Lessons from Liberated, Llama Loving Women

Laurel and her llama hiking companion, Hardy

Laurel and her llama hiking companion, Hardy

Just as world strife was churning into what would become World War II, Louise Dickinson Rich left an upper middle class world outside of Boston and moved to the northern woods of Maine to create a life and a family far removed from the comforts, conveniences and privileges she’d been brought up with. In her extraordinary 1942 memoir of that experience, We Took to the Woods, she concludes with an attempt to explain why she’d made the choice to remove herself from the life she’d been raised for. In a word, it was freedom.

“To define freedom,” she wrote, “for which men and women and children are dying all over the world, in terms of indifference to clothes and social contacts and popular attitudes seems so trivial and irresponsible a thing to do that I am ashamed of it, as of a gross impertinence; but that is what living here adds up to, for me. I am free.”

It’s been a while since I’ve thought about freedom in regard to myself. The truth is, I haven’t had to. I’ve been so busy living a life free to make my own choices, chart my own path, these days I rarely ponder how long and hard I had to fight for that opportunity. And how many different ways and times I’ve waged the battle for it.

In the beginning, I can’t imagine how I would have survived riding the crest of my adolescence into young adulthood without the bracing, rebel call of a women’s movement cheering me on. To put it simply, I was a troubled youth — married and divorced twice between the ages of 17 and 24, a single mother at 25.

I was 15 years old and a junior in high school when Ms. Magazine hit the newsstands in 1972 with such media fanfare that it pierced through my thick fog of me-focused suffering. Real as the trauma was that served as the foundation of my childhood, and as disabling as its results were to my functioning, it took a revolution to alert me to a broader context than just me for everything I’d experienced.

It was the pronouncement that “the personal is political” coming from Susan Brownmiller, Gloria Steinem, Letty Cottin-Pogrebin, Alice Walker, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, Andrea Dworkin and bell hooks that shifted the ground beneath me and sent me in a direction that literally saved my life.

Cecilia, Laurel and the llamas - day hiking at 11,000 feet

Cecilia, Laurel and the llamas – day hiking at 11,000 feet

Not that the road to freedom was easy, steady or straightforward. Traveling it has been a slow process, and even now when I think I’ve reached my destination, I’m frequently reminded I’ve only landed at a rest stop. Which means that Ms. Magazine’s appearance on the scene alerted me to a dangling hope for me to grab at, but it would be a very long time before anything would pull me up to safety. In the meantime, that publication heralded the coming of a means for women to gather in support of one another, and an idea of emancipation I desperately needed.

An estimated hundred thousand women in the United States belonged to consciousness raising groups in the mid 1970s, the peak of their decade-long popularity. Mostly middle class, white women gathered in living rooms across the country like lovely bouquets of restless frustration, the thorny stems of their prescribed lives binding them together, then pricking one another into awareness that would set them free.

By 1982, consciousness raising groups were long past the height of their allure. That’s when I joined one. I was a 25-year-old single mother of a 6-month-old, trying to get by on a $10,000/year job as the editor of a regional horse magazine. The meeting I went to was held in a beautiful old home in Lewiston, Maine, attended by a dozen women. They were all in their early 30s and held much more lucrative jobs than mine. I was the only one who brought a baby to the meeting. The fact that I did inspired one woman to launch the conversation with a 10-minute pronouncement that it was impossible to be a liberated feminist and simultaneously have children.

That group didn’t work out too well for me. But it didn’t dampen my enthusiasm for the idea of feminism as a guiding light toward freedom to lead my own life, make my own way, claim the courage to be who I wanted to be. I was hungry for liberation. Desperate for it. I needed release from a childhood of abuse and the walls raised up against self respect as a result of it. I needed a map and guides to help me navigate through a world determined to convince me that as a woman I could never be safe, brave or successful on my own.

It didn’t take long for my need to embrace the idea of “I am woman, hear me roar,” to start getting slapped in the face by political sentiments of the day. It was my introduction to an awareness that regardless of how isolated or alone in the world I felt, public opinion would find a way to have a direct response to my personal life — and it was almost always a bipartisan pushback. On the one hand, I was surrounded by the standard assumption that only women who couldn’t attract a man wanted or needed to be liberated (hello dreaded fear of being labeled a “man hater”). A lesson coming from the liberal camp had me learning about the complications of a women’s movement rife with narrow mindedness and a whole host of “isms” and “obias” (our ‘80s shorthand for racism, classism, sexism, ableism, homophobia) that mucked up my hope for finding a simple sisterhood among all women.

Over the years, my quest for a life guided by feminist sensibilities has, for the most part, settled into a softly braided effort to infuse my personal and professional worlds with a commitment to defending self determination and social justice for all — including me. But for a while now, I’ve been missing the rallying cries of a grassroots revolution to back it up. I’m not sure when the women’s movement of my coming-of-age years faded away, but somewhere along my trek to maturity, the generations of young women coming up behind me seemed to shrug off the idea that they might need or want an army of peers to help defend themselves against the worldwide crushing oppression of their sex.

The older I get, the less I see of American women gathering in groups of determination to prepare them for the battles ahead. It’s made me sad with loss and worried about a future of regression to a place and time where women are expected to lean on, hide behind the power of men and do little more than hope some of it will be used to safeguard them.

Trish and Kylie, mother and daughter in the backcountry

Trish and Kylie, mother and daughter in the backcountry

Kylie

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That’s what I thought I was seeing, anyhow. Then last fall I attended a national llama championship show in Oklahoma. After hauling six llamas and my traveling companion, Laurel, a thousand miles to be there, we spent four days competing against some of the most skilled llama and handler teams in the country.

Between halter showing and obstacle classes, Laurel and I basked in the camaraderie of people who loved llamas in the same intense, inexplicable way we did. We swapped stories and bragging rights, relaxing into the comfort of being insiders in an unusual world far removed from global discord.

Mostly, it was women we were visiting with. Women who were grooming animals, cleaning stalls, lugging buckets of water and huge bales of hay. Our first evening there, a group of them called out as we left the building to head for our hotel, sweeping up in a cluster of llama-driven two-wheeled carts, pausing to let us climb aboard, then charging across the event grounds in the fading light behind llamas whose padded feet landed lightly on the pavement.

moonlight driving at the ALSA Grand National

moonlight driving at the ALSA Grand National

Throughout the weekend, I watched women bring steely determination to their competition strategy. I listened to their tales of the barn raisings, business building, llama training, youth programming they were creating and conducting on their own and with each other. But it wasn’t until move-out day that I recognized what I’d been witnessing all along.

As I pulled my own truck and trailer up to the barn entrance, I jockeyed into line behind a half dozen rigs that were being loaded with equipment, supplies and llamas in preparation for the long ride home. Back and forth between barn and vehicles, women dragged wagons loaded with buckets and hay bags and dirty stall mats. They paired up to hoist huge trunks into tiny storage spaces. They laughed and barked orders at each other. They loaded their tired llamas, sneaking a stroke along silky fibered necks. They carefully latched heavy doors, checked brake lights, stepped away from license plates that revealed their state of origin and the number of days they’d be on the road before getting home.

It was when I watched one woman climb to the top of her trailer, reach down to her friend below, and haul a big, weighty llama cart into the sky before securing it on the roof, that the truth of what I was seeing hit me. Liberated women. All around me women from across the country — women of all ages, sizes, backgrounds, were living the kind of lives the brief, flawed movement of the 60s and 70s had set its sites on. Here they were, at an isolated event center in Oklahoma, traveling alone or with other women, hauling beloved and valuable animals along thousands of miles of highway in massive rigs the women of my generation had been assured were beyond our capacity to operate. They weren’t armed or armored or otherwise under male protection. If they were ever afraid of late night rest stops or the dreaded breakdown on a lonely stretch of road, they didn’t show it. They were simply living lives of their own design and having a wonderful time doing it.

Janine Faussone

Janine Faussone

Jerry Dunn

Jerry Dunn

Huckleberry, Brianna Livengood-Cozzetto and Aubrynne

Huckleberry, Brianna Livengood-Cozzetto and Aubrynne

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There’s rarely a day that goes by when I don’t despair for the countless girls and women around the world still subject to violence and soul crushing oppression simply because they are born and raised female — many in my own community. There remains so much work to do, my own personal battles included as I continue to rattle the cage built for us in an entrenched patriarchal society.

I worry about the young women of the Millennial generation, who don’t understand what it took for their mothers and grandmothers to clear even a small path of freedom for them to follow, and might not realize the importance of sometimes traveling that path without male companionship or influence.

But just a few days ago, I was reassured again. My friend Cecilia came to visit from the East Coast, and gamely helped me organize a three-day llama trek for a mixed group of colleagues, some young and others beginning to step through the door into old age. Before and during the trip, Cecilia and I reminisced about the joys and woes of when we were young and learning what it meant to be woman identified as a means of finding our strength. The other women in our group didn’t say much in response, and there was no way of knowing what they were thinking.

Two days into the trip, my always-to-be-counted-on, llama wrangling assistant Laurel, had to pack up early. This beautiful young woman who once cried as a 10-year-old in my llama youth group because her llama wouldn’t stand still and it hurt her feelings, had a day-long work event she was required to attend as a budding psychologist. While I fiddled with my new camp stove making afternoon tea, Laurel packed up her one-person tent, secured the picket line of the llama she was leaving behind for us to use on the trip out, then shrugged into her day pack. A quick hug, and off she went to descend the rocky trail down from our 11,000 foot camp site to where she’d parked her llama van at the trailhead miles away. Alone.

I leaned back against a craggy boulder as I sipped my hot tea, and watched Laurel slowly fade from view. I firmly believe we do still need a movement for the liberation of girls and women, but maybe I don’t need to worry about it as much as I have been. Maybe the movement just around the corner will be led by fiercely llama loving women like Laurel. And if it is, I can’t wait to sign up for that group.

the women of the Food Dignity project, only some of whom have ever even met a llama, but graciously listen to me talk about them constantly, and also give me great hope for the safety and power of women working together for a better world

women of the Food Dignity project (only some of whom have ever even met a llama, but graciously listen to me talk about them constantly), who also give me great hope for the safety and power of women working together for a better world

 

 

 

Posted in Life, Llamas, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

Winter Springs

full moon over Berthoud Pass

full moon over Berthoud Pass

When the first foot of snow fell on October 4, it marked the beginning of a winter of never ending storms that would eventually do their best to consume me. Once or twice a week, clouds gathered over the Zirkel peaks to the west, built into a billowing darkness until they could no longer contain themselves, then spilled across the North Park basin carrying coarse winds and shedding heavy snow along the way. We could see it coming — sometimes watching the progress for an hour or more — the animals and I gauging the time we had before being stung by needle sharp pellets and thrown off balance by the turbulent air that accompanied them.

It was the first winter in years to greet me without an accompanying crisis. No job or home loss, cancer, relationship disaster or death of a loved one was stamped across each day’s “to-do” list to obscure the simple demands of getting on with life. My time on the ranch settled into a schedule of waking to a few hours of writing, bundling up for bracing morning chores, a long stretch of telecommuting work, back to the barns to put the ranch to bed, then falling gratefully into my own.

