Between Urban and…Urban

in the Bowery

Relaxing on the terrace, looking on to the new One World Trade Center tower (center).

Even though we live in the sort of place most people escape TO, my hubby and I feel the impulse for a break now and then. Sometimes the change of place from this semi-arid ridge in central Colorado’s mountains is wet and coastal and occasionally it’s foreign, but often it’s a short city break. We eat in restaurants, take long walks on chewing-gum-freckled sidewalks, rely on public transportation.

There’s plenty about these trips that unsettles me. The charms of air travel withered long ago. I sleep poorly in noisy and over-illuminated cities. I’m distressed at how much harder it is to minimize my participation in the disposable economy while traveling. I’m unnerved by the press of people. I dislike the persistent befuddlement of being stripped of my insider’s native confidence. Yet for the brief interlude of a few days, spending time someplace that bears no resemblance to where we live, be it by sight, sound, smell, or rhythm, can be revitalizing.

New York tenement neighborhood

New York tenement neighborhood.

At the end of March, Doug and I flew to New York City to spend a few days in the urban frenzy and to visit my mom and brother. Doug had scored an online deal for a hotel and our time there aligned with a couple of days of fine spring weather. We socialized with family and friends and visited a couple of museums, but spent a lot of time wandering the streets, taking in the bustle and intricate choreography of that frenetic and assertively urban environment. In our temporary local neighborhood, we strolled past stores selling durian fruit, used restaurant equipment, shoes, high-end lighting, fancy clothes, cannolis. We strode streets and ambled avenues while dodging workers, tourists, bikes, food carts, and forests of steel construction scaffolding sprouting on walkways in every neighborhood. We squinted in the glare of glass-clad high-rises, admired the rusting fretwork of fire escapes on refurbished brick tenements, and noted that construction fashion trends have brought concrete back in vogue.

Overlooking the High Line and The Standard hotel from the Whitney.

Overlooking the High Line and The Standard hotel from the Whitney.

The city is not the environment I claim as my own, and I’ve managed to arrange my life to hold the urban, the world of people, at a distance much of the time. The urban pole of my everyday existence consists mostly of books and words, of our house and outbuildings and vehicles and the infrastructures that support them, and of the technologies that enable my at-a-distance participation in twenty-first century society—including the electronics that allow me to publish these reflections.

There’s plenty about the human universe that makes me glad of my selective engagement, and I recognize that I’m privileged in being able to regulate my exposure. Somewhere in the course of every single day I find opportunity to consider what human arrogance, cruelty, or apathy has most recently wrought.

In the city, you’d think all that would be amplified, and in some respects it is. The human imprint in a place like New York is so profound that it takes special attention to detect anything of the wild. I can’t help but ponder the hubris of hiding our collective human reliance on natural systems beneath clever systems of concrete, steel, and glass.

Beyond all that, though, and beyond the mental recalibration of a few days away from work routines and the refreshed sense of gratitude for my home place, an interlude of voluntary submission to the metropolitan crush matters to the point of necessity. Time in the urban environment reminds me that all the negatives arise, in part, because people are such amazing animals.

Outdoor terrace at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Outdoor terrace at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

The in-your-face intensity of so many human souls gathered close together in a large city confronts me with undeniable evidence of our ingenuity, grit, diversity, and grace. Whether it’s the unexpected spices on the duck breast I ordered for dinner, the efficiency of a crowded subway, a building packed with artwork, a novel architectural declaration, or a friendly greeting rendered in an unfamiliar accent, I come away awestruck at our capacity for invention, affability, and collaboration. I’m floored by the human ability to make things, and make things work. In the city, I’m all but assaulted by an astonishing wealth—not of money, although that’s certainly well in evidence—but of improvisation, hard work, adaptability, creativity, and perseverance.

Nice work, everybody.

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A Monotony of Mild

mild winter

Just enough snow to cover the ground.

