Saturday, October 20, 2018

The Lands Belong to Us

Letter to the editor published in the Daily Inter-Lake, October 15, 2018
In the 1400s English commoners fought battles and staged riots protesting the loss of their grazing and farming commons to wealthy landowners. The commons had been part of the public domain until the nobility started fencing them off for their own private use. It’s taken the British people six hundred years since those battles just to earn back the right to walk on that land. Not even to forage or hunt on it, just to walk on it. 
If politicians like Jennifer Fielder (Montana) and Mike Lee (Utah), and the people who support them, achieved their goals and forced all public lands out of federal control, it wouldn’t be long before the only people who would be able to ranch, farm, hunt, or fish in America would be private landowning billionaires. Every loss of the commons, whether it’s the loss of a stream access law or the shrinking of a national monument, brings us closer to losing some of the greatest freedoms we have.
I can’t imagine fishing in the Missouri River Breaks, or going hiking in the Great Bear Wilderness, and not feeling gratitude for the foresight it took to keep these places in public hands. Those lands don’t belong to the federal government in the way we usually think of ownership. The government is simply a trustee; the lands belong to us, the American people. I feel sorry for anyone who is unable to understand what a gift they are, and how much we would lose by giving them up.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

One-act Play: "Dog with Sock. And Poop." Or, "The Sock in the Poop."

Enter stage right: Dog (pseudonym). Sneaks nose into Child 1's hand. Eats sock. Subsequent action determines that dog has also previously eaten Child 2's sock, which had been placed in snowboot for safe-keeping.

Child 2: "My sock is in Dog's poop?"

Parent: "Not yet. Your sock is in Dog's tummy. It will probably be in his poop tomorrow."

Child 1: "I miss my sock!"

Child 2: "I miss my sock!"

Parent: "I know, I'm sorry. But it's just a sock."

Child 2: "He shouldn't have eaten my sock."

Parent: "He's just a dog, dear. He didn't know."

Child 2: "It's in his poop?"

Parent: "Tomorrow it will be in his poop."

Child 1: "WAAAA!"

Child 2: "They'll have to get it out of Dog's poop?"

Parent: "No, I don't think we'll really want it back, honey."

Child 2: "They have to get the poop out of the potty?"

Parent: "It'll probably be outside, dear. Dogs don't poop on the potty."

Child 2: "If I eat Dog, he'll be in my poop?"

Child 1: [Snoring]

Parent: "I suppose so."

Child 2: "And we'll have to get him out of the potty?"

Parent: "Well, if you eat something, it's usually not alive, so . . ."

Child 2: "My sock will be in Dog's poop when I'm at school?"

Scene continues ad infinitum, or at least until 24 hours later, when Family has determined that Sock has probably passed through Dog by now and will not be recovered. Suggest scene ends with oblique references to loss and materialism. Also to not leaving loose socks around dogs.

Addendum: Child 2 has discovered the power of eating + poop. Viz, when wanting to annoy Child 1, Child 2 informs Child 1 that Child 2 is going to eat Child 1's favorite toy. Favorite toy will then -- da da DUM -- end its life as Child 2's poop.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Is It Over Yet? (When I Was too Depressed to Smell the Lilacs)

One of the things I loved about the Bread Loaf-Orion Environmental Writers Conference was that there was a lilac tree just outside of the building I was staying in. Our lilacs had already gone over, but these were only halfway done, so I got an extended lilac season this year.

Lilacs were one of the early clues, a couple of years ago, that I was not just mother-exhausted, not just tired of living in a place I didn't love. There was something more going on.

Years ago we planted two lilac bushes at our house, and once they got large enough to produce flowers above deer-chomping height, they made gorgeous, fragrant bunches of blossoms.

Only I wasn't smelling them that year. I missed lilac season. I was too busy, couldn't be bothered, I don't know. I didn't take the few steps from our deck or the garage to bury my nose in lilacs, and not doing so made me feel . . . sad, depressed, resentful. Maybe other things.

I've always wavered between pansies and lilacs for my favorite flower -- pansies for their variety and fun, like playful flower-kittens with balls of string, and lilacs for their scent and abundance and their proclamation that spring has truly come. Life feels good when the lilacs are around. They're a sign that things are about to get slow and lovely and luxurious with time and sunshine and days of laughter.

When you can't appreciate that, can't feel it -- when I can't -- there's something wrong. And that year, I couldn't. Nor could I the next year. This year I made intentions. Every time I have to go out to the damn car to haul the kids somewhere (I can't wait to live in a walkable community; having to drive absolutely everywhere is no kind of freedom at all), every time I took the compost out, every time I did anything outside with the kids, I took a minute to step over and smell the lilacs. It was a bit of fake-it-till-you-make-it action, but I think it worked.

Having an extra week to stop, smell the lilacs, and smell them again, to remind myself of dark days and better ones to come, that was a gift.