By mid-November I could no longer remember a landscape palette of anything other than shades of blue, gray and white broken occasionally by streaks of coral on the morning or evening horizons. Between snows, the air itself was bright with cold and the white ground was soft beneath my feet. For weeks, the predictability of the days felt like a novelty. The part of my work that regularly travels me away for several days at a time, capped a blossoming awareness that I was actually living the life I’d been dreaming about since childhood.

Then the storms got serious. They lasted longer, brought more snow, howled down the chimney. They began to behave like a marathon training coach — gradually increasing the demands on my time and physical endurance. The daily list of ranch chores was rewritten as the snow began to sculpt itself into ever changing drifts that sifted up over windbreaks, through crevices in barn walls, into the corrals to form shape shifting, expanding mountains of ice.

drifts began to gather against the hay stack

drifts began to gather against the hay stack

A break in the snow meant a stab of cold. For four nights running, the temperature dropped to -43°, the only blessing being that even the wind was frozen into stillness. Frostbite ate through the top of the rooster’s comb, pushing me to triple the depth of shavings on their floor and to do the same with straw for Destiny and the llamas. Every day, I stapled more plastic sheeting over newly revealed cracks in the barn walls, shoveled paths wide enough to let me drag bales of hay inside to where the animals huddled and waited patiently for me to bring them ever growing portions of feed.

cozy barn for the Montana Blues

cozy barn for the Montana Blues

I rose to what the storms asked of me. In the beginning, it scheduled me for three hours a day. Then four, five and finally six hours every day found me outdoors bundled in heavy layers of protection. I heard words collecting in my brain to describe what I was doing. I plodded, trudged, waded, slogged, lumbered through the snow. I hauled 65-pound bales of hay, dragged the dead weight of a manure laden cart over ridges and through gullies, heaved 50-pound bags of feed, wrestled long lengths of quick-freezing hoses from the house to the animals’ heated water tanks. I slid, stumbled, tripped and fell. Finding my stride during the lulling repetitive motion of forking away soiled barn bedding, I sang.

Mostly, I was impressed with myself. I was pleased with the strength of my body after all it had been through, comforted by an unusual internal equanimity, and entertained by a surprising euphoria that swept over me just before I fell asleep at night.

The animals were stoic companions. Together we reveled in having our days revolve around when we’d be eating our next meal. They were content with hay and heat-producing grain supplements. For me, I cooked massive quantities of thick soups, vegetable topped pastas, a thousand variations of muffins and cobblers, giddy with the pleasure of knowing it would all be consumed by physical labor.

when the snow reached almost 5 feet deep

when the snow reached almost 5 feet deep

I only cried once.

It stormed every day throughout the week of Christmas. I was snowed in. No human being was going to make it in to see me, and even if I had found a way to take a break, there was no possibility I’d be getting out as long as it continued to snow and blow. For seven hours each day that week, I fed, watered and cleaned up after animals. By day eight it was canned beets, canned corn or canned green beans if I was interested in eating a vegetable. Morning chores and evening chores had begun to lose their distinction. It was all just chores punctuated by turning on my computer, valiantly writing my four pages, four sentences or often only four words a day, completing a work assignment here and there, but increasingly watching deadlines tick unproductively by.

path down into the boys' barn

path down into the boys’ barn

On New Year’s Eve, a friend called to wish me well. I was mid-sentence in reciprocal celebration, when my throat closed up and tears spilled over. It was simple exhaustion. But in those tired tears, there was a hint of something more complicated waiting to snag me.

Duster makes his way down the snow bank into the barn

Duster makes his way down the snow bank into the barn

It was becoming the winter that wouldn’t go away. For days on end, there wasn’t enough time between rounds of chores to dry out my gloves, hat or boots. I would collapse into the armchair in front of the woodstove —computer in my lap, hot tea by my elbow — and watch the hard balls of snow slowly drip from the pant legs of my winter overalls to puddles on the floor.

I was losing the ability to gauge the progress of a particular storm by the design it made on my windows. The glass was covered in frozen crystal patterns so thick, I could no longer tell which swath of them had come during the night and which ones had been on display for weeks. Digging down through snowdrifts that continuously renewed themselves, I began to measure time by the receding line of the haystack rows buried in them.

tracking storms by what they paint on the windows

tracking storms by what they paint on the windows

On a ranch at well over 8000’ above sea level, January is the longest month. It stretches beyond the 31 days it claims on the calendar, and in the dawn of 2014 it held on like it was trying to claim the entire year for itself. January ate February, then March. It laughed in the face of the spring equinox, and by the time we tipped into April, I’d been walking on snow covered ground for six months. The only change was in the quality of the snow. The flakes had grown fatter. They fell from the sky in big wet globs that gathered in a heavy blanket to absorb sound and make movement seem slow. Which is how I’d begun to feel. Slow.

April became a winter spring, draining my enthusiasm for frontier living and compelling me to acknowledge a flaw in one of my most cherished character traits. I’m without a doubt the go-to gal in a crisis, an emergency, a disaster, but it turns out I feel rather lost in a world of repetitive predictability. As time continued to spend itself but the snow drifts refused to go with it, I began to panic over what felt like a growing distance between me and the passion for fix-it! that normally fueled me.

occasional sun still didn't allow for chickens to be outdoors

occasional sun still didn’t allow for chickens to be outdoors

Did I have no access to a peaceful, steady core capable of simply doing work laid out for me? I started paying closer attention to the animals who were also enduring the winter that would not end. For half a year, they’d been denied access to the expansive fields that gave them fresh grass and room to roam. For days at a time they’d pushed through blinding blizzards just to get 10 feet away from their section of barn for a drink of water. Yet, the only sign they were growing weary of it all was an occasional round of spitting between llamas vying for a dry spot of bedding or a mouthful of fresh hay. Looking for lessons from them, it seemed to me that the only wisdom they might have to share was hidden in the way they lay, quietly chewing their cud, looking calmly out at the weather beyond them.

From time to time I found a taste of relief from other ranchers when I was able to make it to town for supplies. We fortified one another with competitive tales of “how high the drifts are at my place.” But even as they spoke about their winter weariness, they didn’t seem deflated by it. They wore the winter weather the same way they wore the heavy layers of clothing that protected them from it — they shrugged into the long months of snow like they slid into their winter bibs; annoyed by the effort and constriction, but content with the familiar comfort.

April was ending when I began reading Ann Patchett’s new book of essays called This is a Happy Marriage. It’s a collection of quiet writing made lovely by Patchett’s pure, delicious mastery of the craft. From folly in the marriage of her youth to making her way through reluctance to try such a commitment again, she writes beautifully about lives well lived. The essays eased my angst, although I wasn’t sure why — until I listened to an interview with her on the radio.

“It’s about getting the work done,” I heard her say. “These days, it’s all about getting work done.”

Yes, of course. After the emergency, beyond the crisis, comes the work. Once the dreams begin to come true, the list of chores necessary to actually carry them out is long.

The first storms of the winter brought my adrenaline to a boiling point that kept me running hard and on high. Rushing chilled llamas onto my porch for blankets and grain, repairing holes torn through barn walls by sub zero winds, made me feel heroic. But it was the hour after hour, day after day that was testing me. Manual labor produced nothing more than sweat that froze on my eyebrows, a snow encrusted mountain of manure, and muscle fatigue that interrupted my sleep. Those physical demands bookended the emails, proposals and conference calls of the armchair part of my activism work. The writing of Saving Elizabeth ground itself down into a laborious wrestling match between story details I didn’t have in any of my notes, and a narrative complexity I wasn’t prepared for.

There were moments while standing with my back to the fire, waiting for my hands to thaw enough to use the keyboard on my laptop, when stray doubts butted up against my determination. The voice knocking on my inner ear reminded me it might turn out that I really don’t have what it will take to grow up the dreams I’ve held close for most of my life.  It was during those times of pure fatigue I began to understand that strength and determination aren’t just needed in a surge of power when crisis or emergency demands them. Persistence requires its own kind of courage.

On Mother’s Day, 30” of snow fell. It came without warning in the middle of the night, two of the llamas trapped by snowdrifts away from their barns. I had to thaw a helmet of ice off the face of one of them, and dig a hundred yard path through mid-thigh snow to free the other. Again, more than the emergency propelling me through the storm, it was spending the week tramping on snowshoes while dragging bales of hay behind me, that dug the most deeply into my resolve to see it through.

Hit 'n Run after being caught out by the Mother's Day blizzard

Hit ‘n Run after being caught out by the Mother’s Day blizzard

 

Destiny began refusing to use her barn when the snow got too deep in her doorway

Destiny began refusing to use her barn when the snow got too deep in her doorway

Throughout May, the western sky held on to winter. It draped the snows of Mt. Ethel in a soft wash of pink, blue and gray. Every day, I had to take a deep breath in order to feel the beauty of it while longing for the smell of thawing earth.

The winter that began in the fall and commandeered the spring, was a little bit like this blog of mine — a season of easy progress, followed by a round of storms that first slowed it down, then buried it in weariness and uncertainty. By the beginning of June, I knew without a doubt that the only solution for getting on with things was to just start digging. Do the work, I’ve learned to tell myself. Every day, just do the work.

through the willows, when the snow began to melt

through the willows, when the snow began to melt

Two weeks ago, the snow began to melt. First it left the fields, then the ditches and the willows, and now it’s starting to come down off the peaks. The pelicans returned to North Park, the entire basin shimmers with water, and the frogs sing their chorus from dusk to dawn.  It’s time for a new list of chores.  And maybe a little time for celebration.

what good is a flooded pasture?  just ask Hercules!

what good is a flooded pasture? just ask Hercules!

acres of grazing lie under that water

acres of grazing lie under that water

llama pasture turned lake in spring runoff

llama pasture turned lake in spring runoff

Posted in Life, Llamas, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Beyond Happily Ever After: The Birds Keep Getting Bigger — Part III

taking flight

taking flight

I like the way Best Friends Animal Sanctuary writes about their rescue stories.  There’s a paragraph, two at most, describing the harrowing plight of a dog, cat, horse, pig, parrot.  Disney style.  G-rated (PG-13 in a pinch).  Laddie was found by the side of the highway, in the rain, with a broken leg after falling out of the back of a pick-up truck.  A good Samaritan picked him up and brought him to BFAS, where they performed miraculous, leg-saving surgery followed by meticulous physical therapy along with sensitive, psychologically framed training (because we all know Laddie was actually thrown out of that truck by an evil person) that not only saved Laddie’s life, but transformed the erstwhile miserable mutt into a happy and perfect canine companion.  (See magnificent photos and video of Laddie at play.)

The founders of Best Friends, one of the largest and most successful companion animal sanctuaries in the world, figured out early on that people were more apt to make donations if solicitations emphasized the happily ever after aspect of the extraordinary work being done there.  The sanctuary and its massive global outreach that includes breathtaking animal rescue during major disasters, changed the course of animal welfare advocacy by refusing to follow in the footsteps of most animal rights groups that prefer the “shock and anger” approach to fundraising.  They were smart and right — how many photos of emaciated cats and burned and battered puppies can anyone look at?  Plus, who wants to invest in something that engenders nothing but a sense of hopelessness?

Animal rescue work we appreciate follows a basic pattern:  1. the discovery of injury, abuse, neglect or abandonment is made; 2. a good person or people remove the animal from the bad situation; 3. through love, skill and dedication (and money), the animal is made whole; 4. faith in human compassion and happy endings is restored.