The winter started out cold—fiercely so, in fact. Icy air preserved the scanty accumulation from small snowstorms for weeks, solidifying it to slick veneers anywhere it was packed down—on roads, on the pathway I follow to and from the barn. The thin snow cover lingered for weeks under the oblique winter angle of the sun. By January, even though we were enjoying those additional minutes of daylight each day, I was braced—for bitter winds, for more ice, for the drifts that would pile up as storms fueled by an El Niño weather pattern delivered us a winter to remember.

Instead, it got warmer. Since the first of the year, we’ve received exactly three snowstorms of four inches or more–and the biggest of those was less than seven inches. Over the weeks between each storm, mild temperatures and breezy winds whittled away the snow, leaving nothing other than a few shabby drifts and grayish rags at the feet of the evergreens on north-facing slopes. Rather than El Niño, we’ve gotten El Nothing-o.

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Beautiful…but mostly unchanged for months.

Despite the near-absence of winter, I find myself ready for spring. The press of snow clearly isn’t what’s weighing me down, and it’s not that I’m craving balmy temperatures, either. The weather so far in March, has been, like all of February and most of January, freakishly warm. No, the object of my desire isn’t a thaw, but a break in the monotony of mild.

Winters up here are long, but they’re also dynamic. Snowstorms—even the little ones—remake the landscape. The canvas doesn’t stay blank for long; the snow records the passage of animals and is etched with sinuous patterns by the wind. The sun applies a deft hand on all but the very coldest of days, sketching dimension and contrast with a heat-based technique that selectively erases the gesso of snow.mountain bluebird

Without snowstorms, the melt-paintings haven’t been on display lately, and as much as I love the sepia-tinted landscape of our winter grasslands, I’m ready for a change. My eyes have begun thrill-seeking, hunting for color. They lock on the vibrant flash of early cinquefoilthe mountain bluebirds that began showing up in late February, fluttering from fence wire to ground to pine bough to ground to fence post like scraps of wind-flown cerulean silk. Out in the pasture, rosettes of cinquefoil leaves unfold in puddles: tiny but assertively green. My heart gives a little lurch at the sight of the season’s first crocus ready to unfurl its purple-veined petals in the early rhubarbprotected space of the garden. In another planting bed, the bright red capsule protecting a wadded leaf of rhubarb peeks from under last fall’s dead brown leaves.

Flutters. Glimpses. Peeks. Not entirely satisfying. The reticence, even in the face of so many weeks of unusually warm weather, is appropriate, however. That there isn’t a lot going on is exactly how it should be, since technically it’s still winter up here—and will be for weeks after the upcoming equinox.

spring snow flurry

Not a blizzard, just a flurry.

Part of the problem, I think, is that I’m missing the bluster of March blizzards. The irony of spring up here is that it rides in on wintry weather: fast-moving storms that blow through with whiteout drama one day and eye-searing sunny brilliance the next. I’d be happy for the sloppy plop of spring snow slipping off the evergreen boughs. I wouldn’t mind heaving some heavy shovels-full off the front steps, splatting the slush onto the flowerbeds. My eyes are restless, but my nose is, too. With no snow to melt, there’s no mud to scent the air with the tantalizing promise of wet earth.

Posted in change of seasons, color, snow, spring | Tagged , , ,

Reading Season

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From fall into winter…

The pattern makes sense: that these winter months are a time of retreat, a withdrawal of sorts from the outdoor domain of wild that orients a significant part of my life. The weather is cold and even if it’s not—even if temperatures are freakishly warm, as they have been for most of February this year—the wintry factor of wind keeps me sequestered inside, more often than not.

That the body is confined certainly doesn’t mean the mind is. Winter is my season of exploration, of wide-ranging and wandering, of time spent at large in what I think of as the urban aspect of my life: the human realm, the social, cultural, technology-oriented domain of people, the things we make, and the things we think.

Books are a crossover of thinking and doing. I’ve been hinking about and reading them a lot lately, both because it’s that time of year and because literacy is a key theme in the new writing project I’ve been focused on since fall.

