Tag Archives: writing

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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From Seed to Sauce: Dreaming of Tomatoes in June

 

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At Stonebridge Farm, we plant our high summer vegetables—peppers, eggplant, tomatoes, basil, summer squash, cucumbers, and beans—as soon as the nights and the soil warm up from the winter. That’s around June 1st in our Colorado Front Range climate.

But many of those crops were started much earlier in the greenhouse. We’ve been tending them carefully for a couple months, worrying about potential disasters like the water system failing, a pest infestation, or a hungry mouse chewing through the flats. We’re always relieved to get the peppers, eggplant, tomatoes, and basil into the fields. Even though we know we could still lose them (like we did the first round of tomato blossoms last year from heavy hail), at least they’re in the ground growing and have half a chance of survival if the weather cooperates. And that’s a big IF.

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Those greenhouse crops start in flats, the wooden boxes in which seeds are dropped in rows. After the seeds emerge and have at least two sets of real leaves (the first set are the cotyledons, not true leaves), the plants are “cupped up” in bigger pots with our own special soil mix. They’ll continue to grow in the greenhouse for a few more weeks while we water and foliar-feed with organic plant food. Then we’ll move them outside to the big cold frame, where they’re semi-protected as they “harden off” to the sun, wind, and nighttime temperatures in anticipation of planting in the fields.

Last Thursday morning, six of us transplanted 1000 peppers of our favorite dozen or so varieties, from sweet to really hot, with many shades in between. The peppers also vary by shape: some skinny for roasting, some large for slicing and cooking, some thin-walled and cup-shaped for stuffing, or thick-walled and juicy for eating raw in salad. After we filled the many beds of beautiful peppers, we admired our work and exchanged pepper recipes, a sign that it must be time for lunch.

John and I planted 500 eggplant the next afternoon, and the Saturday crew put in a couple hundred basil plants after the pick. (We always joke that our members get the equivalent of their share price in basil alone, given the high per pound price of basil in the grocery store. Pesto’s so easy to make and freeze, around here, it’s practically a condiment.) With all those starts in the ground, that left just 600 tomatoes for the two of us to tuck in today.

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Nothing gets as much TLC at Stonebridge Farm as tomatoes. From seeds in flats to plants in the field, we watch each step of their progress and monitor conditions to grow the strongest, healthiest plants we can. We’ve tried lots of varieties over the years and now have our open-pollinated heirloom favorites, the ones we save seed from each year to plant back our own stock. We know they’ll do well, we know our members love eating them, and we know they make wonderful sauce to freeze for our winter meals.

Today is sunny but not too hot, except at the height of the afternoon when we broke for lunch. We start planting in the morning shade, the soil still moist from last week’s watering and a little rain. John digs the holes and fills them with compost from the bucket of the red tractor. I come along next, transplanting by varieties in alphabetical order, east to west (our way of remembering what’s planted where).

Tomatoes are the fussiest of transplants. Not only are they susceptible to breaking, they also require the extra step of removing the bottom cotyledons and leaves to create more air flow around the base and mitigate the attack of soil-borne diseases.

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We plant all day, providing lots of time to discuss the latest news (the 25th anniversary of Tiananman Square; the misogynist shooting last week in California) and its connections to our lives. We talk about our families, our projects, and the books we’re reading, all topics we’ve been discussing for the last seventeen years of farming together.

Working down different rows provides moments of solitude, too. Alone with my thoughts, I dream of the tomatoes and how good they’ll taste in just a couple of months. How we’ll pick them on Saturdays for a beautiful display in the barn. How I’ll make sauce from own special “Stonebridge Blend,” which means whatever’s leftover from the Saturday pick. How I’ll combine golds and reds in tarts or salads. How I’ll select the best of each kind to save for seed next year.

This year, I dream of a new workshop I’ll be co-teaching this September 18-19 here at the farm with Allison Myers for the Center for Digital Storytelling’s Savory Stories Series. We’ll be writing and producing digital “snapshot” stories about food preservation, stories that nourish, instruct, and delight–from childhood memories of grandparents canning garden vegetables to jam-making from pick-your-own berry patches to adult mishaps with rogue pressure-cookers gone wild.

In the chapter “Putting By” from A Bushel’s Worth, I recall the treasures of my grandmother’s farm root cellar, gem-colored jars filled with the fruits and vegetables of my grandparent’s labor. Today, many people who vowed to follow more “modern” ways after watching the women of their mother’s or grandmother’s generations spend long, hot days in the kitchen canning bushels of beans, carrots, applesauce, or plums are returning to the canning skills they’d rejected in their youth. Such knowledge is experiencing a renaissance in the local food movement, with small-scale farms like ours providing the produce.