Pretty much, that is the way it happens.  When it works.  When you leave out half the story.  Of course there are the out and out failures — intervention came too late, the damage was too great and the animal dies.  But it’s the complicated mess of details that’s the real story of animal welfare work.

Goshawk at Coral Dawn Ranch

Goshawk at Coral Dawn Ranch

When a small group of us were hunkered down trying to stem the tide of death at the Montana Large Animal Sanctuary, administering triage level medical care and drop-style emergency feeding for hundreds of starving llamas and other animals, the devil of the details was what nearly outwitted us.

In the most visible spot at the helm of the rescue, Karyn Moltzen spent 16 hours a day supervising staff and volunteers, coordinating fundraising, arranging animal relocation across the country, trying to conduct media madness, all while ducking the threats of the sanctuary manager, only to hear one day from a long distance animal lover that she believed Karyn was doing a terrible job and was in it only for the glory.

Outside in the snow, ice and mud, we divvied up hay and grain, treated abscesses and infections, cradled dying llamas in our arms, to then hear the whispers of occasional and short term volunteers that the only humane thing to do would be to have all the animals shot.  At any rate, that’s what we heard when we weren’t hearing people accuse us of not doing enough or the right thing to save the animals’ lives.

Most of the time, I stumble unwittingly into animal rescue.  A cat shows up on my doorstep, a person dies leaving a herd of unwanted llamas behind.  Or, like last year a note gets taped to my door asking if I would give a home to a flock of chickens living crammed into an airless, never-cleaned shack a few miles over the hill from me.

rescued chicken wearing winter coat

rescued chicken wearing winter coat

Just like the stories sent out into the world by Best Friends, I reframe for myself the messy details of the long term results of my compulsion for wanting to make things better for injured, mistreated, unwanted animals.

I didn’t plan on having a featherless chicken with pneumonia in a large dog kennel in the middle of my living room for three months, but it turns out that in spite of creating a smell no human home should ever contain, chickens are affectionate and entertaining.  Plus, the hen pays rent almost every day with a large, perfectly formed egg.

Then there are the 50+ llamas steps away from my front door.  And my back door.  Although it’s mind boggling trying to find separate eating places for the ever increasing number of aging ones requiring supplemental feed each day, I rather enjoy seeing a half dozen of them rotate dining times on the warm sun porch attached to the ancient trailer I live in.

Sometimes, there’s no reframing or skirting around the complications.  Like when a juvenile crow with a mangled foot and primary feathers lost from its wings fell from the sky, hobbled into one of my barns,  and couldn’t get out.  Crow settled easily into a large cage on the aforementioned sun porch, gobbled up canned dog food and regained lost strength.  Recovery seemed to be assured.

It was three weeks into rehab.  Crow was beginning to caw when he saw me or heard my voice, and to scold loudly when Sterling the cat paused at the sliding glass door to look out at him.  Just before I fed him, he would gurgle excitedly from the depths of his throat.  I was well on my way to researching methods for creating a large enough practice flight space for Crow, when I stumbled across the unsettling news that I was breaking the law by keeping him.  Technically, crows fall into the category of migratory birds (although different crows have different beliefs on whether or not they should migrate) that are protected by law against captivity by humans.  Unless they’re injured.  Which he was.  And you’re a certified wildlife rehabilitator.  Which I’m not.

I’m not the kind of person who is automatically quelled or moved in a certain direction by a simple statement of law.  There are bad laws just begging for civil disobedience to help change them.  But in this case, I was conceptually happy to know that wild birds are protected from being captured and caged for life.  On the level of the situation Crow and I found ourselves in, there were a few concerns that kept nagging at me:

1.  I didn’t have a way of giving Crow safe flight space for full rehabilitation.

2.  Winter was beginning to swat its sharp-clawed paw at us.

3.  I didn’t know what I was doing.  The fact that there was a law telling me I shouldn’t even be trying to do it, was going to make it much harder to get help from someone who did know what they were doing.

I needed assistance without exposing me as the criminal I was being, and without making Crow vulnerable to the downside of the protection laws he was covered under.  Migratory birds (and other wild animals) can be rehabilitated and returned to the wild by licensed wildlife rehabilitators.  But if the animal is not found to be capable of surviving on its own within a year of being taken in, the law is very clear that the animal must be destroyed.  Killed.  Let’s face it – murdered for the crime of not being healthy.  The only exception to that rule is if the duly licensed wildlife rehabilitator also has facilities and licensing  to be a wildlife educator, in which case said unhealthy animal unable to be returned to the wild, is permitted to be used as an educational tool.  (So that’s how those traveling hawks and eagles get their classroom and county fair gigs.)

My phone calling began.  Colorado has a number of wildlife rehabilitation services.  I started with the largest, most impressive sounding one near Boulder.  Where was I calling from?  I hedged.  Was I holding a bird captive?  I lied.  Did I understand the law in that regard?  Absolutely — it’s an important law.  Since I often run across injured wildlife up here in the mountains, I wanted to know what I should do in the event I ever did find myself trying to help an injured migratory bird.

The answer from the big center near Boulder was the same one I got from the ones I called after that.  I had no choice, they told me.  I must deliver the bird to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.  Not being a big fan of no choice dictates to begin with, I was more upset by what I was consistently told when I asked about the requirement that injured wildlife be killed if not capable of being returned to the wild.  It’s the law.  If we don’t comply with the law to destroy permanently disabled animals, we lose our license to save wildlife.  A profound and proverbial Catch-22.

I continued to make phone calls, feed Crow and clean his cage, and watched him stay stuck halfway between courting death and being whole again.  He hopped on his one good leg, dragged the twisted and shriveling one behind.  The shine began to return to his feathers, but there was the threat of a waiting dullness circling his black, black eyes.

Several phone calls into the research on my law violations and inability to do Crow justice, a spritely voiced receptionist suggested I talk to the wildlife rehabilitator right near me in North Park.

What?

Oh yes, there is a fully licensed wildlife rehabilitator half an hour outside of Walden, North Park’s only town.  I was on the phone with her that evening.  She had a dozen years of experience, specialized in large birds, shared stories galore of successful reintroduction to the wild, and had a flight cage.

What about the law requiring automatic death for animals incapable of returning home?  She did everything in her power to make sure that didn’t happen.  She always found a way to save the life of an animal who wanted to live and was capable of doing so.

white pelicans of North Park

white pelicans of North Park

I told her I had Crow.  I told her how well he was doing but I didn’t have a place for him to practice flying.  I told her how I felt about the mandatory “destruction” clause.  I told her about his family that had been living here for years, how wonderful they are, but that something had temporarily (I hoped) chased them off.  She assured me that she always released animals in the same location as their original home – it was essential to increasing the chances of long term survival.     She promised we would work together to save Crow.

The next evening, I transferred Crow to the small pet kennel I’d been using to hold him while I cleaned his cage every day.  There was blood on the towel I wrapped him in.  His delicate breastbone was beginning to rub raw on the deep straw I was using as bedding – he was designed for perching, not dwelling on the floor of a cage.  I was shamed by the consequences of my ignorance and fortified to know I was doing the right thing.  He needed more than a girlish love of animals to save him.  He needed an expert.

Into the dimming day of a North Park evening, with snow building in the clouds gathered on its peaks, I drove cross country on miles of gravel roads that wound around one sagebrush meadow to another without apparent reason, slowly gaining elevation toward the Park’s mountain rim.  Crow and I climbed up and away from his home, passing haystacks, an isolated barn, and the occasional oil well flare.

The road began to follow a narrow ridgeline, passed a couple of log cabins at the edge of the mountain forest, then ended at a small home site that looked out across all of North Park.  Evening was tumbling rapidly toward night, warmed by yellow light shining through the windows of a beautiful log home.  But it was the flight cage that made me lose my breath.

There was nothing cagelike about it.  I guessed it to be 150 feet long and 100 feet wide, a white arched tent of a structure standing 30 – 40 feet high.  Soaring was the only word that came to my mind and heart.

The rural mountain woman who lived on the land of her childhood ranch home, whose dedication to wildlife rehab had driven her to the vision, expense and reality of a building for indoor flight, was warm and smart.  The first thing we did after moving Crow’s carrier into the woman’s home, was tour the flight cage.

It was a world of its own.  Out of the wind and spitting snow, softly lit, it was a little like stepping into Shangrila.  The cold air held the feel of hush and the smell of moisture reminiscent of spring.  The ground was covered with natural grasses and pebbled soil.  In the center, a bare tree trunk reached up and limbed out in a massive invitation for anything inclined to perch.  At the far end, where the wall met the ceiling, was a large window on hinges.  There, I was told, wild birds from outside would gather to meet the wounded ones indoors.  And for those whose original homes were unknown or too far away to be returned to, the window became the portal through which they would join their new neighbors when it was time.

There were two wood framed, wire meshed cages the size of circus wagons, used as introductory dwellings once birds had recovered from their injuries and were preparing to return to flight.  A young Redtail Hawk perched in one of them, staring calmly and silently out at us.  If there was any chance that Crow could learn to fly again, this would be the place he could do it.

That night, Crow was moved to a large crate in the hospital room of the wildlife rehabilitator’s home.  Before she settled him in, she gave him a thorough and gentle examination, all while he fiendishly pecked at and bit her.  Never having seen him behave like that, I was pleased to know he had it in him.  He was not meant to be a pet.  The woman worked around his defensive actions, carefully stretching out one scraggly wing then the other.  She stroked and stretched his deformed foot.  She doctored his wounded breast, then nestled him in a deep, fluffy bath towel, putting beside him a large stick for eventual perching.

The expert declared Crow a healthy juvenile – probably male because of his smaller size – whose wings had indeed lost feathers but were in good working condition.  She didn’t think his foot would completely heal, but delighted me by saying he could live in the wild even without full use of it.

We were now a team, she told me.  Crow would heal, learn to fly again, then return to my little ranch, to his home and his crow family.  I needn’t be grateful, she assured me.  That’s what would be in the best interest of Crow.

I handed over an unasked-for donation, bid Crow farewell, and drove home accompanied by the swirling mix of sadness for already missing him and the elation for the hope I’d found him.

For six weeks, I phoned every few days to check on Crow.  His breastbone healed slowly.  He was having trouble figuring out how to use the perch in his kennel.  He adjusted from canned dog food to fresh meat.  He began to stretch his wings and test the confines of the kennel.  He was moved to the transition crate in the flight cage and relished the unheated air.  Then Crow took off.  First from the ground, then from a low lying perch.  Crow began to fly.  Stronger each day, he flew and flew and flew and made it clear he was ready to return home.

But winter was gaining strength.  Storms were lasting longer, the snow getting deeper.  It was more rare for there to be several days in a row of above freezing sunshine.  I was traveling more often for work, and the wildlife rehabilitator was beginning to talk about her own health problems, new birds needing help, too many demands on her own schedule.

The other concern was that Crow’s family was only appearing sporadically – as if they’d been run off the day Crow was injured, were now living nearby and only coming to visit the old place from time to time.

I was not to worry, the rehabilitator assured me.  We would find the right opening in the weather, wait for a recent citing of Crow’s family, and the moment it was safe to release him, she would call me to come get him or, if I was away, she would call Don to do it for me.  He needed to be released at home.  She promised he would be.