Writing seems like an archaic technology, and I suspect our ease with the technique of coding and decoding letter-forms inclines us to be dismissive of the written word these day. It’s so easy to exchange videos and pictures, images filled with color and movement and faces. Still, we rely on words, static and rendered mostly in black and white, to provide context and spirit, even if they’re formed up into the simple sentiments of “Hi” or “Wish you were here” or “I thought you’d like this.” Words hold their value as the currency of our much-vaunted connectivity these days, even if we’re seduced into twittering them down to the most character-limited formats we can get away up with.

My life up on this high windy ridge revolves around words—mostly cast in type but also written out the old-fashioned way, in ink on paper. Outside of my partnership with my husband, my paid work and most of my relationships proceed according to the rhythms of characters arranged in lines. I stay in touch with friends—the ones just down the road as well as the ones who live on other continents—via email. I spend my working hours indexing books that arrive on my computer as a stream of data. To say that I’m “researching” a new piece of writing is code for saying I’m reading books and articles. “Working” on an essay means I’m handling words, shuttling them back and forth from keyboard to page, drafting, reworking, looking up (as in flipping through the old-fashioned paper dictionary and thesaurus), wrestling, negotiating, scribbling out alternatives, checking them, trying again when they’re found wanting.

Maybe because writing is such an extended and sometimes tedious process for me, I prize reading: I appreciate spending time with the fruits of someone else’s labor. The marvel of it all is that I can be anchored in the wild place I want to be and still be exposed to the wider world, the urban universe of people and ideas. In theory, I’m far from the madding crowd, but from where I’m sitting it feels like I’m in the thick of it all.

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A mix of titles recently finished and on the to-be-read list.

Since December, I’ve been beckoned to think about food and cooking and immunity in new ways. I’ve considered scientists’ thoughts on ignorance and just how wrong Descartes was with his perfunctory separation of mind from body. I’ve accompanied a writer exploring the intersection of biomedical research with one family and listened in on history as Ralph Waldo Emerson discusses writing and reading. Right now, I’m weighing the argument that introverts are at a disadvantage in American society. My brain, in short, has been a busy place lately, all thanks to a collection of 26 letters and a handful of punctuation marks.

I spend most of my time on this blog celebrating the place where I live, but it’s worth a shout-out now and again to the influences that bring dimension to that point of view. Some of those perspectives arrive by way of digital video and audio radio signals, but the ones that make my heart glad and encourage me to see my surroundings more carefully are almost invariably the symbols that make up the English language. My favorites take the form of the long, slow, human conversation we call books.

A selected list of the winter’s reading, so far:

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot

Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, by Michael Moss

Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, by Michael Pollan

The Urban Bestiary: Encountering the Everyday Wild, by Lyanda Lynn Haupt

First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process, by Robert D. Richardson

On Immunity: An Inoculation, by Eula Biss

How the Body Knows its Mind, by Sian Beilock

Ignorance: How it Drives Science, by Stuart Firestein

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain

Posted in inside/outside, observation, reading, working from home, writing | Tagged , ,

Blank Slate

On a snowy day, the metaphorical alignment of undisturbed snow with the blank page is all but irresistible: that expanse of unmarred whiteness, awaiting signs of meaningful passage.

I don’t necessarily mean to compare writers to rodents, but it has lately come to my attention that signs resulting from the movements of mice in and through snow offers some potential as a visual guide to the writer’s experience with the blank page, a sort of metaphorical directory to a metaphor.

IMG_3163There is, first of all, the idealized vision I think most writers about their work, the aspirational dream of clean linear prose that leads the reader efficiently from one point to the next.

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_1225There are plenty of days, though, when the venture leads nowhere, whereupon the writer realizes it’s a bloody cold world out there and retreats to the nest for a snack and some YouTube videos showing cats getting their comeuppance.

 

 

 

 

IMG_3154More standard, perhaps, is a series of forward plunges to test possibilities that just don’t work out, whereupon the author retreats to the coffee shop to discuss “craft” with colleagues who find themselves similarly blocked.