Monday, June 30, 2014

The Competence Project: Drifting in a Walnut Shell

That title is a very oblique reference to the original Hans Christian Anderson version of Thumbelina, which involved Thumbelina sleeping in a cradle made of a walnut shell. That story always freaked me out a little bit as a kid, not sure why. I didn't have any natural aversion to Cinderella-type stories, so maybe it was something about her minuscule vulnerability. Maybe even as a child I was searching for inner strength.

None of this has anything to do with this table-in-progress, except that it incorporates driftwood and black walnut. Last fall I was fed up with my copy editing work, frustrated with my parenting, and generally feeling glum and at sea. And pointless. So I emailed Dan Mack (the woodworker and artist I've taken the most classes from) to see if he had any classes or studio days opening up. It turned out he was doing a found objects workshop on the banks of the Hudson River that coming weekend, so on a Sunday my husband and I took the kids and he had them rambling around poking in the water and playing with sand and collecting rocks and sticks while I essentially did the same thing except with some direction. Or not. Dan likes to encourage people to find their own relationship with nature.

I found these:

Four driftwood sticks, which I kept trying to place so they would eventually make a table (I seem to be obsessed with little tables), and he gathered them like a driftwood nosegay and helped me screw them together and level out the bottoms.

It sat in our garage for a very long time because I couldn't find the right kind of top for it. Driftwood is so brittle -- I learned that to my regret in my very first class -- so it couldn't take something too weighty.

A few weeks ago I was at the sawmill and I found these slices of black walnut in the scrap pile:

The owner always encourages me to take scrap if I can use it (part of New York Heartwoods's mission is to reduce waste). I've got three pieces of flat walnut, and one would seem like the perfect top for this table, so I'm sanding them down (eventually -- there's that whole kids and job and life set of wrenches that run into my projects) to see how they'll work.

What to do with the rest? Cutting boards would be great (I'd love to make some of those) except for the big holes in the middle.

It'll be a while before I finish this again, as I'm hauling the kids back to Montana (yay! home!) and don't intend to leave for quite a long time. Hey! We're building a house. Soonish. Well, after we sell our cookie cutter in New York. So that'll be fun.

Until then, small projects. And look! A cat!

Monday, June 23, 2014

Cedar in Plane Sight

When I first sanded down my maple table I said I never wanted to own a planed piece of furniture again. A plane is a tool -- either a machine or a hand tool -- designed to straighten and smooth wood before its final sanding. Because I'm looking for rootedness or groundedness or whatever the heck it is, planing wood seemed too far removed from that to be satisfying.

That was true until last week. When I showed up at the mill we were tasked with ripping down into 4-, 6-, or 8-inch widths cedar planks leftover from an artist's installation up at the Storm King Art Center's sculpture park. (I have learned, by the way, that we do not "cut" wood. We rip it.) The cedar had been taken from her family's farm down in Tennessee and was already milled. She wanted it cut to size and then planed so she could make crates out of it for deliveries.

I've always loved cedar, the way it smells, the way it looks. We have a big bag of cedar shims sitting in our closet, which we'd bought at a hardware store in Tennessee several years ago and were going to get around to making shoe racks or something out of. (My husband and I have conversations sometimes about how lazy we are together. We're bad for each other's health and productivity. But we have so much fun.) Cedar has a reputation for keeping moths at bay, which is why blocks of it are often put in drawers or storage chests. It also supposedly has antibacterial and antimicrobial properties among a million other uses (some of which I maintain healthy skepticism of), and makes great outdoor furniture because it's resistant to decay.

In raw form I think it looks lovely. But planed, with a layer of wood skinned off to expose the inner colors, it's really beautiful. We ran it through the saw and the planer and the planks came out with these deep, bright purple and cream colors.

Unfortunately, I also discovered that I'm highly allergic to cedar. My childhood allergy tests probably say this anyway, but with the dust flying in my face I became aware of it all over again, sneezing my head off even through the high-end filtration face mask. Time to break out the Claritin, since clearly the homeopathic remedy I've been trying (quercetin, with extra Vitamin C) has had no effect. I hate having hay fever. The truth is, in another age I probably wouldn't have survived even if I were competent at survival and sustainability skills. If severe allergies didn't kill me, childbirth certainly would have.

Anyway, I'm a convert to planed wood depending on the context. 

