Tag Archives: photography

When Clouds Come Into View

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As my friend and I drove to Ghost Ranch outside Abiquiu, New Mexico, I tried to imagine the dirt road as Georgia O’Keeffe would have driven it in her 1930s roadster. Red rock towers spindled along the narrow highway as we left the Rio Grande valley and ascended the Colorado Plateau. We were on our way to Ghost Ranch as part of the Women Writing the West conference in Santa Fe, but it was a woman painting the Southwest who was on my mind as we drove.

The Ghost Ranch tour was led by Leslie Poling-Kempe, author of Ladies of the Canyons: A League of Extraordinary Women and their Adventures in the American Southwest, a study of the circle of East Coast women who came to New Mexico in the early 1900s to create lives independent of repressive Victorian gender roles. Kempe’s remarkable history of these women is this year’s WILLA scholarly non-fiction award winner and is an impressive work of research that re-illuminates the lives of women whose marks on the Southwest had almost faded from view.

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One of the ladies of the canyon was Carol Bishop Stanley, a trained musician who came to New Mexico on an adventure, married first one cowboy, then another, and never left. Her first gambler husband won a reputedly haunted, remote camp outside Abiquiu from cattle rustlers in a poker game. Stanley became owner after their divorce, named the place Ghost Ranch, and built it into a successful dude ranch and refuge for wealthy families from back East. We toured Stanley’s original adobe home and headquarters with its low ceiling and rustic wooden furniture. Ghost Ranch itself is now owned by the Presbyterian Church and is open to anyone for day or overnight visits. Part of our tour was a preview of a new exhibit at the Ghost Ranch museum about some of the ladies of the canyon, including diaries, photographs, and artifacts of their day.

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Georgia O’Keeffe first visited Ghost Ranch in 1934 and in 1940 bought a piece of the property with a house that had been built by Alfred Pack, who purchased Ghost Ranch from Carol Stanley (read Ladies of the Canyons for the whole story). While O’Keeffe’s house was not part of the tour, we did see the casita she rented when she first came to Bishop’s Ghost Ranch.

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We could also view the Pedernal in the distance, a flat-top mesa in the Jemez range that O’Keeffe painted many times as the colors changed with light and season, joking that it was her private mountain since God had promised to give it to her if she would paint it often enough.

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After the tour and exhibit, my friend and I hiked into Box Canyon, so called for the geological formation that created a natural corral for the rustled cattle once hidden there. We followed red dirt trails uphill, past abandoned hogans, toward a plateau of scrub pine and high stone buttes ringed with cottonwoods, now ablaze in the October sun. As I hiked, I tried to place myself in O’Keeffe’s paintings, imagining what the artist might have seen as she hiked a path much like ours.

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At the top of the rise, before the trail split into two, I stopped. Looking up from where I stood at the edge of a deep arroyo, it seemed the clouds were rising one at a time from the depths of the canyon, rather than floating across the sky. I thought of O’Keeffe’s paintings like Above the Clouds I, a canvas of oval clouds filling the sky to the horizon line, or In the Patio VIII, with its dots of clouds hanging over her adobe home. I could see why these New Mexico clouds appealed to O’Keeffe and how her particular style of painting them straddled a line between abstract and representational, as her work generally did.

On previous trips to New Mexico, I hadn’t noticed how the clouds in that high desert region could differ from the clouds in Colorado that barrel over the Rockies and drape across the Front Range sky. Like the clouds in O’Keeffe’s paintings, the clouds at Ghost Ranch that day were distinct from one another, individual even in their similarity. As my friend and I continued onto the plateau and threaded our way through astounding rock formations towering far over our heads, I kept an eye on the clouds drifting in that trick of the horizon up and over the buttes.

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According to O’Keeffe’s biographer, Laura Lisle, in Portrait of an Artist: A Biography of Georgia O’Keeffe, the artist began to consider painting clouds in the 1960s when she started traveling by plane. Her first oil portrayed a solid mass of clouds under a sky. Next she broke the bank up into smaller clouds, and then placed more blue between them, creating, as Lisle writes, “an inviting path of stepping stones into infinity.” Whether this metamorphosis from large mass to smaller shapes was inspired by the clouds of her New Mexico home, I don’t know, but the evolution from clouds by plane to clouds over her own patio does seem likely. Whatever its inspiration, the oversized cloud panorama she exhibited in 1966, Sky Above Clouds IV, was unlike anything any artist had painted before.