 

 

IMG_3157Sometimes all you can do is noodle an idea around, and even if you end up pretty much back where you started, you feel like you’re getting closer to finding, if nothing else, the shape of a thing.

 

 

 

IMG_3135There are days when grubbing around with the first draft reveals several possible trajectories.

 

 

 

 

IMG_3158And every now and again, the meandering shuffle of that exploratory draft takes the scribe to to a place where the direction of the piece is revealed and the work skips unfailingly along.

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_3160Occasionally, writers get bored or distracted and change course to work on something else.

 

 

 

 

IMG_3161And then are the days when it doesn’t matter what you do, nothing seems to work.

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Walkout Workout

Sure, you can raise your heart rate and a nice sweat on the elliptical machine in the basement. You’ll stare at the wall, though, and play mind games to keep yourself from watching digits on the timer count too slowly downward. Save that for the days when the wind sucks the air from your lungs and freeze-dries tender flesh. No, if the weather’s fair, make tracks down the road. It’s 2.2 miles roundtrip to the cul-de-sac and back. If there’s a skiff of snow on the road, you’ll see who else has been out and about, and they most likely won’t be the human neighbors.

IMG_3146Let’s go: out of the house, past the barn, and between the gates, where a raven lifting off the top rail sometimes sets off a gentle metallic rattle. Wave at the horses out in the pasture as you cross the flat and, if it isn’t deep winter, watch for bluebirds hovering over the grass. This is your warm-up, where kinks from the office chair will get shaken out of your thighs.

At the T-junction, turn right. Borrow from the slight downward incline to send each footstep reaching long. No need to fear traffic, especially in winter when the second-home owners have all retreated to warmer climes; if you do encounter a vehicle, the shock of its appearance will send your pulse surging, and that’s what you’re after anyway. The road is graded smooth: you don’t have to watch where you’re putting your feet, which isIMG_3116 what makes this different from a hike. If you do look down, though, on an autumn day you might see marks scuffled in the dust from two bucks shoving one another. In early winter, you may find yourself stepping through a churned path of dirty snow where a herd of elk flowed across the road, forgoing the engineered lane for an ancient migratory route. Heading down the hill, you have an uninterrupted view across the platter of Beckham Basin to the grassy buttes beyond, where those elk were headed.

The road hugs the ridge as it drops a few hundred vertical feet, mostly over three gradually pitched grades you’ll hardly notice until you’re on the way back up. As it descends out of the sunny grasslands of the ridge’s top, the roaIMG_3130d cuts a swath into dark timber. Watch for turkey tracks in the mud in spring, neat chains of chevron imprints left by birds that prefer hiking to flying.

If you put a little snap in your pace, you’ll be huffing when you reach the cul-de-sac and execute your about-face. The evergreen shade here is cool and quiet, unless the Clark’s nutcrackers and Steller’s jays are gossiping. On one still day you heard the tootling calls of Sandhill cranes flying north while you were down here; you had to stop to scan the sky for a skein of birds you never saw.

When the road begins its first uphill slant, your calves go to work; the incline is subtle, but it’s long. This is a good place to listen for the chirping bustle of chickadees and nuthatches among the evergreen boughs. The pitch levels off for a bit, but the respite ends where you found the mystery gilia a few years ago: one solitary plant clinging to the cut-bank, festooned with tubular flowers. They were pure white, ghost blossoms of a wildflower familiar to you since childhood, but only, until then, in its vibrant scarlet form.

IMG_3150The second uphill section is a little steeper, but it’s short, and you’ll get another breather where the road throws a bend into the notch of a small drainage. There’s no permanent stream, but runoff and snowmelt water a remnant aspen grove being overtaken by the successional generation of evergreens. Fresh snow here is promptly and prolifically stamped with a tangle of shadowy impressions: rabbit, mouse, coyote, fox, and deer prints, with your less dainty contribution cutting through.