The perfect day arrived.  I was home.  The latest snow had melted and it was predicted we’d have several days of warm weather and blue skies.  Best of all,  Crow’s family had shown up the night before and were still hanging around, loud and active.

I made an immediate call to arrange a time when I could pick up Crow, imagining the moment when he would lunge for freedom, take a swoop or two around the barns, then sail off with his family.

The rehabilitator answered on the first ring.  It’s time, I practically shouted with joy.  The weather’s great and Crow’s family is here.  When can I get him?

Silence is always so powerful.  Especially when it’s about to let you down.  Crow is gone, I was told when the silence was broken.  Gone?  Not dead, released.  Here.  But you didn’t call me to come get him.  You were gone.  You were supposed to call Don if I was gone.  My life is complicated.  I’ve got a lot going on here.  I … I had to … What?  You had to what?  You promised.  We’re a team, you said.  He needed to be released at his original home, with his family.  You were gone.  I’d made arrangements.  Don was waiting for your call.   I didn’t have his number.  You had mine!

Crows argue like this.  Not with words I understand, but with the same escalating chatter that gets sharper and bounces back and forth with the slam of delivery but never a catch.  For three years I’d heard the crow parents shout from the willows to their offspring pecking at grain spilled by the llamas near my porch door.

Unlike crows, who usually stop such exchanges in mid-caw, taking flight for something more interesting, humans prefer to slice open a wound or two before ending an argument.

The woman who made it possible for Crow to fly again, made her voice go fuzzy and quiet and said, I did what was best for Crow.

Me, the girl with a passionate love for every living creature, said no you didn’t.  You did what was best for you.

She hung up.

I cursed.  Then I cried.  For a very long time.  For longer than that, I was angry.  With the woman who is  licensed to do wildlife rehabilitation.  With myself.  With every day that passed, I was more angry with myself.  I’d let Crow down.  I should have learned how to keep his breast from being rubbed.  I should have built him an enormous flight cage of his own.  The moment I’d learned he was flying in Shangrila, I should have fetched him home to wait for the weather to be good and his family to return.  I should never have believed the promises given me – I’d only done so because it was easier than helping him myself.

There were two threads woven throughout the inner chastising.  There was the one that made me cry like I was still the little girl who could never save the lives of baby bunnies caught by cats.  There was also the one that wondered if I thought I was the goddess of animal welfare, the only person who could rescue the suffering beasts of the earth.  The twisted threads left me sad, angry, and ashamed.

Winter came to stay.  I hadn’t seen Crow’s family in weeks.  In the back of my mind, I wrote emails to send to the wildlife rehabilitator explaining my disappointment while thanking her for the wonderful, important work she does.  I always choked when I got to the part where young Crow flew off into space unfamiliar to him, and the emails never got sent.

With every storm, the time it took to do the late day chores of llama tending and barn cleaning got longer.  One evening, when the sky was pale pink and the air was mild, as I pulled against the cart loaded with soiled barn bedding, an odd sound floated down on me.  I looked up to see a lone crow diving close, gurgling from deep within its throat.  It flew up, down, around in a circle, gurgling and chattering as if inviting a crow style argument.  Then he flew away.

I strained in the fading light to get a good look at the crow’s feet, but I couldn’t see them.  Highly unlikely, I lectured myself, that this was Crow.  Still, the bird that greeted me helped to loosen the threads of self admonition.  There are crows flying everywhere, up against the risks inherent in nature and the greater perils of human sourced treachery.  Between two of us, in spite of our human weaknesses and failings, we gave one struggling crow a fighting second chance at life and freedom.

Crow

Crow

There is a simple truth to frontline animal welfare work.  The emergency is hard and often heartbreaking.  The rescue is usually joyous.  The reality comes over the long haul, which is so often not pretty:  filled with mistakes, drudgery and expense punctuated by moments of delight and breathtaking awe.

Posted in Animals, Life | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Growing Up in 2013

It would take great determination to ignore the nudge of implied importance each new year brings with it.  When it came around a year ago, I felt it through a muffle of physical exhaustion and the sense that I was floating somewhere beneath the surface of real life.

a lazy afternoon in the sun

a lazy afternoon in the sun

spring

spring

sometimes visitors come to me

sometimes visitors come to me

world famous horse outside F.M. Light and Sons in Steamboat Springs

world famous horse outside F.M. Light and Sons in Steamboat Springs

Absorbing almost a year’s worth of pharmaceuticals, chemical injections and laser sharp radiation beams for advanced stage breast cancer ages body composition by a full decade.  Swimming my way through a fog of emotional lethargy, I saw evidence of that medical fact staring back at me in the mirror.  On the face of it, I’d emerged seemingly overnight with countless wrinkles and age spots, poor skin tone, thinner hair on my head and more on my face.  There was a corresponding dullness in my heart.

over the beetle kill

over the beetle kill

The dawn of 2013 implored me to see light in the symbolic renewal of time, promise of resolutions fulfilled.  With no gladness in my heart, all I could think to do was buckle down and get to work.  Time was wasting away (look again in the mirror I reminded myself).

on the road to Lander

on the road to Lander

I plodded.  I goaded myself at every hesitant step, and the year unfurled in what turned out to be a slow and steady year of unexpected enchantments — some dark, some light, every one of them an extraordinary gift — that increased with speed until the last two months of it became a streak of time that took my breath away and pretty much stayed my ability to keep up.  By November, the best I could do was hold on for the ride, glory in the gasps of delight whooshing in and out of me, and wait for the inevitable slowing.

snow loving chicken

snow loving chicken

I began to grow up again in the year of 2013.  In some ways, in the 57th year of my life, I began to grow up for the very first time; to understand the moment had come for me to make happen the core dreams I’d been sketching, nurturing, reaching for since childhood.  It was time for the final commitment, to draw from the deepest part of myself, throw every last shred of caution in the self-doubting corners of my being out into the battering winds of the northern Rocky Mountains, to let them be carried wherever they might go in the world.

Western Slope of Spicer Peak

Western Slope of Spicer Peak

Back home for the winter after summering at Spicer Mtn.

Llamas at Coral Dawn

Buckaroo to the rescueWhere the doubt went to be pummeled and reshaped was second only to the people and animals waiting there for me.  I jetted and drove and hiked — some of it paid work, much of it a compulsive investment in wanting to bring about an imagined future.

Bodega Bay

Bodega Bay

the waterfalls of Ithaca

the waterfalls of Ithaca

Brooklyn Steps

Brooklyn Steps

From the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean in Bodega Bay to the white trimmed brick buildings of Yale just out of reach of the New England coastline; from the Canadian border to Arizona.  A blink of days and I found myself in California, Connecticut, at the waterfalls of Ithaca, on the stone steps of Brooklyn; in Maine, Oklahoma, Montana, Wyoming and Colorado like I was scouring every inch of a giant cooking pot only to pluck new ingredients along the roadsides to fill it up with a new kind of stew.

Avalanche Lake

Avalanche Lake

on the trail in Glacier National Park

on the trail in Glacier National Park

Turning around, I found myself at Avalanche Lake in Glacier National Park, in the gardens of the unincorporated kingdom of Ashland-Cherryland, beneath the towering rows of Wind River Indian Corn now growing in East New York, on the Tablelands in  Newfoundland, on the shores of the sacred Moccasin Lake in Arapaho territory.

Dig Deep Farms with winter crops overlooking Ashland-Cherryland

Dig Deep Farms with winter crops overlooking Ashland-Cherryland

Dig Deep Farms

Wind River corn in East New York

Wind River corn in East New York

people made all the difference

people made all the difference

the community building that houses offices for East New York Farms!

the community building that houses offices for East New York Farms!

 

on the Tablelands of Newfoundland

on the Tablelands of Newfoundland

Where the continental plates collided.

Where the continental plates collided.

the return to Moccasin Lake

the return to Moccasin Lake

unexpected friends

unexpected friends

In between, I walked across an uneven piece of land in Laramie begging to be saved from development and seducing me with dreams of seeing gardens grow there, then spent weeks moving dust across the floors and off the walls of the historic building in LaBonte Park that will become a home to community work.

Colorado skies

Colorado skies

a new home for Feeding Laramie Valley

a new home for Feeding Laramie Valley

gardening in Laramie, Wyoming

gardening in Laramie, Wyoming

I crawled through fencing Kiana had jumped and been injured by at the base of Spicer peak because elk or bear or cat had scared the llamas on their summer mountain.  I went with llamas to Shawnee and Estes Park and Colorado Springs, for llamas to Albany.  Llamas came home to me with illness and need, llamas left me because it was their time.  The Forest Service called me into the North Park backcountry to save a young llama wandering there just days before hunting season was to begin.  Birds arrived to be rescued, an invisible cat moved onto my little ranch to hide yet cry at night to be fed.  There were days of crows and hawks and the new species of doves that arrived without explanation.

hugging a champion

hugging a champion

driving llamas

driving llamas

pre-show bathing

pre-show bathing

llamas on parade

llamas on parade

It isn’t really possible to scrapbook or album or stream a year as extraordinary as the one that took me away from cancer and loss to whip the blindfold from my face and push me off in the direction of what I most need to learn.  In 2013 I was humbled and humiliated and honored and most often of all given love through lessons from people at the center of my days and more I’m only beginning to know.  At each of the places I was whisked away to and dropped off for a momentary visit, there was someone with something important to share and teach.

changing the world

changing the world

reaching for the prize

reaching for the prize

greenhouses of Cornell

greenhouses of Cornell

For most of my life, I’ve journeyed around the world alone, the air-kissing brevity of on-the-road relationships my preference.  In 2013, there was someone waiting for me or accompanying me on every trip I took.  And that made all the difference.  It was the demands of and gifts from other people that kept me from losing site of a distant horizon.

It wasn’t really a new path I embarked on, nor or a change in direction.  It was at last a maturing of the courage I needed to shout out at the spotlight of personal exposure, “Here.  Here I am.  This is what I imagine.  This is what I believe in.  This is what I want.  Take it or leave it, here it is — this idea, this deed, this work of art.”

bounty from East New Yokr

bounty from East New York

Gardens 4 Humanity

Gardens 4 Humanity

Tompkins County farming

Tompkins County farming

young Ithaca women of passion

young Ithaca women of passion

I could not have predicted the great privilege of travel and adventure that came to me last year: the chance to see up close the extraordinary work of meaning being done by so many people, the way my writing came back to me, a new depth of connection to the land, animals and humans who roam it.

Jack London Square in Oalkand

Jack London Square in Oakland

ranching men of North Park

ranching men of North Park

 Coalmont schoolhouse returns to life

Coalmont schoolhouse returns to life

It isn’t that everything has become easy or beautiful.  I’m rough and ill prepared enough to find myself frequently falling short or falling flat.  I’m saddled with mind numbing debt for years to come.  Cancer is now a personal specter as well as a universal one.  I still live in a junkyard.

But the point, of course, is that I’m still living.  And writing.  And loving.  And being loved.  If that’s not a great starting point for any new year, I can’t imagine what is.

looking out on North Park

looking out on North Park

Posted in Animals, Cancer, Life, Llamas, Writing | 7 Comments

Historic

 Coalmont Schoolhouse in September, 2013


Coalmont Schoolhouse in September, 2013

moving cows, extracting oil, and loving a rural schoolhouse

The first time I really saw the Coalmont Schoolhouse, my legs were quivering with muscle fatigue on both sides of the round-barreled palomino called Goldie.  Topping the final rise and following the dirt road where it curved to give us a sweeping view of the Zirkel mountain range wilderness, my knees cried in protest against the stiff stirrup leathers designed for and broken in by some large cowboy, back when I was bobbing up and down on a flat English saddle at a Pony Club rally in Fairfield County, Connecticut.