Two weeks after visiting Ghost Ranch, I hiked with my partner John in Rocky Mountain National Park just a half hour drive from our home. I wanted to compare our clouds with the ones I’d viewed in New Mexico. Just as I remembered, small clouds are rare here except as part of a larger pack. What’s more, in the Rockies, the mountains are so dominant, it’s easy to overlook the sky. Each time we hiked up and around a switchback, a new vista stretched before us, like another layer of a painting hidden, until then, from view. As I tried to let the majestic peaks recede in my vision, the clouds suddenly came forward, reversing background for foreground, earth for sky. With surprise, I realized that the clouds before me were as big and even bigger than the mountains, so massive in size, even their shadows could cover an entire mountain from peak to base.

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One mark of a great artist is how they inspire us to look at the world in a different way. I love O’Keeffe’s work for many reasons—her fierce commitment to her art, the trails she blazed for women, her recognition of beauty in common or traditionally “feminine” objects, and the emotional sense of place she worked to portray. But it wasn’t until I visited the land on which she walked that I understood the way her art inspires us to transcend what we see with our eyes into a larger vision. Whether the genius of her work is found in color, shape, scale, juxtaposition, or craft, her paintings capture something more than the sum of their parts. They offer us the opportunity to see both into the essence of an object and beyond its earthly form. O’Keeffe’s work teaches us that new perspectives are within our reach if we take the time to look.

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Photographs by Kayann Short

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Writing from Nature’s Artifacts

 

I’m one of those people who look at the ground when they hike, not to see where I’m going but to scout out rocks. At the beach, I scour the wrack line for shells and other treasures the tide has washed ashore. I’ve collected rocks, shells, nests, and bones from all my travels, including to big cities where artifacts of the natural world are harder to find.

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In my memoir A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography, I wrote about childhood memories of my grandparents’ farms and the mementos I gathered during summer vacations there:

“As a young girl, I was a rock hound and my grandparents’ farmyards were my stalking grounds. I scouted petrified wood, round picture agates, and red and gold siltstone flinted like arrowheads, bringing a pailful home to Colorado each summer to polish in my tumbler on the tool bench in our garage. For years, I kept a small dark brown stone, like magma from the earth’s core cooled in the swirled shape of a horse’s head and mane. My Grandma and Grandpa Smith’s neighbor shared pieces of larger rocks he’d gathered on his own farm and from forays in that region. One was a polished oval picture agate, a horizon of shadowed trees landscaped across a champagne sky. Decades later, I had it edged in spiraled sterling with a silver chain, a memento in miniature of the land I’d left behind.”

Now on my travels, I’m more likely to take photographs than artifacts. Still, the fascination is the same. I’m trying to understand my place in the ecosystems that remain. Perhaps because I spent childhood vacations on my grandparents’ farms, built environments don’t satisfy and comfort me the way natural systems do. What I’m searching for, I think, are the ways my body and my writing are connected to the earth.

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We live surrounded by human-made things—objects made of plastic, metal, and fabric shaped through mechanization. Even though these materials may have started out in some natural form, the consumer items they produce are artificial in that each is exactly like the other.

Shells and rocks, pinecones, feathers, and bark all share one attribute: none of them is exactly like another but instead vary in magnificent and intimate ways. Each carries a unique trace—or memory–of the world it inhabits.

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Writers, too, want to create a unique record of their experiences in the world around them. Some use writing to understand and describe their place within a particular ecosystem or encircling planet. Nature’s artifacts can serve as reminders of experiences or relationships with the natural world, helping to create stories of what Thoreau called “something kindred” between humans and nature.

In a workshop I taught in Colorado, an outdoor adventurer wrote of his obsession with heart-shaped rocks. He carried them home from all corners of the world and kept them piled on shelves like cairns marking a trail, yet he wasn’t sure why he collected them. It wasn’t until he showed us the only picture he had of his mother, who had died when he was very young, that the heart came into view in the shape of his mother’s face. There we saw the heart that had been beating for and in him through the rocks he’d carried home, a memory captured in stone.

