Tag Archives: Halloween

Should the Haunting Remain: A Review of An American Ghost by Hannah Nordhaus


My first encounter with ghosts was at the Avery House, one of Ft. Collins’ earliest and loveliest homes turned event venue and arts council office where I volunteered once a week. I’d heard a vague rumor about the Avery family ghosts but wasn’t expecting to run into them on the second floor when I was alone in the house one day. I can’t say that I saw them, only that I felt their sad presence, more sorrowful than malevolent. I wasn’t frightened but I slipped quietly back down the stairway anyway, thinking it best to leave them alone in their grief.


My second ghostly encounter was in a Queen Anne-era bed and breakfast in Denver when I woke one night to an angry spirit hovering near the four-poster bed. Although the light, or aura, I suppose it’s called, of the ghost was bright red, somehow I knew it wasn’t there to scare me and I went easily back to sleep. Since I hadn’t felt threatened and no one had ever claimed a ghost in that house before, I didn’t mention it when I checked out the next morning. If a ghost isn’t bothering me in particular, I guess I’m willing to leave it alone.


These experiences seem to make me less a sceptic than Hannah Nordhaus in her recent book, American Ghost: A Family’s Haunted Past in the Desert Southwest. But perhaps it’s easier to believe in a former resident haunting an historic home when the ghost isn’t one’s own great-great-grandmother.

As with the best of genealogical narratives, American Ghost by award-winning journalist and historian Hannah Nordhaus is really two stories: the story being investigated and the story of the investigation itself. In American Ghost, Nordhaus researches the life of her great-great-grandmother Julia Stabb, who followed her husband Abraham to Santa Fe after their 1865 marriage in Germany. The elegant home Abraham built for Julia is today known as La Posada, a hotel believed to be haunted by Julia’s ghost.

Using family diaries, historical biographies, and government and church records, Nordhaus reveals how Julia’s life was intertwined with the early days of Santa Fe’s settlement, from city planning to religion to commerce, for the Stabbs were a leading family in Santa Fe’s history, helping establish its development from a Western outpost to an important cultural and commercial center.


However, it’s not just Julia’s life that stands at the center of Nordhaus’ book: Julia’s death and its probable cause take Nordhaus into the realm of psychics, 19th-century “women’s cures” and charlatans, and a family history of mental illness and suicide.
This second story in American Ghost of Nordaus’s efforts to find the truth of Julia’s life and death is just as interesting as the first. Here we follow Nordhaus to some seemingly seedy places as she consults those who claim the ability to commune with Julia’s ghost. We follow Nordhaus, too, as she travels with her mother to visit her family’s burial ground in the Jewish cemetery in Lugde, Germany, and to Theresienstadt, the infamous Nazi propaganda death camp where some of Nordaus’s relatives perished. Even though these events happened after Julia’s death, the weight of Nordhaus’s family history draws us further into Julia’s sorrow.DSC_0814
Like all good ghost stories, American Ghost doesn’t attempt to persuade us as to whether ghosts really exist: we can enjoy the story while still remaining a cynic. I don’t intend this review to be a spoiler, so I won’t share what Nordhaus does and does not find. You’ll have to read the book to find out how Julia died and whether Nordhaus believes in her great-great-grandmother’s ghostly presence or not. But I will share Nordhaus’s conclusion about the role ghost stories play in our early 21st-century fascination with “reality” driven narratives: “This is what I’ve come to understand about ghost stories: it’s not so much the ghost that keeps the dead alive to us as it is the story.” For Nordhaus, “intuitive and emotional truths lie at the heart of most of the stories we tell ourselves. It is the truths between the facts that tell us who we are.”


In American Ghost, Nordhaus does provide her great-great-grandmother Julia a voice through uncovering her story, but will gaining a voice quiet Julia’s troubled spirit and set her free from haunting the La Posada hotel? That’s a question beyond Nordhaus’s book, but one connoisseurs of ghost stories should consider. In the end, don’t we want some mystery to remain, some trace of the ghostly presence to linger? After all, we may run into one ourselves someday, leaving us with our own ghost story to tell.



Filed under memoir, women's writing

End of Season

At Stonebridge Farm, the season starts with spinach and ends with . . . donuts. On-a-string, that is. The mini powdered sugar kind that provides little nutritional value; the kind I’m embarrassed to buy at the convenience store the week before Halloween. They’re not organic. They’re not whole grain. They’re full of processed sugar, but they’re the essential ingredient to our end-of-season party on the last Saturday of October every year.