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But food preservation stories aren’t only about canning. Food preservation might mean hunting for illusive mushrooms or even composting, the ultimate in preservation that sends food nutrients back to the soil. Depression-era hoarding of cake mixes or cans of soup is food preservation for people who “can’t stand to use the last one up.” My own food preservation story involves some unusual road food ingredients and a natural disaster.

We’re not only going to write food preservation stories at this workshop—we’re going to learn how to can vegetables, too. We’ll be joined by Luther Green of Preserving Communities, a social equity company that dedicates its resources toward improving our community food system and increasing the capacity for resilience, sustainability and justice. We’ll learn how to can together, sharing stories and recipes, and then enjoy those tomatoes for lunch the next day. And around it all, we’ll write, preserving stories, as well as food.

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At five minutes to five, John and I plant the last tomato and pick up the empty pots and flats. “You drive the truck back,” John says. “I’ll drive the tractor.”

“You put the water on out here,” I suggest, “and I’ll put the water on inside.” I’m talking about water for pasta (with asparagus, spinach, sun-dried tomatoes, roasted walnuts, and chevre), before I realize that a shower is the first water I’ll turn on.

The tomatoes are planted, as are the onions, peppers, and herbs that will accompany them in the sauce we’ll create next September. The promise of more good meals has been planted, too. It’s June 2. The weather’s perfect. The farm’s off to a good start. We work, we wait, and the earth gives again. We’ve accomplished another early season’s tasks with our friends in the fields—and that’s a story worth preserving.

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Foraging the Fence Line

Sure, it’s May 12th, but that doesn’t mean we’re wearing shorts and sandals on Colorado’s Front Range. Mother’s Day was snowy, today’s wind is cold, and tonight the temperature will drop into the 20s, putting this season’s apple crop in peril. Our wintered-over crops like spinach and onions are slower than normal this year, although what “normal” means anymore is anyone’s guess. As farmers in these days of climate change, we watch the weather instead of the calendar and plant or pick accordingly.

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I had intended to harvest asparagus this afternoon anyway before tonight’s predicted frost, but my friend Wendy’s blog post about foraged asparagus inspired me to take my camera along. Wendy’s post will tell you how to prepare asparagus without wasting any of the precious bits, so I’ll leave the culinary instructions to her.

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Instead, I’ll share what else I found on my walk around the farm. First, I stopped in the bluehouse—our passive solar greenhouse made from recycled patio doors—to check on the lettuces. We’ve been eating greens like arugula and chard ourselves from the bluehouse all winter, but last Saturday we harvested lettuce for all our members on the first pick-up day of the season. Bluehouse lettuce is never as crisp as outdoor-planted lettuce, but we’re not complaining about fresh lettuce in May, especially in this cool spring.

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Next, I walked the fence line on the west side of our property to find the bird-planted asparagus. I’ll let you figure out how that happens. John had picked a first round a few days ago and some of it was already going to seed, but I foraged a half bag of hearty stalks, enough for a quiche soon and some for salad too (I chop in bite-sized pieces, steam tender-crisp, cool, and add to spinach, lettuce, parsley, chopped boiled eggs, and roasted walnuts with a balsamic vinaigrette). I also found cactus in the only spot they grow on our farm, back along the fence line near where our neighbor pastures his cows.

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Snow is still falling in the mountains; normally we can see Long’s and Meeker from our field. Today, only Steamboat Mountain just outside of Lyons is visible.

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On the way back to the farmhouse with my stash of asparagus, I run into John crossing the bridge by the flower garden. I glance down into the ditch, which is still nearly empty because the repairs following last September’s terrible flood are not yet complete, making yesterday’s snow quite welcome for our fields.

The lack of ditchwater hasn’t prevented the appearance of another spring foraging treat: the saddleback polypore mushroom that grows each year on the stump of our former rope tree over the swimming hole. Today’s find is fifteen inches across; we’ve harvested it just in time for optimal spongy texture. We’ll sauté it tonight for an extra treat, maybe with asparagus over pasta or toast.

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Our vegetable crops may be a little behind schedule right now, but I’m happy to be on the cool side of the weather rather than shooting straight to hot. We’re still worried about the above average snowpack, too, since the flood last fall has changed the river in unpredictable ways, but we’re glad to know water is on its way.