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Stories like this illustrate how the distinction between humans and the natural world is finer than we think. From cells to bones, we all carry within ourselves some trace of our ecological origins. Through writing, we can examine the world around us for the juxtapositions that complexify the distinction and, in turn, forge new understandings of our place within this ever-changing world.

sitkaviewI’ll be helping writers explore this rich terrain in a workshop at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology on the Oregon coast, September 27-28. Bring a natural artifact or image of your own to inspire writing from poetry to fiction to environmental advocacy amid the beauty of the Sitka campus.

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Spring Spinach With the Birds

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This afternoon I’m hosting our local women’s group for an appetizer potluck and reading of A Bushel’s Worth. I’m roasting mushrooms with Greek salad stuffing, which means walking out to the garden to pick baby spinach. Our farm season opens in three weeks and the spinach will be much bigger by then. For now, I’m content with smaller leaves, but it does take longer than one would expect to fill a whole bag.

Seems like the bag stays only half-full for quite some time, but I don’t mind. I’m listening to two Western meadowlarks trilling back and forth from the giant cottonwoods along the irrigation ditch. You can listen to one of a Western Meadowlark’s songs here.

I’m originally from North Dakota, whose state bird is the Eastern Meadowlark. My grandmother often noted in her diary when she heard the first meadowlark’s call:

“Wed, April 6, 1983: We walked to the creek and found mayflowers and heard a meadowlark sing.

It took me many years to get used to the Western Meadowlark’s song with its notes ascending and descending in a different order than that of North Dakota’s state bird. But both birds share the complex musicality of their song, more lyrical than many a bird’s call.

As I listen to the meadowlarks’ duet in stereo near the spinach bed, I also hear a pair of Red Tailed Hawks shrieking high above me. I can see them, too, as they circle our west field on the other side of the ditch. But I can’t see the meadowlarks, even when I walk near the trees from which they’re clearly singing. I’m surprised not to find them with their bright yellow breasts. Today, they’re camouflaged by the new green leaves of willows and cottonwoods breaking from winter rest.

On the way back to the house with my bag of spinach, I spot a Downy Woodpecker near the knot in our old crabapple tree. No mistaking this bird’s red head and black and white body. I wish I had my camera as the bird senses my approach and flits off to a higher elm.

Spring has been slow to arrive this year. We transplanted 10,000 onion and leek starts last Saturday, a week later than the previous two years. The next day, a wet spring snow watered in the grass-like shoots. We love our alliums at this farm, depending on them all season and even through the long winter. In three weeks, we’ll harvest walking Egyptian onions for our members, followed by green garlic, garlic scapes, early garlic, and green onions, until the full-sized garlic, onions, leeks, and shallots are ready mid-summer.

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Today, I’ll use the last of the stored shallots in the mushrooms I’m stuffing. You can find the recipe here on our website. I’m looking forward to sharing A Bushel’s Worth with women in our community tonight. I joked that I’m going to read the romantic parts, but, in fact, I’ve decided I will. John and I met in the spring; on our first farm date, we made our first salad together from newborn herbs and greens. Seems fitting to share that memory on this sparkling spring day.

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If you can’t join us tonight, you can view a farm reading of A Bushel’s Worth here, along with great music from Joe Kuckla and Alex Johnstone. Happy spring!

 

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A Winter Respite

Three years ago, I made a New Year’s resolution to begin a consistent yoga practice. I’d dabbled with yoga when I was younger, starting in high school in the 70s when I took a few classes at our local college. But through my years of schooling, single-parenting, and teaching, I never made the time or had the discipline for steady practice.

A little over three years ago, I met up with yoga again when I taught an ecobiography class at the incredible Sitka Center for Art and Ecology on the Oregon coast. (I’ll be teaching there again this September; more on my class later.) I found that at 50, I could still benefit from the yoga asanas (postures) and the meditative state they inspired.

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I resolved to begin again, this time in a weekly gentle and restorative class with the talented teacher, Lisa Limoge, at Mayama Movement Studio in Lyons. The effects were immediate and transformative. As I felt more relaxed and in touch with my physical self, the neck and shoulder problems I’d suffered for years improved, as did my sleep. There’s nothing to do, nowhere to go, no one to be. Lisa’s teaching reminded us to stay in the moment as we pushed ourselves a little closer to our edge.

