Song School: Unlocking the secrets of songwriting

It’s first thing on a Monday morning and I’m sitting in my folding chair pew at the Church of Mary. There are about 25 of us circled around singer songwriter Mary Gauthier under a tent canopy on the grassy lawn at Planet Bluegrass. In the near distance is the festival stage, and just beyond the St. Vrain River flows by, fresh from the Rocky Mountains. Part preacher, part midwife, Mary speaks the gospel of songwriting with authority and tenderness. In her sermon this morning she tells us that songs come from God to teach us something. She asks if anyone wants to share a verse and chorus to song they are stuck on. Many eager hands go up and mine is in the last and most tentative of the wave. It is my fourth year coming to the Song School and I still tremble like a leaf in the wind at the thought of performing one of my songs in front of a group of intent songwriters. Cradling the head of your newborn song in her hands, Mary coaxes it into the world for its first breath. She asks a simple, yet daunting question, “What do you want to say?” In only thirty minutes we can feel the difference her line of questioning makes in the way the song feels on our skin. With a few word changes tears are streaming down more than a few of our faces.

Woody Guthrie once said “the folk singer’s job is to disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed.” At Song School one hundred fifty aspiring songwriters of all ages, backgrounds, experience, and musical styles come together for five days to acquire the tools necessary to write songs that will heal the world. There are workshops on all aspects of musicianship-writing lyrics, crafting melody, music theory, performance, voice, guitar, and making it in the music business. We sit in circles and listen to one another’s songs and learn how to make them better. It is a cross between band camp and a music therapy session held at a rainbow gathering, but songs are the drugs we use to reach an altered state of consciousness.

I first started coming to Song School four years ago, determined start taking my music more seriously. I went alone and arrived late to find all the campsites were taken. A few kind souls invited me to camp with them. “Are you a first-timer? We are too!” An instant bond was formed and immediately I had a small family to share this experience with. At the end of the week when I played my song at open mic I had three back up singers, a lead guitar and percussionist on stage with me. This core group has faithfully returned to camp and every year inducts another new person into the fold to support and encourage.

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The author performing at Song School open mic with the camp band Photo by William Stewart

Every year Song School is much more than I bargained for. I find myself on a rollercoaster of emotions as I try to get to the essence of what I am trying to say, and work around roadblocks I have created for myself. I experience shimmering moments of belonging and connection with a tribe of people who share a desire to sing about everything—the beauty, the joy, the pain, the darkness and emptiness that define our human experience. Every year I peel back another layer of my own skin to reveal more truth. I learn that this is how you allow other people in so you can dance together. I recognize the disguises I wear to protect myself even when I sing. And what are songs for but to connect hearts? To write good ones I first need to understand my own heart, which is not always an easy or comfortable process. At Planet Bluegrass I sit by the river alone and with other song seekers and sing. Music helps me unlock a room in my heart that moves me to write. Song School makes me braver and more fearless about what I want to say. It inspires me to write songs that penetrate cocktail party small talk and get to the heart of the matter.

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Learning to play guitar like a boss

In a workshop titled How Music and Activism Can Change the World, Ramy Essam, an Egyptian musician, shares his story of how he inadvertently became the voice of the Egyptian revolution in 2011 when he began to sing what protesters were chanting in the streets. One day he was performing these songs for 300 people and practically overnight the crowd in Tahirir Square grew to millions of people calling for the resignation of Hosni Mubarak. His music provided a soundtrack for the struggle and change, and as a result he was tortured and eventually had to leave his home country. From Sweden he continues to be inspired to write and perform songs to fight for a justice. “Music is the most peaceful weapon in the world,” he tells us.

At Song School we learn that the key to writing great songs is paying attention, and writing with urgency and purpose as if your life depended on it because a song could save someone’s life. We become alchemists turning something ordinary into something precious. New songs exist everywhere we only must look and have the courage to bring them forth to share with the world.

 

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Being the Ultimate Chaperone: The making of humans and canyons

My seventeen-year-old nephew, Will, is the eldest of my Vermont sister’s six children—her first teenager. She has been expressing concern about his regular retreats to the Internet and his lack of plans for after high school. I remember this time in my own young life (but I did not have the world wide web, just my journal and a Walkman). I felt bound by the smallness of rural Vermont. I wanted badly to be free but the future was clouded in uncertainty. How does one leave home and imagine a new life?

