of it is coming into these essays that I do want to write — essays about grief and climate change, trauma on the private and planetary level, gardens and land art and representation and the practices by which we save our own lives, and perhaps, by sharing them, teach other folks how to save their lives as well. Essays about what it means, as my old Beloit College prof John Wyatt used to say, to live a good life.

Practice. It takes a lot of practice.

On Paying Off My Mortgage

On Paying Off My Mortgage

Livingsmall Goal # 1 Done! House is paid off!

On Friday, I wired the last payment on my house.

I own my own house. No one can make me move, ever again, if I don’t want to. For someone who went to six grammar schools and moved pretty much every 2 years until I was 35, this is huge.

This has been the primary goal of LivingSmall since day one. I moved to Montana because it’s beautiful of course, but primarily I moved here because I could buy an inexpensive house. A house I could afford to pay off.

I did my masters degree at UC Davis, where I applied in large part to study with Gary Snyder. I’m not a poet, but I figured if Gary was there, something cool must be going on. Gary’s biggest advice to us budding writers was not about poetry, or even about writing. “Find a cheap house,” he said. “Someplace you can pay off. If it’s cheap and you want to live there, there’s probably also other artists there.” That’s what he did all those decades ago on the Yuba Ridge, and what I was looking for in Livingston was something similar.

So that’s what I did. I came up here in 2002, seeking a cheap house, and a found one in a town full of artists, and writers, and musicians, and fishing guides, and electricians and carpenters and schoolteachers.

I built a garden, and fixed things up bit by bit. I paid cash for everything I did on the house and while I’ll need a new roof next year, and I have to repaint some things, and while there are always things I want to do in the garden, I own my house, free and clear.

In the process I built a life. A life that as some of you who have followed me a long time know, was nearly derailed entirely the first year I was here. As I tell people when the story comes up, if you’re going to have a disaster, have it in Livingston. Everyone came. My kitchen filled up with people that first night, and they’re all still here. I’m still here. We are all here together. We’ve seen one another through other disasters. We’ve all brought food to the Elks club for funeral parties, but we’ve celebrated kids birthdays, and book launches, and year after year of rodeo parades.

It was not a mistake, my project of living small. There’s more big news to come, but for now, I’m going to take a moment in my back garden, where the beans are shooting above the trellis, where the sunflowers and hollyhocks are blooming great shoots of color into the sky, where the chickens I just deloused are clucking around in their coop while I wait for Himself to come home for dinner and a Red Sox game on TV. It is not the life I thought I wanted, but it is a better life than I ever could have envisioned.

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The tomato and pepper seeds I planted last week are starting to sprout down there under the lights, and the hoop houses are really working too — I’ve got spinach, Komatsuna, broccoli rabe, pak choi, arugula, and endive all coming up. I also have a lot of weeds. I think my not-entirely-composted chicken poop/straw is going to be a tiny bit problematic, but at this point, when I”m having to thin seedlings anyhow, it’s not that much more work to whack out the weed seedlings.

Mostly though I’m just thrilled and relieved that spring is coming. The sun has come back, and although nothing is really budding out yet (except my allergies), you can just feel the earth turning on its axis. There will be more snow, and as tempting as it is to get started early, one must remember that our last frost historically doesn’t occur until May 17.

But things are sprouting! And in a couple of weeks I’ll have fresh greens. I can’t wait. I am beyond tired of eating store produce.

Garden Fencing

Garden Fencing

Ever since last fall’s episode of food poisoning, I’ve been meaning to finish enclosing the garden. However, I had to wait for the ground to thaw, and well, the freelance life means that finances have been just tight enough that I didn’t want to go out and buy copper pipe. But this weekend, I finally got it done. I tried to come up with some solution other than more expensive copper, but since I’d done the rest of the trellis/fences that way when I built the garden (this is summer number eight — how did that happen?), well, I just couldn’t bear the thought of two beds edged in pvc when the rest uses copper. So I sucked it up and spent the money.

The trellis/fencing is 1/2 inch copper plumbing pipe, and because I don’t know how to weld, I used duct tape for the joints. It was really easy to put together, and with the pipes jammed a foot or two into the ground inside the raised beds, and lashed to one another with zip ties, they withstand the wind nicely. So this weekend I enclosed the last two beds on the end of the garden, and strung them with nylon trellis. Unfortunately the trellis openings are large enough for chickens to get through, so I then stretched bird netting around the outside of the beds. I’ll need some help from the Sweetheart as far as gates go. Right now I’ve got an old piece of screening leaned up against the front opening, and that seems to be working — but once there are delicious greens inside the garden, I think I’m going to need something a little bit more formal to keep those chickens out.

But it looks nice, and I kind of like working inside the enclosed space. When I first built it I didn’t want to demark it from the rest of the yard so much, but now that it’s all enclosed, I’m finding it has a nice “secret garden” kind of vibe. And because the “fences” are just pipe and trellis, you can still see right through it.

Now if only real spring would come. And some rain would be nice. It’s so dry I’m having to water already.

Planting Peas

Planting Peas

spinach_seedlingsI took Easter Monday off from work, which was lovely for many reasons, among them that I got the early crops planted. I put in peas (Garden Knight and Telephone from Seeds of Italy), fava beans, arugula, broccoli rabe, a Japanese mustard green that I don’t have the packet in front of me and can’t remember the name, beets (chiogga and early wonder) and chard.

And then it snowed all week.