Yoga also introduced new ways to think about bringing balance to my life. That spring, I was considering a shift away from teaching at the university. I wanted to create time for other interests and opportunities, ones that centered more closely to my farming life. I wrote an essay (that later became the chapter “What Goes Down” in A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography) about how yoga was helping me find balance: “In yoga, we witness the constancy of change and must accept that nothing in existence can remain the same. . . . I hope that practicing rootedness will teach me to accept the inevitability of impermanence, helping me achieve balance in my postures and my life.”

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That semester was one of my best. I had wonderful students whose engaged discussions spurred creative learning that fulfilled my teaching goals. My quest for balance helped me remember that my students had lives outside the classroom, too. One afternoon before class, my students were sharing how stressed they felt. “Try this,” I said, and got down on the floor to show them the “child’s pose” asana for relaxation. As they joined me in the posture, I heard one student whisper to another, “That’s why I love this class.” I think she meant that we stayed open to learning experiences in which new knowledge connected with “real life.” At the end of the semester, my yoga practice helped me realize that I had accomplished what I’d set out to do at the university and inspired me to make a substantial change.

Last January, Lisa and I held a one-day women’s winter respite at Stonebridge that alternated yoga and writing to inspire creative movement in the New Year. A respite is a time-out from normal activities and a chance to ponder next steps. Lisa led posture flow for mind/body integration and I used yoga concepts of rooting, gazing, stretching, and breathing to stimulate and develop life stories. The day included a delicious, nutritious lunch of Stonebridge winter vegetables in the sunny greenhouse. We were joined by a lively group of women who brought their adventurous spirits to the day.

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Last January’s respite was so much fun, we’re holding another this January 25th. Our writing practice this year will focus on transformation as narrative structure through the yoga concept “second side might tell a different story.” How can we learn something new through our writing by changing an aspect of how we tell the story? Combined with integrated posture flow and a healthy lunch, the day will offer a respite from our busy lives and a jumpstart to a new year of creativity.

If you’re in the Boulder, Ft Collins, or Denver area, we’d love for you to join us. Click here for more details and registration information. Here’s to more creative movement in 2014!

Photographs are from my trip to the Lan Su Chinese Garden in Portland, Oregon, a beautiful spot to contemplate art and nature

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You Could Pickle That!

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My title comes from an episode of Portlandia, the show that spoofs Portland, Oregon’s obsession with all things locally brewed, sipped, and supped. John and I were in Oregon recently, enjoying the local offerings from small-press olive oil to sparkling wine to pears in anything and everything. At the Red Hill café in Dundee, I had a wood-fired pizza with butternut squash puree, caramelized pears, gorgonzola cheese, arugula, and hazelnuts. My only complaint—the nuts weren’t chopped so they kept rolling off the pizza!

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Portland’s where we learn the latest fashion trends. Exceedingly skinny pants are still in, especially for men, and everyone wears something wrapped around their neck for those overcast skies and intermittent drizzle, the kind of precipitation for which umbrellas are irrelevant. Knit caps of woodland creatures with little ears are popular too (I mean with adults, not kids), as are vintage plaid Pendleton skirts and jackets. Judging from the look on the street, rust and moss (organic, of course) are this season’s favorite colors, with some bright pink thrown in for pop. You’ve got to admire a city with a fashion sense like that.

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I picked up some beautiful yarn in Portland to knit a hat for my grandson and a 1960s dress for upcycling someday. But the city wasn’t the only place that inspired my creativity this trip. Long walks on the beach brought the calm I needed to regenerate after a difficult farming season. At one of our favorite beaches, we didn’t see anyone for miles up and down the shore as we walked the wrack line in the breezy mist.

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One morning, I walked to the beach by myself, braving the frigid water of the creek to cross over to a cove where I’ve found perfect sand dollars in the past. No sand dollars this time, but the light and the solitude were just right.

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Before our trip, I’d been reading Keri Smith’s Living Out Loud. I love Smith’s work because, like Portland, it’s hip and irreverent and fun. She challenges readers to try something new in their art or craft, to take risks, and to see old, familiar objects in new, emergent ways. (Check out Keri Smith’s other books, like How to Be An Explorer of the World and This is Not a Book.)