Goldie and I were surrounded by a hundred cows and calves, all of them bellowing because the calves were hungry and the cows were sore from the chafing of their overfull bladders.  It was early June.  The sagebrush gave up its perfume as little balls of snow melted from their leaves and woody stems, and the calves slid precariously on the slippery mud of the road.  Around the edges of the cold air, the sun had pushed through the clouds to joyfully burn us in the way it can at an undulating elevation of 8000’ – 9000’ above sea level.

We’d come a dozen miles cross country from Spicer Peak so the 56 pairs Gene and Sharon were running that year could spend a couple of months picking at tufts of grass in the Coalmont basin.  For the first five or six miles, I rode the herd at the flank and rear, pushing reluctant heifers nervous about their first-borns, chiding casual grazers for slowing things down.  Goldie knew the job and carried it out in an impatient way, disdainful of my Eastern bred riding skills.  She dashed back and forth dispatching with uncooperative cows, rearing and hopping on her hind legs if I sat too hard in the saddle.

Eventually unnerved by my horse’s hi-ho Silver approach to work, I moved to the head of the herd where it turned out I was responsible for jumping off Goldie every half mile or so, opening a gate to let the cows, horses and cowboys stream through, pulling closed the vicious barbed wire barrier behind us, then scrambling back into my saddle while Goldie spun in circles.

Once my body began its low hum of a prelude to screaming pain, stop, get off, lie down on the ground and weep, I figured out that the best place to ride while moving cows a long distance cross country, is in the middle of the herd.  Cows in the middle are resigned to the inevitability of their trek, requiring little correction or encouragement, and someone else is in charge of leadership responsibilities like opening gates, repelling other herds grazing along the way, watching for traffic on any roads traversed.

Which is why I was surrounded by cows the first time I saw the schoolhouse in a meaningful way.  After the miles down from Spicer Peak and the long, gradual climb away from the highway to Steamboat Springs, after tipping up over the ridge, it appeared below, a shining commemoration of what was once a thriving community of 200 coal mining residents and their families, until an underground fire destroyed nearly everything in Coalmont except that schoolhouse.  It was our terminus.  Once the cows and calves were set free on a couple thousand acres of sparse basin-land grazing, we were scheduled to have lunch there.

The older cows recognized the view.  They rolled into a choppy jog, their heads nodding against the wind coming straight at them.  Down we streamed toward the one-room Coalmont Schoolhouse and its attached teacherage, where Gene had ridden his horse every day from the family ranch nearby, and received his formal education through the eighth grade.  Faded but sturdy, swallows diving in and out of the mud nests they’d built in the eave over the front door, it beamed at us with memory and promise.

Gene on his chestnut cutting horse and his brother Bob on his old gray mare, led the way.  Sharon, after driving the security vehicle for the mile we had to move the herd down the middle of the two-lane county highway, had gone ahead to park the truck beside the schoolhouse steps and unpack our lunch.  I could see her opening coolers, setting out dishes and utensils, methodically reaching up and over the hand painted sign hung on the tailgate.  SLOW COWS, it read in warning to the few cars and trucks we’d met on the highway.

Goldie started to jig.  She too knew what it meant to reach the schoolhouse.  With every painful bounce off that round back of hers, I clung to the knowledge I would soon be sitting still in the schoolhouse yard.  We drew up alongside Sharon’s truck.  The cows eased their pace and a few calves grabbed for milk from their mothers’ swollen teats.  Goldie settled down to a walk and tugged on the reins in a suggestion she be allowed to graze.  But Gene and Bob showed no sign of stopping.  They waved at Sharon, rounded the south side of the schoolhouse, passed the pair of outhouses behind it, and headed out through the sagebrush.

It was another mile and a half to the gate through which we herded the cows and calves toward the base of Pole Mountain and left them there.  It felt more like a hundred.  The schoolhouse shrank back into the distance, and I was consumed by another first experience with that old building — a brief taste of what it could feel like to lose it.

An hour later when the calves were far away drinking their mothers’ milk, and the horses grazed while dragging the reins of their bridles across the ground, I found shade by leaning against the front door of the schoolhouse.  We drank watery lemonade and ate sandwiches, potato salad, cole slaw, beans and pickles, then soaked up the last traces of it with enormous pieces of soft yellow cake while Gene talked about the teachers who lived at the schoolhouse, who taught the local children, who rarely lasted more than a year — the most unforgettable being the man who kept order in class by wearing a pistol on his belt.

Perched on a splintered step between droppings from bats and swallows, my body unwound from a day of riding Goldie.  Through the buzz of muscle pain and sunburn came the voices of people talking about a life I once thought was only lived in a fictional past — a slow moving life they continued to experience every day.  The building I leaned against felt as warm from the history it contained as it did from the early day’s sun now beginning to sink west.

A couple of years after my first lunch at the Coalmont Schoolhouse, the women of Spicer Club (the rural ranch women’s club I belonged to) got a grant to restore it and place it on the Colorado registry of historic buildings.  We and the men in our lives added an indoor composting toilet, repaired windows, cleaned with a passion, painted the outside, painted the inside, stocked up on firewood for the furnace-sized stove, turned on the electricity, put up a plaque, and invited the entire country (of North Park) to celebrate the building’s return to life.  From 30 to 40 miles away and more, people came to the spring flea market and the Christmas parties we held.

While children ran around the classroom, shedding little bits of themselves for the schoolhouse to gather up, their elders talked about the missing houses and store, the ghost of the railroad that transported coal from Coalmont to Laramie and beyond, and about how the mine fires took it all then continued to burn underground for more years than they could remember.  The generations in the middle listened to the same stories over and over again until we could feel them rising up from the earth itself, through the worn floorboards beneath our feet, and into our beings until it seemed as if we ourselves had lived the entire history.

As the 1990s drew to a close, so did my ability to live 110 miles from a job that paid me enough to live on.  I packed up my North Park dreams, put them in storage, and left the country to live just over the Wyoming border in Laramie.  It wasn’t until I lost my home and my job, and my body began to grow cancer, that I found my way back to Hebron, the pause in the road just north of Coalmont.

When I saw the schoolhouse again this fall, it was as strong as ever, but its historic life was once again dormant.  Brush had taken over the path to its front door, windows had fallen open to the weather, and mice were the only ones partying inside.  Cows no longer come from Spicer Peak to spend the summer near the schoolhouse.  Instead, small homesteading ranches with log barns and brave little greenhouses sit above the burned out mines, claiming a new determination to survive frontier living made less isolated by the satellite dishes mounted on their roofs.

Once again, the ground of Coalmont is being mined for riches.  This time, for the oil a mile down and across and through the veins of its ancient rocks.  Beside the pretty little ranchettes and in the middle of the large old family tracts now owned by corporations, are pumps and flames and massive gray storage tanks all connected by pipelines and powerlines.  In September, the Spicer Club accepted a $150 payment from the oil company for the oil they will extract from beneath the Coalmont Schoolhouse.  We did it because we knew they would take the oil whether we gave permission or not.  We did it in exchange for a binding legal directive that forbids them access to the one acre of surface land surrounding the building.

In spite of the challenges, the changes, or maybe because of them, the schoolhouse has begun calling to us again — those of us who’ve returned, those who never left, those who have yet to hear even one of the stories that used to be told every time our far flung community gathered for a party.  A few weeks ago, Sharon, Windi, Kathy and I spent a Saturday cleaning the school.  At noon, huddled up to the hot wood stove that only smoked a little, we shared a big lunch sent by Cindy who couldn’t be there but wanted to help.

We ate and remembered — Sharon from a childhood whose future husband went to school there, Windi from growing up in a place that gave her marriage and family supported by ranching on horseback while the rest of the world roared with a technology that didn’t reach here until it was old news.  While we put away lunch leftovers, Kathy went outside to dig up the mound of ancient mountain grass that had seeded itself in the middle of the path to the front door.  She would save it, the wild grass, transplanting it where it wouldn’t block our passage to the schoolhouse.

Today I’m printing up flyers Cindy and I created.  In a few weeks, we’re having a meeting at her house.  A meeting to plan the next phase of life for the Coalmont Schoolhouse.  There’s talk of dances, writing workshops, birding seminars.  But first, we’ll start with a Christmas party in December.  Someone said we could pay for it with the money from the oil company.  Actually, it will be paid for by the human need to hang onto history while we’re still here, hoping to make a place in it for ourselves, in a way someone else can see it when we’re gone.

 

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The Birds Keep Getting Bigger – Part II

 rooster in the sunshine


rooster in the sunshine

The spring of 2013 arrived without a single bird sharing living or barn space with me.  In spite of the sorrow and emptiness left behind when my animal companions cross over, I work hard at not actively looking for ways to fill the void with another animal.  The biggest reason I’m successful at keeping this resolution (aside from what should be the obvious motivator of living with lots and lots of others), is that animals have a habit of finding me.

Birds have been no exception.  Last May, while I was busy with work related travel, and Don was commuting to my place daily to take care of everything at the ranch, a note was left on my door.

I need a home for my chickens, it said.  There are 20 of them.  Two roosters and 18 hens.  They are my sweet pets and I love them, but I’m moving to Steamboat Springs and they need a new home as soon as possible.  Would you take them?

Chickens.   I live in the middle of coyote, fox and weasel country.  I have to travel a lot to pay for the privilege, and am not home every night to shut a flock of chickens safely into a coop.  But finding the note was almost as compelling as finding a pigeon blown into a nearby snow bank.

On May 11, I cajoled Don into taking a ride about six miles down the road to meet the pet chickens.  Just to look.  Just to let me ask questions and think about maybe helping out with a home for a few of them.

As we pulled into the yard of the narrow trailer I’d been directed to, I could feel my own sinking feeling matched by the heavy silence coming from Don.  Lost hope rose up from the remnants of trash, empty beer cans and rotting garbage littering the path to the back door.  Defeat tugged at the edges of the eyes of the couple who greeted us.  Having just come from my own enormous, scattered junkyard of a place, I felt humbled by how the people coming down off the rickety back stairs were enveloped in a kind of barrenness I would never know regardless of how difficult my life might become.

While greeting the man and woman who perked up at our presence, I kept trying to find the chicken coop out of the corner of my eye.  I’d spoken with the woman by phone a couple of days earlier.  She’d reiterated how sweet and adored her flock of chickens was.  She’d assured me they’d built shelter that was predator proof for her beautiful birds.  I would be welcome to take pieces of it with me if that would help.  All I could see now that I was actually there, was muddy sagebrush, a small open corral full of horse manure (thankfully empty of horses), and a tiny tool shed leaning into an embankment a few yards away.

“They don’t look as beautiful right now as they did last summer,” the woman told us.  “They’re molting.”

Then, predictably, she and the man led us to the tiny tool shed.  There, behind three twisted tin walls and a door on the end made from a patchwork design of construction cloth and chicken wire, was the flock.  They stood on a three-foot high mound of manure, pressed tightly against each other in an area no larger than three feet wide and four feet long.  Twelve square feet for 20 chickens who, we learned, hadn’t left the confines of that space since arriving there a year earlier.