In response, my Arizona sister, Kelly and I began crafting a plan for Will’s Western coming of age visit. It was time. As Aunties who reside on the other side of the country, we have missed birthdays, ball games, concerts and proms. This is the moment we have been waiting for—a chance to be the ultimate chaperone.

The first few days I put Will to work to earn his plane ticket. We built garden beds, made flower arrangements, harvested peaches and sold them at the farmer’s market. As we hopped from rock to rock in Oak Creek after a necessary break from all the farm tasks, Will marveled at how this overgrown and lush place resembled Vermont. Subconsciously I found a green corner of Arizona where I can root myself.

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Harvesting peaches with Juju at Orchard Canyon at Oak Creek where I work

I thought back to a visit to Vermont when Will was a toddler. They lived in an old house backed by a beautiful millstream. I stole Will away with me down to the stream that was overgrown from the fullness of the season. I carried him across the dense brambles I recognized from the streams of my youth and down to the shady ribbon of water. There were big, mossy rocks draped in green fur. We dangled our feet in the cold water, freed from the confines of our shoes. Will shrieked with delight and possibly a little fear. I was practically a stranger, but he accepted me as an extension of his mother. He gripped my arm and shoulder with trust and confidence that overwhelmed me. Stripped down to his diaper, I held both of his hands, and we hopped from rock to rock across the stream. At each landing, he looked at me with wonder and awe, as if he was soaring. We made a fairy house from sticks and leaves next to the creek at the base of an elm tree. I considered how fast he would be changing, that soon these fairies would be homeless as he grew into boyish pursuits. I thought of the special places I would like to share with him. I imagined the enormous hopes and dreams we all had for his life, before he could verbalize them. Now we were filling his head and heart with the homes we have made in Arizona, and bearing witness as he begins to imagine how to make his own.

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On the road

We pack my Subaru and head to the North Rim, another magical place where I lived many lives—on trail crew, as a Canyon veg girl (botanist), then later conducting fieldwork with volunteers. I was working on a fire history research project for Northern Arizona University the spring Will was born. His first summer in the world I walked through burnt forest measuring aspen regrowth after the Outlet Fire, thinking of my new title: Aunt. I vowed to take the role of helping my sister to raise a human seriously. I watched those trees shoot out of the charred ground determined to grow. Seventeen seasons later we drive by the same aspens that are now teenagers, like Will. “Those aspens are the same age as you,” I tell him. Their leaves quivered in the wind like a symphony of magical instruments. “That’s cool,” Will says, as he flashes me a big smile.

We are a clan celebrating this moment in time. Kelly and I hike him down the dusty North Kaibab Trail and Will plays Red Hot Chili Pepper riffs on the guitar with Mike, my sweetheart. This same soundtrack played while Kelly and I smoked cigarettes with Will’s mom on college break. The company is easy and comfortable, like we have all known each other for a long time, and as if our sister is also present.

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Auntie adventure in the Grand Canyon

We are gazing down at the Colorado River through Angel’s Window, and Will asks me incredulously, “how did this happen?” I struggle to explain how the Grand Canyon came to be, rock layer by layer. I find it is difficult to even make sense of my own blip on that timeline, so how can I begin to account for the millions of years this canyon has been in the making? I thought about how this place has been a force in shaping me—through many years of hiking, working, studying, cutting, learning, building, writing, singing, painting and loving here. There were the heartaches too: the people who have passed away and those who are just gone, the meadows I knelt to study that today are bare buffalo wallows, the hard lessons I had to learn, and the battles I fought on beaches below. All of these experiences mingle like benevolent and malicious ghosts in my memories. The emotions flood back here on the rim with rainclouds heavy and dark, stretching for miles. Then I pull myself back to the present moment, and find gratitude to be immersed in this place in present time.

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How did this happen? So hard to explain the Grand Canyon!