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I always carry a little notebook with me for when inspiration strikes, so on this trip, I jotted down a few ideas of my own to encourage my pearlmoonplenty readers to take some creative risks. I shared the first exercise with a genealogy group to whom I spoke last week and they loved how it opened up their stories. Next time you need a creativity kickstart, try one of these exercises.

1. What’s your bio? How would like to be introduced if you were appearing somewhere? Write a 3- or 4-sentence bio about yourself. Here’s my official bio blurb:

Kayann Short, Ph.D., is a writer, farmer, teacher, and activist at Stonebridge Farm, an organic community-supported farm in the Rocky Mountain foothills, and author of A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography. A former award-winning teacher at the University of Colorado, she has directed memoir and digital storytelling projects with community elders, adult literacy students, and non-profit organizations. Besides growing delicious food and teaching writing at Stonebridge Farm, Short is an advocate for the important place of organic food production and agricultural preservation in a healthy, environmentally sustainable community.

Now that you’ve written the official version, add one more sentence, starting with one of these words:

Secretly,
Surprisingly,
Hopefully,
Regretfully,
Once in a while,

2. Make a list of lists you’d like to make. Some mentioned to me lately are all-time favorite books, teachers’ names, and best friends. Someday, make those lists.

3. If you were a meal, what meal would you be? Describe yourself as a meal and then write another sentence or two about why you are like that meal.

4. Get a pad of mini post-its and walk around your house or somewhere else you love. For each object or space, write three concrete words that describe it and place it on that object or in that space. One of the words must be a verb.

5. Pick up a newspaper and find a “human interest” story. Imagining yourself as the protagonist of that story, write the backstory behind the story. Include specific details of setting, character, motivation, and action, or, as the radio journalists say, “Take us there.”

6. Create a mini-memory book. Find some legal envelopes (the rectangular 4 by 9.5 inch type) and stack four or five of them on top of each other. On a sewing machine or with a heavy needle and thread, sew a stitching line down the middle of the stack to make a little book. Snip the flaps along both sides of the seam line so that you can lift them. Now you have a place to keep the small things of your life—movie tickets, ideas you’ve jotted down, pages torn from magazines, photographs.

7. The documentary Packed (produced by Angie Burnham) is about the items people took when they evacuated their home during Boulder’s Four Mile Canyon fire. If you had to “evacuate” your memory bank and leave most of the experiences you remember behind, what five memories would you grab as you headed out the door?

“You could pickle that!” means you can make something from practically nothing by applying inventiveness and inspiration. You can pickle any fruit or vegetable—or even hard-boiled eggs! Creativity is all around us when we look at the mundane in innovative ways.  What inspires you?

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A Comfort

I’m feeling tender these days, softened to the land and the altered lives we face. The landscape has changed, not only geographically by a river outside its bed, but emotionally as we wonder what will be lost and what will be left. As one friend says, “Recalibrate. Recalibrate. Recalibrate.” We note the strangeness of life on the outside as we assess the damage and hold away despair.

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What the river left behind

We helped some friends last weekend who used to own riverfront property. I say “used to,” not because they’ve moved, but because the river has. During the flood, the St. Vrain cut a new channel 10 feet deep and 40 feet wide across their grassy land. After the river changed course, two dry river beds—one old, one new—remained. Cleaning up, we found debris that had washed down from other people’s homes. A duffle bag was wrapped around a tree trunk. We pulled it free and wondered what we’d find inside. Nothing. A disappointment. We’d hoped at least for a good story, a curiosity of floodtimes to remember.

Driving into town these days, we pass the boneyard of ravaged vehicles dragged from the waters. The pile grows by the day, joined by appliances and propane tanks waiting for scrap. Mountains of trash line the streets, the sodden remains of homes and businesses along the way. I’m not sure where it’s all going, but I think of the Trümmerbergs in Munich, grassy parks built upon the rubble of WWII.

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A former horse pasture at the confluence of the North and South St Vrain
rivers became a funnel for debris

At the edge of town, excavators are digging new trenches to connect the old irrigation ditches to the river’s new course. Our ditch has not been damaged and can still reach the river. We should have water next year, a comfort in these sad times.