“It wouldn’t be safe,” we were told.  “We have weasels.”  By way of proof, the woman stepped away, dug into a pile of trash, and pulled out a dead weasel.  “I killed it,” she said.  Nothing was going to hurt her beloved chickens.

Don and I were silent and transfixed as the man opened the door to the shed.  The chickens immediately rushed to the far corner, piling madly on top of one another, and stared out at us.  Almost all of them were nearly featherless and raw.  Several had lost their combs.  The crowded conditions had led inevitably to compulsive pecking of each other, not molting.

“They’re so sweet,” the woman was saying.  “I used to hold them and pet them all the time.  I’d go in there and show you, but I don’t want to step on that filthy floor.”

She and the man continued to chat about how much they loved those chickens, and about how much they were going to miss them when they moved to Steamboat Springs.  I couldn’t seem to speak.  The excursion had suddenly changed from a “let’s just go see them and do a little research about what it would take to have chickens here,” to “I have to get these birds out of here right now.”

I didn’t say anything out loud.  I had no coop, I already prevailed on Don’s help far too much, I wasn’t even sure how to get the chickens out of there.

“We’ll be back in a couple of hours,” I heard Don say over my private, internal reverie.  “I just need to get a place set up in Gayle’s barn.”

That was the beginning of the great chicken rescue.  We climbed back into my truck.

“You just rescued 20 chickens,” I said as soon as the doors were shut.

“I was only saying out loud what I knew you were thinking,” he said.  But his claim was pointless.  As far as I was concerned, Don had become a hero to chickens.

True to his word, in less that two hours Don turned a 10’ x 20’ section of my barn into a chicken coop.  When we went back for the chickens themselves, their owners were nowhere to be found, their pickup truck gone.  I’d brought Hercules’ giant one-time puppy crate and a cat carrier with us.  With Don as door guard, I held my breath, bent myself in half, and stepped gingerly onto the mountain of chicken manure.  I’d never caught a chicken in my life, but I slid across the slimy slope under my feet and one by one, grabbed up a chicken then gently pushed it through the kennel door Don was operating for me.  I dodged several dozen uncollected eggs, stepped over a half buried empty food tray and around a rusting, bone dry water trough.  Sometime in recent memory, the challenges in the lives of the people who claimed to love these chickens, had swallowed them up.  My heartache and anger were tempered only by the knowledge of the trouble they’d taken to find a good home for the birds they could no longer care for.

Throughout the summer, the chickens spent nights in their large airy coop.  It took several weeks for them to learn they didn’t need to pile on top of one another in the corner to sleep, but once they caught on to the pleasure of the multiple layers of perches Don set up for them, they began to spread out in luxury.  During the daytime, they wandered throughout the rest of the barn.  The first day I invited them to do so, they ran to the spots of sunshine on the floor and threw themselves into them, spreading feet and wings in every direction, literally sighing with obvious delight.

 450 square feet of predator-proof chicken yard, complete with buried carpenter cloth, outside door secure with cement ledge and hawk/eagle safe wire roof


450 square feet of predator-proof chicken yard, complete with buried carpenter cloth, outside door secure with cement ledge and hawk/eagle safe wire roof

One of the chickens died the day after she came to her new home.  One of the roosters was adopted by a free range egg farmer in Southeastern Wyoming who had been actively looking for a rooster to live with her 100 hens.  As summer comes to its characteristically sudden close, Don has put finishing touches on the fully predator proof, 450 square foot yard the chickens can access from their coop.  For further protection, the operation sits squarely in the middle of all the llamas.

Friends contribute fresh vegetable scraps that the hens come running for to my outstretched hands.  The rooster pushes through the scrap container while I hold it, looking for fruit.  Next summer, once Hercules understands he’s not to chase them, they’ll be able to spend time roaming the ranch when I’m around to watch them.

For now, every day, the chickens give thanks with a dozen or more eggs of various colors.  My commitment to compassionate eating, my deeply vegan heart, has had no trouble enjoying these offerings.

 Laramie-local veggies and happy eggs


Laramie-local veggies and happy eggs

 baked and cooling frittata


baked and cooling frittata

 unusual but compassionate meal for a heartfelt vegan


unusual but compassionate meal for a heartfelt vegan

 

 

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Gifts from the Deep Slowness of Reading, Writing and Life

 what worked best was the good stuff


what worked best was the good stuff

In August, I donated a half dozen books to a fundraising sale.  Except for the holes it made in the stacks and rows and uneven piles of vintage volumes, dog-eared paperbacks and pricey hardcover bestsellers, nothing else changed about the towering library surrounding my bed and spilling across my entire bedroom— the one built to sustain me through treatment for advanced breast cancer.

I own, and treasure, far more than the several dozen books in my cancer-induced library.  Yet I haven’t done a thing about merging the collections.  It’s occurred to me that remaining surrounded by the books I read during treatment reminds me of one of the few gifts that year gave me.

Reading while sick and in pain acted like a slow, rich balm.  It eased me away from the physical raging of toxins versus malignancy going on beneath my skin.  With sweet insistence it not only gave me a break, it forced me to dig deeper in a search for meaning and purpose in the face of life threatening disease.

What worked best was the good stuff; writing in which every sentence was well crafted, not one word was spent on anything less than moving the story forward with strategic beauty.  That meticulousness is what created the slowing — of the reading itself, of my thinking, my emotions, my personal life journey.

As has happened often throughout my life, receiving such gifts made me grateful to their authors.  Which meant the gifts also came with new friends.  As Carolyn Heilbrun wrote in her collection of essays called The Final Gift of Time:

“To find unmet friends, one must be a reader, and not an infrequent one. … Women, I believe, search for fellow beings who have faced similar struggles, conveyed them in ways a reader can transform into her own life, confirmed desires the reader had hardly acknowledged — desires that now seem possible.  Women catch courage from the women whose lives and writings they read, and women call the bearer of that courage friend.”

If it’s done well, writing too gives the gift of slowness.  I’ve been struggling with a chapter I’m writing for Saving Elizabeth.  Having met, spent time, worked with dozens of extraordinary people who made it possible to rescue so many neglected animals from the Montana Large Animal Sanctuary, I’m intimidated by the task I’ve given myself in writing the story of it.

How do I capture the raw magnitude of love and strength required of the people who stared down cruelty embedded in the faces of starving llamas and crippled horses, who went up against death threats and bureaucratic quagmires, who had to ignore the shattering of their own hearts in order to end hopeless suffering?

Translating the unimaginable into words is difficult enough as a report, a simple telling.  Harder still is fashioning those words so they transform events into literature that challenges its readers to feel, understand, make changes in the world.  Through weeks of struggling with Saving Elizabeth, I’ve resisted the slowing of the writing process that makes it go deep enough to brush the edges of art.

Then I began to read The Selected Letters of Willa Cather.  There, in the meticulously chosen and assembled letters written a century ago by one of my most treasured unmet friends, I was reminded of the essential value of slowing down, of going deep.  Even as she tangled with insecurity and doubt, first loving then hating her own books destined to became national treasures, she worked it through.  Of My Antonia, she wrote:

“…when I finished it the waters of bitterness simply closed over my head.  When I finished the proofs it seemed to me that nothing—simply nothing had got across.  When I wrote to you I wasn’t on speaking terms with the book, and I was trying to forget it.  Now when people like you like it, I feel better about it.  You see I liked it at first, while I was writing it, and then in the proofs it seemed a gray waste of dullness.  It came out while I was at home and my father said it was all so exactly the way he remembered it, that I began to feel encouraged.”

selected letters of willa cather

It’s in the slowing of things that I find my way back to the very soul of what my days and nights have to offer.  Far beneath the surface of things, there I find it through reading, writing and the complicated process of living.

Lately, I’ve been pushing hard to make good on dreams I’ve carried for years, to earn the money needed to recover from crushing life-disaster-related debt and to feed rescued animals and myself.  Other than a few hours in the morning and a few more at night doing daily chores, I’ve watched over the top of my computer and through the windows at other people doing much of the endless work needed on this crumbling ranch.  I’m constantly finding, hiring, calling in people to replace essential equipment like furnaces and showers and faucets; to deliver hay, fix disabled machinery, keep the aging truck and llama trailer road worthy.

Then yesterday, Don sighed over my brilliant idea of using a giant, 30’ x 50’ heavy duty tarp to cover the roof and back of one of the barns that’s been leaking like a sieve.  It will be at least a couple of years before I can begin to think about having the barn renovated.  In the meantime, the animals need shelter that actually shelters them.

“I can’t believe the kind of ideas you come up with,” Don said.  “I seriously doubt this will work, but if you’re going to make me do it, you’re going to have to help.”

 temporary barn roofing and siding project underway


temporary barn roofing and siding project underway

Which is how yesterday itself became a gift of slowness.  For six hours, Don and I minced our way across the crumbling roof of one of the barns that houses llamas, chickens, and Destiny.  We wrestled 40 pounds of tarp that rose and whipped in the wind, then baked in the sun when the air was quiet.  Inch by inch, we tacked it down with pieces of lath and staples fired from the pneumatic stapler I recently invested in.

For long stretches of time, my only job was to sit still holding down the tarp and gaze out over the fields at the llamas.  I watched Buckaroo lope across the hay meadow of the neighboring ranch and an hour later wander through the willows below me.  Every so often a pang of stress ran over the surface of my mind, reminding me of deadlines and work sitting inside on my desk.  Then Don would need me to straighten the tarp, or run a longer extension cord, or the chickens would call to me from their yard.  Again, everything around and inside of me would slow down.

 tarp still in place after thunderstorm


tarp still in place after thunderstorm

barn room with new tarp still in place

rain water captured

When evening came, the rains returned.  I worked inside for a while, renewed energy and insight finding its way into the documents blinking at me from my computer screen.  The showers subsided at sunset, giving me a chance to work a few obstacles and take a little run with Thumper.

Thumper ready for a workout

Thumper ready for a workout

I also checked on the status of the temporary roofing/siding project.  In the barn, for the first time in weeks, the floor was dry.  So were the roosting chickens and Destiny’s tall, bay toned back.  Outside, the tarp remained where we had put it, offering a tentative promise to hold steady for the winter, slowing down time and in the process opening up space for new and future possibilities.  Heading back to my work and the push, push, push for accomplishment, I felt as if space had opened up for me as well.  I felt light.  And slow.  And ready to return to the unfinished chapter waiting for me.

 

Posted in Animals, Life, Montana Llama Rescue, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

The Birds Keep Getting Bigger – Part I

 Widget and rescued feral disabled kitten Comet eye each other from a safe distance


Widget and rescued feral disabled kitten Comet eye each other from a safe distance

When I was in elementary school, my teacher gave us an assignment for science class that lasted several months.  We were to find an active bird nest, watch it every day, and record the activity of its inhabitants in a wide-lined journal book.  That’s how I fell in love with birds.

First I watched a pair of goldfinches build a nest then abandon it and disappear.  (I can only hope my eager surveillance of their work wasn’t the cause of their move.)  Then I found a pair of nesting robins who ignored my presence and went about their business laying eggs, hatching them, feeding the babies and guiding their growth from fledging to independence.  I was enraptured by the entire process.