With these rocks, I can trace my path, and the millions of years of prehistory that made this Grand Canyon. I have touched the small, polished stones littered along Unkar Delta and witnessed fragments of time lying around, colorful elements of change. This place reminds us that change is constant, inevitable. Each rainstorm bursting from the sky fills the driest riverbed with new current, and it journeys downstream. I acknowledge all the subtle changes that cannot be perceived by the human eye or a transect tape. These rocks and rivers are alive and rearranging themselves just as we are; they evolve with both sudden and enduring energy.

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Will and the Kane Ranch horizon

I have no idea the twists and turns Will’s life is bound to take. As I write this the immensity of it stretches out in front of me for even further than any of us can see. After these two weeks reconnecting to his sweet spirit I believe he will seek plenty of adventures. As he follows dreams of his own, I hope he will visit canyons and streams often, to let the constant flow of the water around smooth rocks remind him of the certainty of change.

 

Remembering Charlie: Life with a canine copilot

There is nothing like the love of a good dog. Like so many things in life, you don’t realize what you have until its gone. A year ago I lost my nine-year old English Labrador, Charlie. She passed suddenly (in a matter of hours) when a mass ruptured internally. Charlie was a Seeing Eye dog school dropout. Although she was exceptionally smart, she had some issues she could not overcome, like a fear of stairs and startle barking for no apparent reason. Her mother, Kelly, belonged to my friend, Darcy Falk. She was a full-wagging, smiling, gentle and happy dog that was a breeder for Canine Copilots. When I found out that one of Kelly’s puppies was not going to complete the training, I adopted her at once.

At the time I did not realize how much I needed an assistance dog. The day she came into my life marked the beginning of a whole new way of seeing the world, and opened my heart in ways that I never imagined possible. I’ve heard people gush about how they never new unconditional love until they had a child. For me this is also true with having a dog. When I see how my family and friends with teenagers suffer, and I remember how poorly I treated my own parents at that age, I know I was meant to be a dog mom.

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The barrel chest of and noble head of a great labrador named Charlie

Charlie was adorable. She had a big, square head, a barrel chest and expressive, velvety ears. Her eyes were brimming with liquid kindness. She communicated with persistent snorting, heavy sighing and full-body wagging. She was a fast learner—what you might call book smart. But she lacked street smarts. Charlie was a nerd who had been in school most of her life so she didn’t really know how to be a dog. She was enthusiastic about people and other dogs but socially awkward. Because she was cute in that classic wagging and smiling Labrador way, people would try to pet her and she would dodge their affection.

Charlie knew she didn’t want to be a professional assistance dog, but she was perfect for my special needs. Dogs need daily walks around the neighborhood, and it turns out so do people, because every day is new. Charlie sniffed the same bush and each day it seemed to carry a different message, some days necessitated a longer pause than others, as if she was decoding life’s secrets. We were well matched for our strengths and weaknesses. I taught Charlie how to be a dog—to play and take adventures just for the sheer joy of it, and accept hugs. She taught me how to be a better human—to be present, to stop and smell the flowers, and to be compassionate.

Charlie relaxing after a farmer's market adventure Photo by the Author

Stopping to smell the Whipstone flowers on farmers market days

Charlie was not athletic, but she liked to stroll. When I started training for a half marathon I tried to drag her along and it was terrible for everyone involved. She was a delicate flower that wilted in the heat. Despite being overtly sweet and easygoing, she had a very strong will, and was quiet and steady in her defiance. I had to let go of my expectations that I would have an athletic dog that liked extreme adventures. It was better for both of us when I stopped being a soccer mom and accepted that my dog really just wanted to relax and watch the world from the porch.

Charlie’s short and stocky body type summoned unsolicited comments from people like “she doesn’t look like she ever misses a meal.” There is no doubt she enjoyed her kibble. She celebrated breakfast and dinner by spinning casually in a circle upon approaching the house on our way back from walk. Once she heard the sound of kibble clanging into her metal bowl this warranted more spinning in rapid circles. So much spinning, for joy!