This year, a snowstorm preceded our last pick, dropping 12” of heavy wet snow and broken branches everywhere. Stonebridge always has at least one mucky fall pick; this year’s waited until the very end but made the most of its procrastination. Much of the foot-high snow had melted by Saturday morning but the ground was too muddy to harvest the rootiest vegetables like carrots and beets, so we settled for pulling up leeks and turnips to give for the final share.

Luckily, John had the foresight to harvest chard before the storm and protect it in the barn in trugs of water. Weeks ago, we had harvested plentiful garlic, onions, and squashes; on that last Saturday, they round out the share. Not a bad last pick and one that will extend a few weeks in storage. We park the bikes and trailers for the last time by the barn, another harvest morning and another successful season finished together.

A shorter harvest meant less delay in donut-on-a-string. Our young farm friend built us a “donut dangler” as a school project a few years ago; it hangs in the center of the greenhouse, a long board with five clips from which threaded donuts can be dangled just above a child’s nose (and an adult’s hairline).

The kids (and later, the even more competitive adults) line up, hands behind their backs, until John gives each donut a sly swing and yells “Go!” Jumping and standing on tippy toes with tongues out and smiles flashing, the children’s determination brings laughter from parents and farm members familiar with the limits of children’s concentration.

The kids play until each one has bitten the donut off the string, sometimes with a little re-adjustment downward from John. Donut won, they carve pumpkins and wander the party with powdered sugar faces, a little Halloween “trick” from the farmers.

Now the snow’s melted, the air is softly breezy, and a second storm is on the way. Our 20th season is over, except for a final pick-up of Thanksgiving shares in two weeks. I’m still drying apples and a few tomatoes picked green and ripened in the house. I’ll make our favorite tomato tart (see recipe below) this week with some of those house-ripened fruits, our last taste of fresh tomatoes until next summer.

One season is ending; another is beginning. Stopping and starting overlap again. We’ll miss our friends’ stalwart company in the gardens, but we’ll meet again after resting—and sleeping late a few Saturday mornings.

For John, winter will bring trees to prune and wood to chop and an ending to a magnificent teaching career, leaving more time for new adventures. For me, winter will mean waiting for news of projects finished and the initiation of others. And while we work and rest in the winter cold, we’ll plan next year’s gardens and re-arrange our lives in anticipation of the 21st season to come.  

Stonebridge Tomato Tart

I make this with tomatoes picked green and ripened indoors. They’re a little less juicy so make a nice, firm tart. This tart is really rich, so will serve 4 alongside a fall salad.

Preheat Oven to 375.

3/4 cup grated Gruyere cheese
6 oz Chevre or feta or any soft, crumbly cheese
1 1/2 cups unbleached flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
6 Tablespoons cold (or frozen) butter, cut in pieces.
1/2 cup very cold water
2 large or 4 medium firm, shelf-ripened tomatoes (Using gold and red tomatoes is prettier)
1/4 cup olive oil
1 teaspoon dried basil
1 teaspoon dried tarragon (or rosemary or thyme)

Grate 3/4 cup of Gruyere cheese in cuisinart. Remove and save for filling.

Make crust:
In Cuisinart, place 1 1/2 cups unbleached flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
Pulse. Place 6 Tablespoons cold (or frozen) butter, cut in pieces, into flour mix. Pulse until pea-sized. With machine running, slowly pour 1/2 cup very cold water through feed tube until the dough forms a ball. Shut off machine (you may not use the full 1/2 cup). Form into disk and chill in freezer until filling is prepared.

Slice 2 large or 4 medium firm tomatoes into 1/4 inch slices.

In small bowl, combine 1/4 cup olive oil, 1 teaspoon of dried basil, and 1 teaspoon of dried tarragon (or whatever herbs you have).

In a 10” diameter ungreased tart or quiche pan, pat dough out by hand to cover bottom and form a short (1/2 inch) crust up the side. Crimp.

Place grated Gruyere on top of crust.

Arrange tomato slices (alternating colors) in concentric circles on top of Gruyere.

Drizzle olive oil mix over top.

Cover entire tart with 6 oz crumbled Chevre or feta cheese.

Bake for 35 minutes. Let cool for a few minutes before slicing into 8 pieces. 