The formative experience did not turn me into a birdwatcher in the sense of “have scope and life list, will travel.”  I own a few bird books, but they aren’t particularly worn because it’s easier and more fun to call my birdwatching friends Lina or Jane and ask them to tell me what kind of bird I’ve just spotted.

My love of birds is a simple case of awe when an owl circles my head, a baby bluebird survives the perils of leaving the nest, a red-winged blackbird imitates the hum of the llamas in its field.

Sometimes there’s complexity in my relationships with birds.  Like the gray gander known as Junior.  Junior fell in love with a different llama each year, following her around the pastures, posturing adoringly while she casually ignored him.  His adoration would compel him to charge at me if I tried to come between him and his love object, until we worked it out.  If he started to charge, I bent down to face him and said, “Mind your manners.”  To which he would respond with an apologetic bow and respectful back stepping.

Joining Junior a few years later were the four white domestic geese I agreed to adopt when their owner threatened to shoot them because they made too much noise, but who were delivered to me by a man who tied them up in burlap sacks, flung them onto his flatbed truck and drove drunk in freezing weather for six hours to bring them to me.  Three of the geese stumbled into my barnyard, dazed and hypothermic, to spend the next dozen years on the llama ranch with Junior.  The fourth adopted goose, the driver told me, had fallen off the truck en route.

But it was a pigeon who changed my life.  It fluttered out of a nest in my horse barn and set about trying to survive the hazardous first days of a bird’s life on its own.  But a drooping wing prevented flight.  I try to maintain a “let it be” attitude when it comes to nature and wildlife, but when I found the fully feathered but still just peeping pigeon huddled behind a set of barn tools hiding from one of my rescued cats, I intervened.  Which is how Widget became a key player in my life.

My hope was that rest and gradual rehabilitation would return Widget to the natural world.  However, although the bird was immediately happy to eat up the high quality seed mixes I fed her, any effort at flight eluded her for months.  All she was able to accomplish was frantic spinning in place with no liftoff.  But determination and time were on her side, and within six months she was capable of flying around my home office, lighting on bookshelves, filing cabinets, chair backs, and then to my great delight, my head.  Where she would sit for long periods carefully grooming my hair.

In spite of Widget’s achievement of controlled flight, her reaction time for becoming airborne remained slow and made it clear she couldn’t manage life in the wild.  The two of us settled into her enjoying my large office during the day and being quietly content in the large cage where she nested at night.

It was when Widget started laying eggs that I knew she was a she.  The evolution brought out what seemed like a warm, maternal side to the bird who offered what would become nearly ten years of devoted demonstrations of affection to me.  Beyond the hair dressing routine, she cooed loudly as soon as she heard me stir in the morning, called me to her with a kind of purring sound when I was nearby, and buried her beak between my fingers in what I could only interpret as a pigeon hug.

The sweet friendship and contented life Widget and I shared was not, however, appreciated by my partner.  The woman I lived with was unhappy about the addition of this feathered companion to our home.  Then she was furious.  Then she began a long campaign for “getting rid of” Widget, which included the tactic of letting me know that the vast majority of people in the world considered having a pigeon in the house a mark of insanity (which, even if the undocumented assertion was indeed true, and much to her frustration, did not bother me).

In the end, I was up against a choice: it was the pigeon or my partner of a dozen years.  One of them had to go.  Considering the level of appreciation, acceptance and affection offered by Widget, I was relieved to finally have a clear vision of what path I should head down next.

Following our joint flirtation with homelessness and a year in temporary shelter provided by friends, Widget came to the mountains of North Park with me and all the other assorted critters I was responsible for.  For two more years, she cooed me awake, took care of my hair, claimed the spare room for flight time.  She fretted over my chemo-rendered bald head, gave dozens of pigeon hugs a day, and never once made me regret choosing her over an unhappy home life.  My broken heart when she died a year ago was as profound and surprising as the joy and courage she brought to my world.

Birds simultaneously embody both ends of the spectrum that stretches between vulnerability and strength, from their staggering power of flight to the tender fragility of their bodies.  Their keen view of the world sharpens my own sight.  It seems as if a call to transformation is carried on the breezes pushed down and out by their wings.

On New Year’s Day in 2011, a second pigeon came on the scene.  It was a bitterly cold, snowy morning here at Coral Dawn Ranch.  Sitting on a drifted snow bank outside the north end of the llama barn was a pigeon that at first glance was so identical to Widget, I spent a bewildered moment wondering how she’d gotten from the house to the barn.  Between the stormy weather and the fact that there are no pigeons here at the base of the Zirkel mountains, I had a hard time absorbing the reality of this pigeon’s presence.  I stooped over stiffly in my heavy winter clothes and reached for it.  The pigeon made a half-hearted attempt to fly into the barn, then collapsed into my hands.

It would take a couple of days for this pigeon to recover from the cold, and much longer to recover from the trauma of its life as a racing pigeon blown off course.  The band around its leg was the key to what little life history I would ever know about the bird before it dropped from the sky and into my barnyard.  The leg band told me what racing association the bird was registered with, that it was little more than a year old, and that it had come from Louisiana.  My friend Christine immediately dubbed this second pigeon Racing Gumbo.

Gumbo spent just a year with Widget and me, succumbing too soon to what I could only imagine was the result of a weakened constitution.  In that year, Gumbo went from the cozy warmth of a pet carrier for recovery, on to a private cage, and finally into an enormous aviary cage shared with Widget at night after the two of them spent their days flying and perching around the designated flight room.

In the beginning, Widget did not approve of Gumbo.  She pecked at the poor bird’s head if it got too close, otherwise ignoring its presence with an unloving cold shoulder.  Then Gumbo laid an egg of her own, an act that melted Widget’s heart.  They became very close after that, sharing nesting duties and cage cleanup, and snuggled closely together at night.  When Gumbo died a dozen months later, Widget was quiet and slow for several weeks.  There’s an unwritten essay in one of my files with the working title “Do Pigeons Grieve?”

Widget stayed with me until the fall of 2012.  In early September, she began to stumble, gave her special brand of hugs less frequently, stopped eating, and finally fell silent.  Nothing will ever replace the soft comfort of the cooing that woke me in the morning for a decade.

Pigeons are not beloved in the human world.  My special connection to one in particular puts me in the company of a rare group of people considered less than well balanced — a group of which I’m proud to be a member.  For some reason I have no need or desire to question, birds have served as guides for me throughout my life.  Widget especially guided me during a long painful time when I was having trouble finding my way back to a self that was fading.  My memory of her will also forever remind me that one can never know where, or in what form, the next source of salvation will be found.

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Staying Afloat on the Waves of Change

 Thumper's View


Thumper’s View

Over the last few weeks, I’ve taken more than a dozen pictures of the same view.  In each photograph the sky is a different color, the clouds a different shape.  The butte in the foreground and the mountains behind trade places of importance depending on the reach of the shadows that grace them.

Still, the photograph I like best is the one I look at almost every night — the one of the llama I call Thumper, gazing out across that view as if he owns it.  I snapped the shot soon after his herd mates and I moved here desperate for simple food and shelter, grateful beyond belief for the added bonus of breathtaking beauty if we looked in the right direction.

I photograph that scene over and over again, because soon the power company will be erecting a power line across the entire length of it.  A power line to bring convenient electricity to the oil wells sprouting up around me.

Turn, turn, turn — a song to mark my generation, my spinning search for view, the dizzying flight of never ending change.  Seeking purpose, grounding, contentment.  Seeking strength, courage, commitment.  Forever seeking love.  I’m tireless in my seeking, and so often successful in moments of finding these things.  But it’s the continuous grind of change I don’t manage well.  The way life pushes back against every personal step of advancement is the great threat to my perpetual hope for a soft and permanent landing.

When I first came back to North Park, only able to afford the lease on rich pastureland for the animals I live with by settling myself in an ancient trailer in the middle of a junkyard, the filth, debris and general lack of material comfort pushed me to my limit of tolerance.  Then, a month later, the drillers and frackers came to put an oil well less than a mile from my bedroom window. I was sure the earth-raping process and the resulting toxic flame burning with the same eternal intensity of an Olympic torch, would be the end of me.

Somehow I survived the fossil fuel neighbor, mouse infestations, barn renovations, drought, advanced cancer, the 35°, then 40°, then 48° below zero temperatures, the summer wildfires licking at North Park’s peaks.  I stepped up and slid down and strengthened my climbing muscles.  The Park, its inhabitants, and I, fell in love again.  Hope returned to my vocabulary and my existence.

Then came Halliburton.  The mega monster of the energy industry.  The same company that for decades denied it was poisoning workers with asbestos, then settled out of court 30 years later.  The same company that, under the direction of Dick Cheney, failed to report key accounting procedure changes in order to mislead investors regarding profit margins.  The same company that recently pleaded guilty to destruction of critical evidence related to the death of workers on the oil rig that spewed the largest accidental oil spill in history into the ocean.  That Halliburton came to North Park this year.

The sandy slopes of my personal life climb now slip along the oily back of a corporate giant.  First to the south, then the west, then the north and soon the east, new oil wells have come.  Bigger, deeper, louder, more powerful, because they are being created by Halliburton.  Thumper’s view, my view, is dotted with the yellow of burning gas, the gray and tan of oil tanks, the white lines of plastic water pipes that run for miles between newly fracked wells.  Now I not only live in a junkyard, I live in the middle of an oil field.

It’s hard not to panic.  Harder to be able to sleep.  What internal process can make this work for me?  What’s my job as an individual and as a citizen of the world?  Casting around for answers, my options range from ignore it to cut my losses and run.

Talking about the expanding oil fields of North Park with the people here is like navigating a minefield of need and naïvete.  It doesn’t help for me to argue with the cashier at the Conoco station over her joy at Halliburton’s arrival because “we need something here.”  It’s a relief to share stories of betrayal with my hairdressing, ranching friend down the road, but it doesn’t stop the sound of drilling or the blight and pollution on the landscape.

 Oil drilling rig on the north side of Thumper's View


Oil drilling rig on the north side of Thumper’s View

Most hazardous of all are my conversations with the people who own the land I live on, who are part of my family of choice, who saved my life and that of my animals when we were all homeless.  They want to believe in energy production as salvation.  They need to believe it.  They rant over the fact that no oil has been found on their land, that no royalty payments will be coming their way any time soon.  Then they  startle at the sight of blinding lights flooding the Park at night and ask me what’s happening there.

But mostly, narcissistically, pathetically, the pain and worry I feel is all about me.  What message is this bringing me?  That beauty is tenuous?  That perfection of place will forever elude me?  That I am a rock, I am an island and the tides are rising all around me?  The personal drama of my responses increases with each new drilling tower erected in my line of sight.

Worse than the drama, it’s the darkness of powerlessness that makes it hard for me to breathe at times.  What can I do about Halliburton and the truth of what it stands for?  The activist blood in my veins is as limited as the oil they are forcing out of tiny crevices in the stone beneath North Park’s surface.  I will fight their arrogance by trying to stop the leasing of public lands and stealing what they don’t gain legal access to, but I’m not one of the naïve here — I know there’s little hope of stopping any of it.

Wallowing in one of those funks the other night, I brought homemade cookies to share with Gene and Sharon after checking the llamas grazing on the mountainside of their family ranch.  I didn’t want to talk about the oil wells, to argue or complain.  I just wanted to sit and listen to old stories of North Park for a while, to be transported back to a time I imagined was simple and pure.