Nice wet spring snow, which was good for all those little seeds, but which did leave one wondering if winter is ever going to end.

Despite the snow, the spinach seedlings are poking their little heads above the dirt, as are the radishes, and I might have seen an arugula seedling out there this morning.

This morning, the sun is trying to peek through the clouds, who knows? Maybe it’ll get warm enough to put the tomatoes and peppers out in the cold frame for the day …

Chickens in the Shed

Chickens in the Shed

pb260023 This is Raymond, staring at the shed door, because on the far side of that door are four baby chicks in a cardboard box tucked into a dog crate all kept warm by an infrared light.

There were six chicks, but I erred and thought they were too hot under the light, and so two of them caught a chill and gave up their tiny little ghosts. They’re resting peacefully in the compost pile.

pb250026 Here’s the little peepers. Saturday morning I called Murdochs, our local ranch store to see if the chicks had come in (they’ve had a shortage this year, one of their hatcheries cancelled on them). They’d just unpacked an order, so I jumped in the car at 7:30 to get there before the small children of Bozeman had mauled the poor little things to death.

They only had two varieties — Rhode Island Reds and Red Star Sex Link — so I got three of each. They cheeped all the way home in their tiny cardboard box. So loud for little tiny things — they’re none of them any bigger than a ping pong ball, with downy little proto-feathers.

pb250032I wound up putting them in an old cardboard box with nice high sides to keep the draft out, inside the dog crate to protect them from critters, and then covered it all with a tarp to keep them warm. I don’t have electricity out in the shed, so there’s a very long extension cord strung across the yard (Patrick left me several 100 foot outdoor extension cords — the benefit of relatives in the party tent industry).

Last night it snowed, and the temps dropped down into the high twenties, and I’m happy to report that the four survivors seem pretty perky out there. I took a couple of old towels to drape over the tarp to try to keep them a little warmer, poor things. But they’re in there, cheeping away — I’ll have to clean the cage when I get home from dog walking.

And so a new adventure begins. Chickens! I’ve wanted chickens forever, but kept telling myself that I couldn’t have chickens because I have dogs. One of my New Year’s resolutions was to stop telling myself  that things I want are impossible — to taks a shot at it. And so, chickens. Chickens!

Tomatoes in the Basement

Tomatoes in the Basement

pb190024 This weekend I started seeds — tomatoes and leeks right now. I’ve blogged before about my seed starting setup, and nothing’s changed since last spring, so I’ll simply send you to this older post if you want to know the mechanics of how I get things rolling every year.

This year I’m going to give leeks a shot. I love leeks, and they’re so expensive in the store. I tried them once by direct sowing and they didn’t take, so I thought I’d give it one more shot. For the leeks, I simply filled one tray with seed starting mix, then made several trenches in it with a ruler, and sowed the leeks. I bought one of those fancy onion/leek seed starting trays at the garden store the other day, the kind that instead of having cells has long narrow slots, but the slots weren’t very deep, and it looked like I was going to have to transplant them earlier than I’d like to, so I went with direct sowing in a tray. I think I’m going to start the lettuces this way as well. (And next time I’m in Bozeman, I’ll just return the unused tray.)

I started many tomatoes this year, in part because I’m planning to sell seedlings at the Farmer’s Market. Here’s hoping that people will want Siberian and Heirloom varieties instead of boring old Early Girl. I planted 12 cells each of the folowing:

  • Mountain Princess from High Mowing Seeds
    This is a new variety for me. I picked up the seed packet at the local food co-op last summer.
  • Marmande from Seeds of Italy I love this tomato. It’s a slightly flat, delicious French heirloom.
  • Grushovka Siberian from High Altitude Gardens I’ve had good luck with the Siberian tomatoes in the past — they come in at 3-4 ounces, nice red, round fruits and are adapted for short seasons.
  • Olga’s Yellow Chicken from High Altitude Gardens (which they no longer carry so I’d better save seed this year.) This is a nice yellow tomato that I grow as much for the name as for anything else.
  • Galina Siberian from High Altitude Gardens A fabulous yellow cherry tomato. Huge indeterminate vines that will grow up and over anything (they’d be terrific in an arbor) and delicious fruit.
  • Black Cherry from John Scheepers Kitchen Garden SeedsThis was a nicely-flavored black cherry tomato that I grew for the first time last year. I wish it had come in a little earlier than it did, but once it started producing it was prolific.
  • Marglobe from Seeds of Italy Another Italian heirloom — great flavor in a compact round fruit.
  • Principe Borghese from Seeds of Italy The perfect canning or drying tomato. Ripens in clusters like grapes.
  • Jaune Flamee from Shepherd’s Garden Seeds  (originally, this year I started seeds I saved myself, which is good because they don’t seem to be carrying them anymore.) This is a delicious orange tomato that also grows in clusters. I had great luck with this one last year and I’m so glad I saved seed!
  • Perestroika Siberian from High Altitude Gardens My goal this year is to take better notes on the Siberian tomatoes — I can never remember which ones were better than the others.
  • Prairie Fire from High Altitude Gardens This was my earliest tomato last year — produced a good three weeks before any of the other non-cherry varieties. A Montana native with compact and delicious fruits.

It’ll be about a week or so before anything much happens downstairs on that bench. I’m hoping that things will thaw out enough that I can get the rest of my beds turned over (and cleared of the wheat growing from last summer’s straw mulch). I’d like to start some spinach and onions — I’m growing weary of eating last year’s frozen greens and would love something new and fresh …