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Filed under ecobiography, sustainable agriculture

Halloween, El Día de los Muertos . . . y Frida

I just made this season’s last batch of salsa fresca from the bowl of tomatoes and a few leftover Anaheim peppers sitting on our kitchen counter. Pureed with white onion, garlic, lime juice, and cilantro still fresh from the garden, we’ve got salsa to celebrate El Día de los Muertos with the pinto beans simmering on the stove.

Saturday was the last pick of our farm season and our Stonebridge Halloween party. Kids and adults played round after round of doughnut-on-a-string from the donut-dangler in the greenhouse, while families carved jack o’ lanterns on picnic tables in view of snow-covered Longs Peak and Meeker. The weather was resplendent once again, perfect for celebrating the end of a long and bountiful season. People brought canned, brewed, and handmade samples of their culinary and craft talents for the “Can-Do” basket—take one, leave one—and left much appreciated gifts for the farmers’ winter pantry as well. The best farm inspired costume? Renee as an heirloom tomato in stuffed long red underwear and a twig “loom” in her hair. Get it? But all the costumes were clever and beautiful and vibrant on such a gorgeous day.

After the party was over, the afternoon was still lovely, so John and I went to the Longmont Museum for their annual El Día de los Muertos event.

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We sat outside to watch masked dancers in brightly ruffled dresses or white lacy gowns twirl around each other, swirling their skirts like flowers in the sun.

After the dances, we ate refried beans, rice, tortillas, and pan de muerte, sweet bread of the dead, with hot spiced Mexican cocoa and visited the altars that honor community members’ loved ones now departed. The museum was packed; Longmont hosts the biggest El Día de los Muertos event in the state of Colorado and it’s wonderful to see Longmont’s bicultural heritage celebrated in this way.

In Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel The Lacuna, the fictional protagonist Harrison Shepherd keeps a journal about his service to Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, which steers his life down a political, historical, and artistic path of great interest to readers. Part of the richness of the novel is Harrison’s detailed descriptions of the food he cooks for the famous couple’s many parties and national celebrations. Kingsolver’s genius is at work here: Harrison gets a job mixing Rivera’s plaster because the lonely boy has learned from the family cook how to mix a lagoon of flour and water for pan dulce.

Even as a young boy, Harrison keeps a diary that describes his life with his mother after their return to Mexico (his father is from the US). For the entry titled 2 November, Dead People’s Day, he writes of going to the cemetery with their cook to honor family members who have passed away: “Leandro, wife, and dead people are having their party at the graveyard behind the rock beach on the other side. Tamales in banana leaves, atole, and pollo pipian. Leando said those were the only foods that could attract his brother away from a lady. He meant Lady of the Dead, who is called Mictec-something—Leandro couldn’t spell it. He can’t read.”

Harrison means Mictecacihuatl, Queen of Mictlan, the underworld, who presides over the bones of the dead. El Día de los Muertos is an ancient Aztec tradition in Latin American cultures, but in Mexico has more of a celebratory feel than in other countries as families gather at cemeteries to socialize in community with good food and friends, a gathering that brings death front and center and perhaps makes its inevitability less frightening by the omnipresent images of Death and skeletons and skulls, reminders that life on earth is temporary. Still, I learned recently, you wouldn’t wish someone a “Happy Day of the Dead” since the tradition is more about honoring the dead than partying with them.

In a previous posting called “Dying in Orange,” I wrote about how the fall season reminds me of Frida Kahlo’s life and work, how she painted her own image implanted in the fecundity of the natural world. So this year I dressed as Frida Kahlo for Halloween and El Día de los Muertos, inspired by the way her body became another canvas for her art.

I found earrings and a bracelet made by an artist on Etsy.com dangling with charms of Kahlo’s 1939 painting The Two Fridas, red roses and hearts, and an ornate silver cross. I re-strung a chunky orange necklace of my grandmother’s, the closest thing to Kahlo’s pre-Columbian jewelry I could find; I wore a full skirt bought on a trip to Mexico a few years ago to celebrate the wedding of a favorite student with his wonderful family, and a shawl woven in green tendrils that might have been the background for one of Kahlo’s paintings. I bought dark purple lipstick to add a vibrant touch and I twisted my hair in two braids on top of my head and bobby-pinned an orange zinnia I had dried. I needed more flowers, but the zinnias had been killed by the first frost days before, so a single bloom had to do. For shoes, I found tooled black leather pumps at Serendipity, one of my favorite local vintage clothing shops.