Getting stories from these two people is easy — ask one question and out comes a history book, a biography, a memoir.  That night, over hot tea and chocolate chip cookies, Gene and Sharon talked about the feldspar mines up in King’s Canyon that were incredibly valuable during World War II and brought so many people to the Park that they built a trailer court to house them — the one that still stands today at the edge of town although the mines are closed.  They talked about the coal mines on the Park’s west side, that once fed a town but then burst into flame and destroyed everything but the schoolhouse and continued to burn for years.  Which led them veering off path to talk about all the wonderful one-room schoolhouses that educated them and the other isolated children in North Park until consolidation became the popular thing and everyone had to be bussed into town for school.

They talked and talked and talked, and I listened.  I listened and looked carefully at these people I love.  They aren’t young.  They aren’t wealthy.  They don’t travel far from home.  Town is 30 miles away and the nearest fully functioning grocery store is 60 miles away.  They live where they grew up, in a place they know very well is special.  They can talk for hours at a time about all the changes they’ve seen and lived through, very few of which were changes for the better.

I began to listen even more carefully — not for the content of their tales, but for a hint of how they survived those changes.  Very slowly, it came to me.  The obvious.  They survived by living and creating and loving in spite of it all.  Even now, elders of this far flung community, they welcome each day with resolve and purpose.  In his 80’s, his body agonized by arthritis, his eyesight and hearing all but gone, Gene is spending late summer putting up hay on the neighboring ranch of his childhood.  Sharon is close in age to her husband.  Her beautiful artistry with quilting needle and sewing machine have been put to rest by the gnarling, twisted turns her fingers have taken.  Yet she’s overseeing the construction of the home she’s dreamed of all her life – the one that will be attached to the one she and Gene live in now — the tiny, sinking log structure built in the late 1800s when her family ranch grew from a collection of failed homesteading attempts around them.

Maybe this is where I find it, the strength, courage and commitment I seek.  Maybe I find it in the quiet longevity, the opinionated determination of these two ranchers at the base of Spicer peak who no longer raise cattle but fix fencing and watch over my llamas and never once show disdain for my lifestyle nor resentment over the changes in their own.

Photos Below: 
the cabin at Wade’s Ranch, being readied for expansion

 Wade Ranch homestead cabin, built in the 1800s


Wade Ranch homestead cabin, built in the 1800s

the dooryard

the dooryard

 bunkhouse bathroom construction underway


bunkhouse bathroom construction underway

 

Sharon stand beside the spot where her dream house will be attached to the original homestead cabing

Sharon stands beside the spot where her dream house will be attached to the original homestead cabin

Posted in Animals, Cancer, Life, Llamas, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

When the Student is Ready

Percherons at Spicer


Percherons at Spicer, North Park, Colorado

There are a thousand reasons to write.  A thousand ways to do it.  Maybe more. That human beings not only stumbled across an urge to record life on Earth through writing, but also developed a means of doing so, falls for me into the category “greatest mysteries of all time.”

I didn’t choose to be a writer.  I didn’t cast around in the pool of interests that formed as I made my way through my growing up years, then ultimately select writing as the career path I wanted to take.  As far as I can tell, being a writer is an identity that traveled with me through the birth canal and stayed with me as simply and all-enveloping as my skin.  I live with myself as a package deal that always includes writer as primary personal identifier.

Not only does this influence how I navigate life, it also influences how I write.  Writing is the sun.  Everything else about me — what I feel, do, long for — revolves around that sun.  Writing is the thing.  Which means I write from the inside out.  I write through what grabs hold of me, gradually working from the core that burns with private heat, through layers that end with the writing itself being given away to float on the public domain of the universe.

None of this, however, has anything to do with perfecting high quality craft and attempting the production of valuable art.  Trying to be a skilled writer, a quality writer, is about study, practice, tenacity, sweat.  To be a successful writer … well, that lies entirely with one’s definition of success.

I haven’t had to do much to think of myself as a writer.   It comes with the territory that defines my existence.  But in pursuit of the skill and quality stuff (not to mention success), I’ve downright suffered.  As in every suffering artist cliché and myth ever invented.  And like most suffering, the rites of passage behind me are easier to parse and understand than those I face today.

When I look back over the half-century-and-counting that I’ve been writing, I realize I’ve been fortunate enough to avoid some of the common struggles writers face.  For example, being inspired has never been a problem.  I can find writing inspiration in a rock.

It’s the stuff outside my self-identified solar system of identity and motivation that snags me as effectively and painfully as the barbed wire my ranching neighbors are so fond of.  Learning to live with rejection, criticism, ridicule, misunderstanding of my work (and worse — indifference) took a very long time.  But that was nothing compared to my struggle over making connections with other writers.

I’m not talking about being in awe of, comforted by, mentored as a result of reading the works of others, all of which is maybe the greatest joy I’ve found in living a writing life.  I’m talking about making personal connections with other writers.  For support, instruction, feedback.  No matter how many times I heard or read about the importance of mentoring and peer insight, it just didn’t happen for me.  No writers’ group.  No classmates.  No uniquely qualified beta readers.  Classic isolation.

Yes, yes, there are all kinds of deep rooted psychological explanations for this that have nothing to do with me as a writer.  I thought and worried about all of them.  But then it changed.  I wrote for years and years without having another writer in my life, then one day I walked into a used bookstore in Laramie, Wyoming and met one.  Not just someone who dabbled, not one of the thousands of people who want to write a novel someday, a writer.  An award winning, published and struggling, suffering and driven, successful writer.

Melodie Edwards and her husband owned the used bookstore I drifted into, wearing dirty barn clothes and in desperate need of paying work.  They didn’t hire me on the spot.  They made me (along with a dozen young, eager university students) take a seven page written test on literary classics and modern paperback mysteries, then submit to an hour-long interview.  In the end, I think they hired me because all three of us had lived in and were in love with North Park, Colorado.  It would be a long time before I learned that both Melodie and I were in the middle of writing novels that took place there.

Even though Melodie was quite a bit younger than me, I was nonetheless shy about talking writing with her.  We eased into the process like a newly dating couple hoping to discover common interests and a spark of attraction between us, terrified of the knowledge that heartbreak was the most likely outcome.  This is how it is with writers talking about our work (those of us who write from the inside out, who can’t always figure out the difference between our core identity and our writing craft.)

That was the first major thing I learned from Melodie.  She taught me that the raw vulnerability of exposing to the world not one’s writing, but the personal process behind it, is part of living a writing life.  She taught by daring to share her own efforts.

Without knowing it, Melodie became the classmates, writing group, peer I’d never had.  For years, I fed off our talk of publishing challenges and revision nightmares.  When I finally finished my third draft of Boundary Park, she offered to read it.  What she also didn’t know was that other than agents and editors, hardly anyone had ever read one of my works of fiction.  While I had learned to brave the waters of professional review and critique, I’d yet to submit myself to personal feedback prior to publication.  The very act of having a piece put into print seemed to shield me from everything I feared in the idea of allowing someone I knew read a raw manuscript.  So, if it wasn’t published, no one in my personal world had read it.

By then, Melodie was more than just someone I knew.  She was a writer I knew.  A writing instructor I knew.  An award winning author I knew.  A friend whose knowledge base, taste, personal opinion I admired.  I handed her my 600 page manuscript and stopped breathing for a week.

The second major thing I learned from Melodie is that having one’s writing reviewed and critiqued by a writer you admire and who is also a person you like a lot, is wonderful.  It’s like watching your baby be loved and cared for by someone else.  Every reaction, suggestion, inserted word and gentle questioning that came from Melodie, injected me with validation.  Not an assurance that I had created an extraordinary work of fiction, but that everything I was trying to accomplish as a writer was worthy of her time and expertise.  She  made me feel, made me know, that who I was trying to be in the world was worthwhile.

Melodie Edwards laid the groundwork for my ability to learn from others in a way I hadn’t been able to before that.  She made me brave on a whole new level.  Brave enough to sign up for an instructional writing retreat with a memoirist and poet whose work I’d been devouring and falling in love with for a long time.

In 2009, I took money from a friend who offered to sponsor me, carved out time away from a busy job, arranged for care on the home front in spite of my partner’s outraged disapproval, and flew to Spain to learn about the art of writing memoir from Judith Barrington.

Judith Barrington is a notable literary figure.  Her circle of friends talk about writing the way I imagine Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama might talk about politics.  The way Gloria Steinem and Letty Cottin Pogrebin dissect feminism.  The way Mae Carol Jemison and Sally Ride might have reminisced about outer space.

Being with Judith and her partner (publisher, activist) Ruth Gundle and the workshop sponsor (poet, teacher) Christopher North in the ancient village of Relleu, was like being absorbed into every fantasy of a true literary life I’ve ever nurtured for myself.  Not to mention the women who also came from various countries to participate with their heart stopping, heart wrenching, heart warming prose.

I was instantly star struck.  And excited.  And terrified.  I wrestled with my right to be there, until I remembered Melodie’s lessons on worthiness.  I put aside lingering self doubt and plunged into the nurturing environment led by Judith’s magic touch as teacher who teaches from the depths of knowing how to write beautifully and powerfully.

In my tiny bedroom overlooking Relleu’s cobblestone streets, on walks to the castillo ruins above the village, and most of all at the long table with Judith at its head, I worked harder at my writing craft and with greater belief in it than ever before.

In Relleu, I rose to a new height as a writer, because Judith made me feel like I belonged there.  In her classes, at our late night group readings, in the heady hour of private consultation with her, she lit a path that led me to the fine tuning of words, sentences and entire concepts that make writing come alive.

In 2009, I was on the cusp of major life changes, revealing themselves to me then only as tiny tears in the fabric of daily existence I’d woven for myself.  My body was becoming fatigued from growing cancer cells I knew nothing about.  In the midnight hours of my time in Relleu, I could barely keep my eyes open as the nightly readings came to a close, but I couldn’t make myself go when Judith remained behind to chat quietly with Ruth and Christopher.

Drifting off in a deep armchair on one of those nights, I remember feeling like a child in a room full of grownups, eavesdropping on a world I wasn’t yet part of but was beginning to imagine entering one day.  The three of them were talking sadly about the recent suicide of Sylvia Plath’s son.  They wondered about why it had happened, what might have stopped it.  They wondered about his sorrow and his mother’s sorrow and how any of it was reflected in her writing.  They talked about the time Sylvia spent in Spain and its influence on her poetry.  They talked as if they knew her — really knew her, and because of how they could talk about writing, I was sure that without ever meeting her they did know her.

The next day, I wrote a piece into which Sylvia Plath found her way.  Not because I knew much of anything about her beyond what little of hers I’d read, but because Judith had brought her to me, presented her to me, as one writer to another.  And after I shared my piece, Judith and Christopher talked about it.  Talked about how it evoked one of Sylvia’s poems.  They discussed my work as if it mattered.

Melodie Edwards taught me, and continues to teach me that what I do as a writer is worthwhile.  Judith Barrington taught me, and continues to teach me, that what I do matters.  Both women help me grow as a writer.  Both women were there waiting for me, welcoming me with open arms, when I was finally ready to learn.

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The Yard at Wade Ranch, Spicer, North Park, Colorado

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