Charlie was very musical. She loved to sing. When guitars came out she would situate herself in the midst of it and when the harmonica solo came, she took a howling break right along, throwing her head back, eyes closed with a whole-hearted, unabashed effort, sometimes not even aware that everyone had stopped playing and way watching her performance. She placed herself front and center for band practice and open mic at Mia’s and Hops on Birch, and I really felt like she watched our sets.

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Taking in the acts at open mic nite

With Charlie as my co-pilot, a steady presence in my day-to-day and I was never alone. When my sister was hospitalized after a nervous breakdown, Charlie was by my side for support while we navigated our fractured mental health system. She held watch during my sister’s recovery in her steady, kind way. Charlie was my constant companion when I lived by myself at a remote ranch in Marble Canyon for a month. When I was scared, lonely, and needing comfort, she was there. When you are somebody’s human, there is nothing like that kind of devotion.

I miss her rendition of downward facing dog, and hearing the jingle of her collar in the morning as she shakes out a night’s sleep. I miss the thumping of her strong and expressive tail against the floor, signaling that she is excited about something. It calmed me just to hear her breathing in the night, especially when my marriage ended and I lived alone. I miss her daily greeting of ecstatic wagging that encompasses the whole torso and tail thwapping that could take down a table lamp.

Charlie and me at the Santa Cruz dog beach sunset Photo by Melissa McMaster

 We shared so many adventures!

My life will never be the same without Charlie. She taught me to smile and wag through my worries. When I’m sad, I conjure her noble, compassionate forehead, and I try to remember how soothing it felt to stroke it. I feel the softness of her ears and remember her deep, brown eyes brimming with understanding. Those eyes absorbed my sadness, my joy, my rage, and my love. Without her there is a missing piece, one that I will not be able to replace. I don’t think I will ever recover from losing her. I am grateful for the time we did have together, the many adventures we shared and the fears we helped each other overcome. I am grateful for the walking and thinking we shared and the daily reminder to be present. I am forever different because of her unconditional love and belief in me. There are days I regret not being more patient, kinder, especially in her last hours. You never know when the end will come, yet another reminder to be present and to appreciate every moment.

Farmer’s Market Moments: Connecting People to Farms

Farmer’s market season is in full swing, and if you are like me, this is the highlight of your week—a chance to socialize with the community and interact with farmers, sampling the array of what can be grown in our region, booth by booth. Last year I worked at Whipstone Farm’s market stand in Prescott and Flagstaff. The hours flew by while ringing up vegetables and counting back change, restocking vegetables and flowers, and sharing recipes. The morning is a blur of short, satisfying interactions with people who are buying what we grew, harvested and washed that week and loaded in the truck well before dawn on only a few sips of strong coffee.

I’ve never worked a retail job before, so I was surprised and happy to find that our customers were almost always in a good mood. Even though I was exhausted, their energy sustained and invigorated me. In Prescott I did not know as many people as in Flagstaff, so I remembered them by what they purchased, what they liked to cook, and their various market bags. I loved observing the parade of humanity—the frail, older couples holding hands, the families and the dog owners at times reeking havoc. I noted the old and beautiful women living alone who sighed at the sight of our giant head lettuce, exclaiming, “Its only me, that’s way too much food.” I shared a simple recipe and wished the food could be the balm to soothe their loneliness when they ate this delicious meal alone.

Tough choices at the Whipstone farm stand

Farmers market shoppers choosing flowers at the Whipstone booth

Even functioning on little sleep, I was always overwhelmed by the kindness and the gratitude of our customers. There was a couple that frequented our stand every week to shop for the restaurant workers at their favorite breakfast spot. I was curious about the individual paper bags they filled with itemized lists of vegetables printed and stapled to them. They described how their mission evolved one Saturday morning as they were being served breakfast. They told their server they were going to the farmer’s market and she lamented that her shift prevented her from going. So they offered to pick up some things for her, and the first list was written on a napkin. This errand evolved to into an email list including servers, kitchen staff and the manager. I saw how good it makes them feel to do this heartfelt shopping for others.