As I write in A Bushel’s Worth, on a farm, we work, we wait, and the land gives again. In this 23rd CSA season, we’ll adapt and change and flex and grow in whatever way the climate demands. We may not always get it right, but we’ll do the best we can, drawing on the knowledge, patience, and faith that, so far, have seen us through.

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For readers in the Boulder/Ft Collins area, I’ll be teaching a free interactive reading at the Estes Park Public Library this Saturday, May 17th, from 3-5 PM, with a special emphasis on writing stories about the September 2013 flood. Come join us!

I’ll also be offering a workshop at the beautiful Sitka Center for Art and Ecology on the Oregon Coast this September 27-28 on “Writing from Nature’s Artifacts.” Just the scenery will inspire you (and hopefully the class will too!).

 

 

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The Winds Do Blow

To my pearlmoonplenty readers: What follows are some of the remarks I made at a recent taping of a reading for A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography in the Sunflower Room at Stonebridge Farm. I’ll share the video link when it’s up on youtube.

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Stonebridge Farm is a 10-acre, organic, community supported agricultural farm on the Ute Hwy between Lyons and Longmont, Colorado. Stonebridge was established in 1911 as a dairy farm and became the first CSA in Boulder County in 1992. At 103 years old and in our 23rd CSA season, Stonebridge has a long history of practicing sustainable, small-scale, local agriculture.

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Like Stonebridge, John and I have farming histories from our families and the communities in which we were raised. One reason I wanted to read here in the Sunflower Room is that this place joins the past with the future. For one thing, this building was originally a hog barn, which later housed cows and chickens, and even later became a storage shed and machine and wood shop for farm projects. Some of the people here today helped turn this room into the community space that it is now.

The Sunflower Room also contains little pieces of history that came from my own family’s farms in North Dakota. Many of the cool old things you see in this room came from the Smith and Short farms in Williston, North Dakota: doors, light fixtures, old cans and buckets, oil lamps, and the Burma Shave signs hanging on the walls. These things have a new home at Stonebridge, and, hopefully, a long one here.

We hold lots of farm events in this room—our annual pancake breakfast, Halloween party, knitting nights, concerts and old-time jams, and viticulture and writing workshops, since that’s part of our agriculturalist work here too. I love this room because it’s a hopeful place that brings together dreams of the past, present, and future.

I started writing A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography about six years ago by following our farm through the seasons. From there, I expanded the book to include my family’s farming stories, my summer visits to those farms, and my childhood growing up east of the Rocky Mountains. As I wrote, I wove in my sense of urgency about protecting the natural world, an ecological awareness that was born out the nascent environmentalism of the 70s. One of the chapters in my book is about the first Earth Day in 1970 when I was in fifth grade. When our class planted a garden to celebrate Earth Day, none of us could have imagined the kind of climate crisis we’d be facing today. Those of us on the Front Range came face to face with it in last September’s flood, a result of the drought/deluge extremes that increasingly occur with the warming of the earth’s surface.

When my publisher, Kirsten Allen at Torrey House Press, encouraged me to bring more of my worries into the book, I told her that I would, as long as I didn’t seem like a worrywart. I try not to fret, I said, and usually have faith that problems will work themselves out.

But that conversation was before Stonebridge experienced two seasons of big worries—the drought and fires in 2012 (which became part of the book) and the frosts, hail, drought, and flood of 2013 (which happened after the book went to press). With seasons like that, who needs plot? Instead, the book progresses by drawing the reader into our growing concern for the future of farming in the midst of climate change and urban development, especially here in the West where the vagaries of weather and vulnerabilities of landscape require concerted vigilance. John and I feel we’re at a crossroads these days for ensuring that Stonebridge has a future in sustainable, small-scale, local agriculture. We know that we’ll need to take steps to preserve this land, even though we don’t yet know exactly what those steps may be.

At the same time that we worry about the future—especially this year with the river’s changed course threatening our irrigation ditch—John and I are farmers, and farmers are a pretty hopeful bunch. One minute we’re hoping for rain and the next, for the rain to stop. We hope for early frosts in the spring and late frosts in the fall. We hope the crops will come up and we’ll get them in from the fields and our members will stick by us. With all this hoping, farming is either the most optimistic of occupations or the most delusional. In farming, you work hard with hope in your heart until you can’t work or you can’t hope anymore. And that hasn’t changed since my grandparents and great-grandparents were farmers.

Those of you who have read my book know that one chapter is based on my Grandma Smith’s diaries and her understated, make-do, appreciate-what-you’ve-got, work-hard ethic. For example, on Jan 29, 1966, she wrote, “This morning its 40 below so won’t be very warm today.” 40 below. I know that makes me feel better about the frigid weather we’ve been having lately.