[But writing this and including my picture here makes me a bit uncomfortable: it seems too personal, too much about appearance. Maybe this helps me understand a little bit the risk Frida Kahlo took in creating such intimate and hyperpersonalized art.]

Some people said I should dress like Frida more often. Others said I already do. It’s tempting. I loved wearing a colorful and slightly flamboyant costume, the skirt swishing around me, the shawl so adaptable to the nuances of temperature and sunlight throughout the day. And jewelry . . . what better way to express personality, culture, and occasion than jewelry?

All this is to say that the end of the fall is a glorious time to celebrate all that the earth and our labor has given and to honor those who have come before us, as well as our own insistence on life even as winter—and death—approaches.

For those in the Boulder County area, the Longmont Museum and Cultural Center will feature photographs of Frida Kahlo by her friend and lover Nickolas Muray from Nov 13 – January 2, as well as a presentation on her art and a retablo workshop.


Filed under memoir, sustainable agriculture, women's writing

No Frost Yet

“How are you?”

“Doing great! We haven’t had a frost yet!”

“Oh. Uh huh. That’s nice.” Acquaintances nod at my nutty weather report. No frost yet—whatever.

No hard frost as of October 21 may not sound like much to non-farmers or non-gardeners but it’s momentous to those of us on Colorado’s Front Range who work outside in the soil.

In fact, we’ve been working joyously in t-shirts this week, doing things we usually do in jackets. I spread compost around the base of the roses to help get them through a predicted dry winter and John tilled compost into the fields in preparation for fall-planting shallots and garlic. A few of my roses are still blooming and I even picked a bouquet of zinnias for a friend’s birthday dinner.

Early last week our county extension agent sent around a frost warning, so we harvested all that we could to give our CSA members last Saturday–except some smaller peppers just in case it didn’t frost.

And it didn’t.

But that’s okay. The tomatoes and eggplant had pretty much given up with the colder nights and we were ready to pull the stakes and store the twine for next year. John picked the last few of the lonely cucumbers, melons, and summer squash a couple days ago and then tilled the vines into the field.

Yesterday afternoon I walked out to the big field to see what was left. Along the bank of the irrigation ditch, I startled a redtail hawk from the limb of a cottonwood. It flew before me over the tops of the trees. Two weeks ago I surprised a great-horned owl from a similar spot but it flew in front and then around me, close enough that I could see the spots on its breast as it spread its wings perpendicular to the ground. I’d never been that close to such a large flying owl before and it took a while for my heart to settle down. The redtail wasn’t quite as dramatic but thrilled me nonetheless.

So what’s left? I found the peppers still ripening on the plants; we can pick them to give this Saturday or next, which will be the last pick-up of the season. A few small round eggplant are still hanging. Maybe they’ll be big enough for one more ratatouille before the first frost really hits. I found one large Mennonite tomato going red and a few pastes that we’d missed in our previous gleanings. That’s it. I picked some peppermint on my way into the house to make the last watermelon/cucumber salad of the season.

But first frost isn’t just about harvesting plants. At Stonebridge Farm we take our first frost predictions seriously. Around the beginning of September, we start the frost pool for bartering members to pick their first frost dates. Whoever wins garners bragging rights and the title of Frost Queen or King, as well as the largest jack o’ lantern to carve at our end-of-season party on the last Saturday of October.

The frost pool’s pretty competitive out here but the best part is that the winning date is so unpredictable. Who would have thought in September that those daring folks who chose October 24th or 25th would have any chance of winning? Usually the rule is closest date without going over wins, but with no frost predicted until the beginning of next week, the winner this time might be the latest prediction.

We have elaborate rules for what “first frost” means: not just a little nip, but blackened basil and zinnias. This year the frost is so late that we’ve harvested almost all the basil plants already, leaving just a few on which to base the official decision. The zinnias I didn’t pick are pretty faded but we’ll leave them in the field until the frost hits as a back-up to the basil indicator.

Timing’s essential too. Since frost usually comes early in the morning, we date the first frost on the day of the morning we find the blackened basil and zinnias rather than the day of the night before.

Predictions are fun, but most of all, we anticipate first frost because it means our season is almost over. We may still harvest roots and greens that can grow in the cold, but the riot of the harvest is finished—the tomatoes, peppers, basil, eggplant, and squash are a fait accompli. We will have to wait nearly another year for those warm weather crops to ripen again.