A comfort. When the world goes awry and familiarities seem forsaken, we look for small tokens of normalcy amid the decay. Our members say that picking up their vegetables is a comfort, a routine that connects them to their pre-flood lives. For others, knowing that our fields weren’t damaged is a comfort, one shared by grateful farmers here.

Stonebridge crew picking vegetables last weekend.

Stonebridge crew picking vegetables last weekend.

Some readers have told me that they found my book a comfort in its reminder that seasons pass in cycles, some more difficult than others, while nature measures time to its own accord.

Other readers took comfort in the strength of my grandparents and great-grandparents, rugged people who lived close to the earth without modern conveniences. If they could survive the Dust Bowl, who are we to complain of a temporary lack of water, power, and—what my ancestors could never have foreseen—communication technologies?

And where do I take comfort in these disrupted times? I’m suffering some pre-flood amnesia. I seem to have forgotten events that happened right before the disaster. Things I had started but then abandoned seem to have slipped my mind. So I look for any small return to that pre-flood life as a reminder of what had been.

Like today, the first yoga class since the flood on September 12. We practiced together again with our teacher, who lost so much, but greets us, smiling, with words of strength and love. The town still lacks water, gas, and sewer, so our studio was chilly, but it didn’t matter. We warmed each other by showing up, a homecoming to the normalcy we all crave.

I take comfort, too, in the beauty of the river, peaceful after its destructive course. New vistas have appeared, new access to the wildness it harbors, accompanied by a new respect for its power and no doubt that it will rise again.

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In the middle of the riverbed last weekend, I found a book, a salvage of words twisted by water and tumbled upon smooth stones. My friend recognized the names of the characters from a popular series for teenaged fantasy readers. How this book found its way down the river we’ll never know, but for me, its survival tokens a comfort, a wish for words washed clean downstream to welcome arms below.

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June 2013

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I’ve been errant in my blog posts lately because I’m getting ready for the launch of my book, A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography, in August. I’ve also been hosting and co-teaching a digital storytelling workshop in which participants create first-person, multi-modal videos about significant life events. And then there’s the regular work of our CSA and the flower garden to weed and the farm chores to do every day.

Remember last June’s unseasonably hot weather with temperatures in the upper 90s and even 100s? We’ve had some hot days this June, but nothing like last year so far. Following a cooler, longer spring, 80-degree days are greatly appreciated by both the farmers and the plants in the field. The brassicas (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kohlrabi, and kale) couldn’t be happier. Tomatoes and peppers are setting fruit. We’ll pick peas this Saturday. The fall- and spring-planted spinach has bolted after weeks of delicious harvests but the chard is coming on strong. Compared to this time last year, the garden seems optimistic with the promise of a fresh season to come.

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And the roses are spectacular. Between a good spring pruning and lots of early moisture, every rose is blooming right now.

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The peonies too have put on a show of lush, heavy flower heads.

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At last week’s digital storytelling workshop at the farm, the peonies turned up in several stories. Who could resist a picture like this?

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Seeing Stonebridge reflected through someone else’s eyes makes me appreciate the farm in new ways. Here’s  a wonderful piece by Teresa Barch that captures the spirit of a summer workshop here.

 

With June’s transplanting, weeding, and watering, we don’t usually get to other projects, let alone ones we’ve been dreaming of for years. This week, though, we had an infusion of help from an old friend, so rebuilding the goat pen came to the top of the list. You know someone’s a really good friend when they’ll spend their vacation on your “to do” list.

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Now the goats have a classier place to live and the fence (salvaged from the same farm that gave us the granary) looks like it’s been there as long as the rest of the farm buildings.

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Tomorrow, John and I will celebrate our solstice anniversary with dinner at The Gold Hill Inn. Our friend Angie Burnham has made a new documentary on Gold Hill that will inspire you to visit too. Check out the trailer here.

June feels lucky this year. Lucky for the snow that fell in April, raising the snow pack to normal for the water now flowing through our ditch. Lucky for temperatures that help new vegetables grow. Lucky for friends who share their time and labor. And lucky for a 102-year-old community farm that still grows food.

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If you’re in the Boulder area on August 20, join me for the launch of A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography at the Boulder Bookstore, 7:30 PM. For more on the book, see abushelsworth.com.

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