The plane's crazy noisy, though. Even with our awesome earmuffs the screeching was pretty penetrating. If I'm going to invest, I think I'll go for the hand plane. And then I can just do that for hours and forget about getting on the rowing machine. Except not with cedar.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Bread Loaf-Orion Environmental Writers Conference: A Retrospective

Last week I became a Bread Loaf convert. Specifically, a Bread Loaf-Orion Environmental Writers Conference convert. Every writer should attend this conference. Actually, not just writers. The conference was nearly 7 days of workshops, craft classes, laughter, and lots of in-depth conversation between poets, essayists, and fiction writers, but also people like soil scientists, mussel biologists (or people married to one), ethnoecologists, environmental science professors, geologists, oceanographers, and so many more. This cross-seeding of disciplines was the key to its success. That, and it benefited from not having any fellowships (except need-based) or work-study positions as the regular Bread Loaf (or the Mother Loaf or No-Orion [Norion] as we took to calling it) does, which removed any competitive, hierarchical atmosphere, to the benefit of both accomplished and beginning writers.

It was the most satisfying writing conference I've ever attended. Our teachers gave an astounding amount of attention to our workshop submissions, meeting with us individually to go through what we'd written and continuing conversations about our work and ambitions in various areas, whether in writing or research. I will forever be indebted to Alan Weisman, whose books I have always loved, but whose talents and attention as a teacher and mentor have begun to heal my bruised writer's heart. (Sidenote: more about that subject forthcoming in Full Grown People.)

But pictures! Because this blog is where I attempt to curtail my babbling tendencies. Speaking of babbling, this was my favorite part of the conference:

This stream is a short walk through an open field -- where the editor-in-chief of Orion magazine, who is an ornithologist, led birds walks early several mornings -- and right in this spot I could sit under these old woods on a large flat rock and listen to the water rushing and tumbling. I haven't done that in many years. It made me awfully homesick for Montana but I think I might have fallen in love with Vermont just a tiny bit that day.

Being able to walk in the woods helped compost and root the madly rushing ideas that made the conference so invigorating. Two people in my workshop and I got not-quite-lost coming back from Robert Frost's writing cabin, tramping through deep woods and a lot of muck. We found this map. Luckily they were better at reading maps than I am because it made me dizzy.

What was awesome was that we were slogging around in a lot of mud, which was a new experience since another member of our workshop was a soil scientist and his essay was a fascinating look at the life and biology of mud; one of we three walkers was a serious birder and taught me (who knows zilch about birds) to look for them and at them in new ways; and while he was trying to show me where elusive birds were I was remembering the essay of another workshop member, which was about his guiding experience in the Tetons and teaching people to see in new ways.

I've been at good writing conferences before, but nothing that recharged my brain synapses in quite this way.

I also just oiled my beloved boots, which was necessary because I forgot to bring my waterproof sandals with me and my boots spent the entire conference either soaking on my feet or like this:

By the way -- fires! It was chilly and rainy the whole time so they lit fireplaces in all the buildings. The parts of me that aren't Russian are completely Scottish at heart. There is nothing that makes me happier than being able to walk in the rain and come back inside to a fire (even if not peat).

Except, also, of course, this.

Neither of those people is me, but good conversation, long walks, and soul-restoring scenery sums up what makes my life feel most whole. Seven days of this and I feel like a much better writer, but also a better friend, thinker, human being, and inhabitant of the planet.

Driving away from Bread Loaf on Sunday, I was surprised by a feeling I thought I'd never experience again: that a new place had found a home in my heart.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Getting Ripped

I've been volunteering at a local hardwoods sawmill. New York Heartwoods, to be specific, which is run by, of all random things to find in nowhere upstate New York, another woman from Montana, and specializes in salvaging downed and diseased local hardwoods and milling and kiln-drying them for woodworkers, artisans, retail stores . . . you get the idea. Aside from the fact that I feel completely incompetent (hence the Competence Project), spending a few hours there makes my week. I wish I could rewind all my school years and career years and go back and learn how to do something useful like this. I mean, I correct grammar for a living. Much as I enjoy grammar, it's not, in real-life terms, all that useful.

The very first day I was there was back in January, and we rode the tractor over to a neighbor's collapsed barn to salvage 8-foot beams for a local woodworker. If you click here you can see a photo of us doing just that. I am the person in the blue coat pulling something out of that really precarious pile of barn wood.

That something was a barn beam. The thing about old barn beams is that they often have a lot of nails in them. Very old, very rusty, very long, and very, very sharp. I was bracing the beam while it was being chainsawed down, and it slipped on my leg. See those nails? It was one of those.

My very first day branching out (so to speak) in an effort at competence? I ended up driving to the doctor's office for a tetanus shot. These are my only pair of jeans. My husband repaired them that evening because I loathe sewing and only do it under duress. He didn't know that what he pulled out of the sewing box was silk embroidery thread over seventy years old that had belonged to my great-grandmother. What a convoluted world.

Did you know that tetanus shots make your teeth hurt like hell? Nobody told me that. I thought I needed a root canal. And underneath this ragged seam is a dull line that very much resembles my C-section scars. Except less painful because I didn't rip any staples out of this. Hands down, I'd rather get scarred by ancient nails poking out of barn beams than go through pregnancy again.