I witnessed countless acts of generosity and compassion in my face-to-face human interactions and I found hope amidst the reports of the great divide between Trump and Hillary supporters on the radio every day during the contentious election season. At the hot and windswept Chino Valley market in the feed store parking lot on Thursday afternoons I got a peek at conservative America and I loved every person I met. There was a middle-aged Hispanic woman with painted eyebrows that complained about her husband and kids confiding that she dreams of escaping for a night to an Ashfork motel. And the recently retired farmer from Washington in head to toe denim who wished he brought his tractor with him to his new home. The construction worker who was in a great mood because his boss told him to go home early and still record a ten-hour day. He was delighted to find the makings for a fresh salsa on his way to pick up chicken feed. This market stand was the leveling ground. We all huddled together under the shelter of the EZ-Up when the monsoons spat fat raindrops, and each of us held a corner of the tent when it threatened to take flight in a sudden gust of wind. We grow food and people need to eat. It doesn’t matter whom you vote for; here amidst the vegetables we shared common ground.

So many votes for local food

Voting for local food and a thriving farm economy

I loved the older men who stood in line to buy only one bunch of turnips probably because Cory, one of the farm owners, convinced them it was tasty with his jovial, yet persistent sampling efforts. I watched a grown daughter position her mother’s wheelchair so she could bury her face in each peony bunch, like a child at a candy store. I saw how the fragrance of sweet peas or red stalks in a bundle of rhubarb summoned nostalgia in most people and elicited descriptions of their grandmothers’ gardens. I took a moment to grieve the loss of an era where every grandmother was a food producer and cut flower grower and a child could get lost in the aroma of sweet pea vines while shucking sweet corn on the front porch. I wanted to shake these people by the shoulders and tell them its not too late to plant a garden like this for their grandchildren. I reminded them that the knowledge is inside them, the blueprint is simple; a rhubarb plant returns from beneath the ground every year announcing that it is time to make pie, and you make pie. Each of us is the keeper of seeds and the maker of memories for a small person who is longing for wonder and in need of dirt.

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Agave Maria Botanicals market display

Farmers execute this elaborate performance, setting up and tearing down an entire store every Saturday and Sunday morning for six months. They bring what they have grown to market and arrange everything in enticing baskets and crates so their harvest can be shared. I always loved wandering the market as a customer to get my fill and chat with the farmers I admired. Now I feel proud to be on the other side. Now I’m on the team with dirt under their nails and roughened hands. I am not the consumer but the maker, the grower, and I have something to offer the world that is beautiful and nourishing and real. I have my own 100 square foot shop that connects people to the earth, to the farm, to the soil, to the places of abundance and unimaginable beauty in their neighborhood.

Sex in the Orchard: Another vote for science

Spring is the most intoxicating season, even more so in the company of fruit trees. I descend the switchbacks of Oak Creek Canyon in the morning quiet before the tourist cars crowd the road. They are still waking up at their campgrounds, the smoke from their fires signaling a vacation day ahead with coffee and bacon. I stop at Sterling Spring and fill my bottles with the cold, rushing power of water that has just emerged from the Earth. Rarely do I find myself there alone, more often I meet others filling jugs and we exchange pleasantries while we share the awe and gratitude of this gift. I study the riparian trees bearing tiny, bright green fists of spring buds, their uncurling fingers forming a lacy canopy that grows more leafy and exuberant the deeper I descend and with each passing day.

When I get to Garland’s (now re-named Orchard Canyon Lodge) there are fruit trees to observe and tend as they greet the spring and start the seasonal process of growing a crop of fruit. The blossoms unfurl three weeks earlier than normal in response to the unseasonably warm days and then have to hang tough through the sporadic cold nights. The breeze carries their delicate fragrance, and the blushing pink and white flowers stir the honeybees from their slumber. The bees must perform the critical work to transfer the pollen as they buzz between flowers. Most apple varieties are self-unfruitful, which means they need the pollen from a different variety that blooms at the same time. The ovary in an apple flower has five chambers, each of which has two ovules, and most need to successfully be fertilized. If not, the fruit is misshapen or small. Many of the apricots, plums and peaches are self-fertile, meaning they don’t require pollen from another variety and are starting to show that pollination was indeed successful. Thumb-sized fuzzy fruits swell below where the petals have fallen and only shriveled stamens remain.