This last uphill stretch is no steeper than the one before, but it’s longer. You’ll be inclined to stop and take in the view, but this is a workout, not a nature walk. Keep your chin up: let the span of sky above the shoulder of the ridge be your visual lure until Cap Rock Ridge heaves into view. As you top the hill and make the turn onto the plane of your home-address road, you start your cool-down. Everything here is as familiar as a front yard, albeit an expansive one: grass rippling through the pasture, the distant crenelation of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, lightning-scarred trees. But don’t let your attention be snatched by the idea of a snack or the work waiting on your desk on this literal home stretch, where the house beckons from its fringe of ponderosa pine. That last power pole before the pasture gates is where the woodland raptor was perched last summer—whether a Cooper’s or a sharp-shinned hawk you couldn’t tell. You heard the dainty sneeze, though, before the lean bird shook its head, tilted forward with outstretched wings and, veering, vanished from sight.

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Wear and Tear

IMG_3085For the past couple of years, I’ve pulled my barn coat off the hanger for the first time each fall and thought, I gotta get a new coat.

But then I’d think, Nah…it’ll go one more year.

The holes in the front pockets came first. I thought almost daily about patching them, but put such idle thoughts aside when an easy fix presented itself in the form of a little cloth bag of holiday goodies. Treats consumed, I repurposed the bag as a liner for the more-used right-hand pocket. Some of the flowery yellow fabric oozed out the ever-growing hole now and again, but the bag accomplished the goal of item containment.

The bigger issue was the worn fabric at the seams along the sleeves and at the waist. The frayed canvas, coupled with the fact that the coat’s lining had compressed and thinned over the years, meant my heavy winter coat had become more of a jacket. A well-ventilated jacket.

I bought this coat when we moved to central Colorado in 2001, so it wasn’t unreasonable to seek a replacement. Trouble is, I hate to shop.

I also have a minor compulsion about getting as much wear as possible out of clothes. When my elbows start jutting out of a winter nightgown, I cut off the sleeves and voilà: summer nightgown. Dress clothes are busted down in rank to work clothes as they fray and fade. I still have the down vest my parents gave me for Christmas back in 1975 or 1976. My mother, ever practical, bought it biIMG_3086g enough for me to grow into, which I did. I then outgrew it, too, but only by a little bit. The snug fit makes the vest perfect for layering, and a jacket or coat over the top makes the applique accents Mom sewed on all those years ago—a mushroom and ladybug at the lapel, a patchwork kitty-cat on the back—my private little joke.

Despite a profound distaste for shopping and my proclivity for hanging onto things, by this fall it was pretty clear that I needed to find a new coat.

I was not optimistic about the task, so imagine my surprise when I found the perfect coat at the second ranch supply store I stopped in. It was exactly what I was looking for: long enough to cover my butt; practical dark color; pockets with flaps to keep hay out; tough canvas exterior with a fluffy, soft, and warm fleece lining. The only catch—and there had to be one, right?—was that the coat was a men’s size medium: too big. No worries, I thought, making note of the manufacturer; I’ll order a small online or through my local store.

Only they don’t make a size small.

I will spare you, gentle reader, the rant that transpired when I found this out, except to note that it involved conspiracy theories about clothing makers having it in for guys of slight build and women seeking practical work clothes.

This experience did not palliate my dislike of shopping. Neither did being forced into the women’s department, where I discovered I do not have a sense of humor when it comes to outerwear intended for work. Candy-hued mauve and turquoise are bad enough, but pink camo?? I found the colors ghastly, but conspiracy theories crept back to mind when I felt the flimsy fabrics and airy linings. Evidently I’m supposed to be a slave to fashion even while trying to stay warm feeding horses or shoveling snow or putting tire chains on the truck.

I did eventually find a women’s work coat. It’s brown. It’s the length I was looking for. It has pockets with flaps, and the canvas exterior will resist barbed wire to a certain extent. The lining is pink plaid, which makes me cringe a little, but the flannel is soft, which I like. The coat is comfortable, and fits me better than my old one did.