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Recently, I was looking through my grandmother’s diaries again and found a poem she’d written shortly before my grandfather died and she followed seven months later.

In conclusion, I want to share her poem with you because I think it portrays the hopeful optimism we feel at Stonebridge about our future on this land, the kind of optimism that says, “Could’ve been worse” and “Next year, it’ll be better.”

A poem by my grandmother when she was 82 and still living on the farm:

The garden’s slow,
And so are we
The winds do blow
But I hope it’s rain instead of snow.

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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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What Readers Need to Know

Bushel_MRDeepest thanks to my dear readers for attending the launch of A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography at the Boulder Bookstore on August 20. I’ll be reading again September 12 at Wolverine Farm Books in Ft Collins and September 27 at the Tattered Cover in LoDo, with a signing at MacDonald’s Book Shop in Estes Park this Saturday. I appreciate my readers’ support as my book goes out into the world. For those who have asked how they can help, please remember your local library and suggest that they purchase A Bushel’s Worth for its stories of small-scale and community supported agriculture, fresh food, family genealogy, rural history, ecology of the West,  farmland preservation, and women’s farming lives.

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I’m looking forward to returning to Pearlmoonplenty before long, but until then, here’s a guest blog on memoir that I wrote for SheWrites, the on-line women’s writing community.

What Readers Need to Know

“But you never say whether you found your brother’s bear. Readers will want to know,” my mother emailed me after reading “Silos,” a chapter from my book, A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography. “Mom,” I wrote back, “that would be a different narrative arc, the ‘Did she find the bear?’ narrative arc.”

But what I might have answered was, “Mom, this story isn’t about my brother and his missing bear. This story is about my childhood discovery of independence based on an early memory of walking outside alone in the dark. The story is about something bigger than finding the bear or not. The missing bear provided the situation but was marginal to the discovery I made about myself. It’s that discovery that I want readers to understand by showing them a pivotal moment for me in forming a relationship with the natural world.”

All writers have to decide what goes in a piece of writing and what stays out. With memoir, the temptation can be to put too much in because, we figure, it happened in real life. However, memoir, unlike autobiography, is not an attempt to catalog the events of an entire life. Instead, memoir selects a moment or series of moments in order to explore the writer’s realization or perception of their significance.

This meaning is not drawn from the events as they occurred per se, but from the writer’s memory of them. As Judith Barrington suggests in Writing the Memoir, memoir both “tells the story and muses upon it, trying to unravel what it means in light of [one’s] current knowledge.” What memoir writers must show is not only what happened, but what new understanding—at the time or in recollection—emerged because of it. To take the reader along on this journey, the writer must ask which ideas and details shape the narrative toward that end.

When I taught writing at the university, the first piece my students wrote was a first-person essay about a significant life event. When they brought their first drafts to class, I asked them to cross out the opening paragraph to see whether they liked starting at the second one better. Almost every student preferred the new version to the original because they had started their essay with extraneous information or by telling the reader what the essay would be about with sentences like “Little did I know . . . .” The second paragraph, on the other hand, was usually where the narrative really began, often by providing a scene rather than a lecture. Students learned to not tell readers what the story was about but rather, to let the story unfold so that readers might discover its meaning for themselves.

Crossing out the first paragraph is an easy trick, but on a deeper level, we can think about what belongs in or out of a memoir if we remember how memoirs are shaped by the interplay between recollection and reflection. Following memory down the corridor of time yields many details, not all of which are important to the story we want to tell. Which details—of setting, background, character, time, intention—should be included will depend on what perception, meaning, or message the writer is pursuing.

When I write, I begin with a kernel of the story, often a scene, and build out from there by adding and subtracting ideas and information that lead the reader in the direction I want them to go. When I started A Bushel’s Worth, I drew scenes of my farming life from a journal I’d kept for years. I used these to create chapters based on broad themes like thrift, community, generosity, and grace.

But as I wrote, childhood memories of my grandparents’ farms kept coming to mind and I realized that to create what I call “ecobiography,” or ecology based memoir, I needed to go back further in my life. Those earlier experiences expanded the scope of the book by shaping it as a reunion with my family’s farming past rather than another memoir of escaping city ways. At the same time, some of the nuts and bolts of farming from earlier drafts had to come out, making the book more reflective of lessons learned from nurturing land, crops, and the community they feed.

And what of the bear? Perceptive readers will find him connecting my farming past and future with three little words: “another bear awaits.”

ShortSilos

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