A couple days ago, John and I decided to celebrate this long fall by ending the workday early to sit on the patio of a local restaurant, enjoying the late afternoon sun. We were the only people sitting outside, which we found odd on such a glorious day, and, even stranger, the servers were putting away the patio furniture and umbrellas while we toasted the autumn foliage. Soon we were the only table on the patio and we joked that we were the last people to sit outside this year. In this seemingly perennial fall, it’s hard for us to stay inside.

Today we finished the last of the big fall chores: planting 14 beds of garlic for our members next season. With our expert Thursday crew, we cracked the garlic bulbs we’d saved from this year’s crop to plant back the cloves for the next. We started the morning in jackets but soon were in shirt-sleeves as the sun warmed our backs. We don’t always get to plant garlic in sunshine so we welcomed the chance to savor a few more rays before they’re gone.

No frost yet.

But we know it’s coming.




Filed under ecobiography, memoir, sustainable agriculture

Dying in Orange

The pumpkin vines are dying back, exposing a landscape of garrulous orange. I’m glad we have enough carving pumpkins for all our CSA members this year; I feel like a failure when we can’t give every family at least one. John’s not sure jack o’ lanterns are the best use of field space but he humors those of us who need to carve a pumpkin at the end of October.

They’re more than decorative, I tell him. It’s the ritual that’s important, one that marks the end of the season and is rooted in ancient folk traditions celebrating the last days of harvest before the coming winter. Besides, I tease, we have to grow pumpkins because we don’t grow turnips big enough to carve like they did in medieval Europe.

Last night we watched the PBS documentary The Life and Times of Frida Kahlo and I’m trying to figure out why I’m so attracted to Kahlo as an artist and woman. With the publication of several books on her life, including Barbara Kingsolver’s recent novel The Lacuna, and a popular film produced by and starring Selma Hayek, Kahlo has become an icon of feminist self-expression, female sexual liberation, and heroic achievement amidst physical suffering. Her likeness and paintings are found on everything from key chains to matchboxes. She may even have eclipsed her husband, the muralist Diego Rivera, in artistic stature.

I was introduced to Frida Kahlo as a college student in the late 70s by my two wonderful professors of Spanish language and literature who were admirers of Kahlo’s work before it was discovered by feminists in the United States.

Like George O’Keefe, whom she met, Kahlo struggled as a woman artist within an art world defined and dominated by men, including her own husband, but she was not a woman to be ignored.  Kahlo used her body as a canvas draped in traditional Mexican dress and flamboyant jewelry, creating an image of herself that never conformed but rather confronted bourgeois notions of female decorum.

But it’s more than her colorful life that fascinates me; it’s the sensory shock of the art itself. Often confined to her bed, Kahlo painted what she saw in the mirror but used the outward appearance of her body to express the inner world of her imagination. Kahlo painted her compromised and exposed body in pain, bloody and wounded, but also in the midst of vivid natural surroundings, tendrilled in lush greenery and vibrant flowers. As Carlos Fuentes writes in his introduction to The Diary of Frida Kahlo, “[N]o matter how interior her work was, it was always uncannily close to the proximate, material world of animals, fruits, earths, skies.”

The documentary examines the influence of Catholic iconography on her work—the retablos of the crucifixion and lives of the saints. But her work also features the macabre element of death, as is found in the skeleton figures of El Dia de los Muertos, the Mexican Day of the Dead when families gather at cemeteries to picnic and remember those who have passed to the spirit realm.

According to Fuentes, the Mexican idea of death is not finality but origin: “Without the dead, we would not be here, we would not be alive.” In this way, he writes, Kahlo’s work “had the sense of fooling death, of fooling around with death.” In the painting The Dream, for example, a sleeping figure of Kahlo floats in a bed with Death leering from the canopy above.

It’s the juxtaposition of everpresent death with verdant life that makes her paintings so startling. Her art is beautiful yet frightening, a thorny reminder that death is the part of life that makes us live it more.

Like Kahlo’s art, celebrating the end of our farm season with bright orange jack o’ lanterns allows us to participate in the ritualof life and death with laughter and a touch of the macabre as they wink and grimace and remind us not to take ourselves too seriously.


Filed under memoir, sustainable agriculture, women's writing