The catch—and there had to be at least one, right?—is that although I bought the heftiest one I could find, this coat is not as rugged as the ones they make forIMG_3077 men. Worse, it’s not particularly warm. Our winter winds, which are still tuning up for their headline performances in January and February, filter through the canvas and cute pink plaid flannel. The coat feels even more well-ventilated than my holey old one did.

Lucky me, though: I have a forty-year-old down vest to use as a liner. When the wind is screaming over the ridge later this winter, my arms will freeze, but my core will be toasty warm. Underneath my porous outer layer, my kitty-cat will have my back.

Thanks, Mom, again. And always.

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Shifting Gears

I like being a denizen of the temperate zones. I appreciate that the seasons here, dictated by my position on the globe, are so distinct. Watching the gradual cycling of weather, light, foliage, and animal activity has helped train me in the habit of attentiveness. Yes, I’ll think, there go the oak trees, turning to rust; or That damp dirt sure smells like spring.

In addition to teaching me where I might direct my gaze for a fresh detail that wasn’t there yesterday or last week, this seasonality shapes the year with a physical rhythm. When the days are long and the weather is fine, the landscape beckons my mind outward with scent and color and activity. And since most of my warm-season gotta-do chores and fun diversions—gardening, hiking, playing with the horses—are of the hands-on variety, I get my workouts outside, too.

As Thanksgiving approaches, the landscape has settled into relative dormancy. A stroll down the road or a glance out the window reveals a familiar two-tone patchwork of tawny grasslands and dark evergreens, largely unchanged over the last six weeks. I’m done weeding for the year. The garden has been picked over, dug up, and pulled. Hay and firewood have been stacked in their respective sheds. Snow from our first and so-far-only storm melted weeks ago. With nothing to shovel and nothing to plow, the slow fade of fall into winter is marked primarily by an internal shift, an inclination to ponder rather than do. I feel my perspective curling inward.

The daily rituals of building the fire and closing the window blinds against the dark beyond the chilly glass reinforce this inward-drawing impulse. These are protective gestures, the defensive nesting behaviors of an animal who lives in a place where the winters can be hard.

This pulling in isn’t an impulse to shut out the world. On the contrary, I’ve been feeling a peculiar restlessness lately. This yearning is part of my annual pattern, too, even though I’m often slow to remember that this particular craving means my brain is hungry, not for sensation, but for ideas. Instead of fixing on my physical reality, my neurons are inclined to interact in a more deliberate and moderated way, through the written world.

It’s reading season. It’s the writing time of year.

There will be challenges and distractions, as always. There will be errands to run, horses to feed, meals to cook. The indexing projects that make up my working life will continue to arrive on schedules not of my choosing, with occasional periods like the past month, when multiple projects arrived one atop the other to commandeer my waking hours. Now, though, with external deadlines largely satisfied, I’m settling in to spend time with myself.

I am not always the best company. In this transition period, especially, I am out of practice and frequently out of sorts. I’m highly distractible, and although I’ve been looking forward to this time, I’m prone to fits of petulance. The work doesn’t make demands on my biceps and hamstrings, but that doesn’t mean it’s effortless. My expectations right now outstrip my capacity for diligence and focus. Composing anything longer than 900 words seems difficult beyond reason. Knowing that research is a valid part of the process, I offer my brain a book from a long-neglected stack. It soon wanders off, accustomed to the quick resolution of short articles in magazines or online.

My brain, while ready to work in theory, needs time and conditioning. My home place is wondrous and beautiful, but the irony is that an abundance of sensory riches can induce mental flabbiness. I don’t have to work very hard to find something to marvel over—all I have to do is look outside. What’s called for now, though, is patient thought and long-form attentiveness. I don’t have the luxury of simply noticing and describing, I need to tease out connections and test arguments. I need to write, and rewrite, and edit. And then do so again…and again…and again.IMG_3067

It’s slow going. I groan when I arrive at my desk in the morning to find the same unresolved pages I started with yesterday. It’s early, though. Winter hasn’t taken hold, not really. The season for hunkering down in the interior landscape is just getting underway. I stretch, brew some tea, sit down again. The fire is lit. The wood is stacked and waiting.

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