Peach blossom bee visit

Bees visiting peach blossoms

While I admire the apple blossoms and the steady humming of the bees, I start working on pest control. The coddling moth, our main insect predator, has recently been detected in the orchard on the lookout for a mate. Unfortunately for the moths, I am trying to stop them from having sex. The female lays her eggs on the leaves and tiny fruits and when they hatch, the larvae crawl inside the developing apples and feed on the growing fruit. My job is to install mating disruption dispensers every ten feet throughout the three-acre orchard. The red rings exude the female sex pheromone, which confuses male moths, hopefully preventing them from impregnating the females. I feel like such a prude intervening in this way; and the plastic tags that affix the red pheromone-loaded rings to a tree branch bear an ironic heart-shape. However, the alternatives are worse—wormy apples or the more detrimental spraying of a broad-spectrum insecticide that kills everything, the target pest and the beneficial insects that help balance the entire ecosystem.

Pheromone disrupter hanging below developing apple fruit to confuse male coddling moths

Pheromone dispenser hanging below developing apple fruits will hopefully distract male moths from finding females and give us wormless apples!

Mating disruption technology is relatively new for orchard pest control; it was developed only 25 years ago. Scientists studied pheromones for several decades before a product like this could be released on the market. I am grateful for this and so many other scientific advances that have deepened my understanding of ecology and can help me become a better farmer. This past weekend I marched for science down Aspen Avenue with close to 1,000 Flagstaff residents, to lend my voice to this global movement of citizens calling for evidence based decision making by our politicians. My sign quoted Simone Weil, the French philosopher, labor union activist and mystic: “Science is the study of beauty in the world.” I also want people to remember that we need to celebrate science with art, poetry, dance, song and the written word.

Ode to Apple Pollination paper collage by the author on display at the State Bar Cross-Pollination show through May

Ode to Apple Pollination, a collage I did in celebration of this miraculous act

Every day we live on this planet we reap the benefits of scientific knowledge. It is because of science that I can drink clean spring water flowing from the ground in Oak Creek, that we have choices for organic pest control, and therefore less exposure to harmful pesticides in our food. There are so many factors influencing something we consider so commonplace, such as how an apple makes it into our hands. We need healthy and abundant pollinator communities and scientists who have the support and freedom to do research that advances our understanding of the world, especially as the climate changes, and a society that creates policies informed by science.

Meanwhile the seedlings in the greenhouse are emerging each day from their little soil cells. Each time a seed I planted emerges from the darkness and starts curling towards the light, wanting to become something, I am filled with joy and a deep sense of fulfillment. It doesn’t matter how many times I witness this simple miracle, I am still filled with wonder. I feel like a proud mother, like I did something right, like there is still magic and hope in the world despite all the terrible news. I feel fortunate to be connected to the rhythms of the Earth and the beauty and complexity of nature every single day.

 

Rowing for Her Life: A friend’s healing journey

Cancer. The word spoken aloud can pierce your heart with fear. It’s not possible to live without being touched directly by this disease or watching helplessly it affects someone you love.

My dear friend Kristin, a botanist, river guide, herbalist, healer, and Hopi language activist, has been struggling with breast cancer since she was diagnosed five years ago. I met her almost 20 years ago when we were in graduate school and spending summers the Ponderosa pine forest studying how plant communities recover from fires. She was the first scientist I worked with who was giddy about flowers and greeted them like friends she hadn’t seen in awhile. A few years later we teamed up with another friend to write a book about Grand Canyon river plants (which only took six years!) enough time for our friendship to take root and grow.

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The author and Kristin having a moment in her tailgate flower garden

Kristin has a deep and abiding love and respect, curiosity, and spiritual connection with plants that has inspired my own journey to know them. She introduced me to the world of medicinal plants revered by Hopi people, to herbalism practice, and innovative gardening techniques.

Kristin and her husband live in a tiny house on a beautiful homestead perched above the Gila River hot springs and surrounded by wilderness. They grow the majority of their food and she makes medicine from plants she collects from along the river and in the mountains in her backyard. Standing in her root cellar you feel like you are in the womb of the earth. Jars of various sizes filled with tinctures, canned and fermented foods, and dried herbs line the shelves. Inside one jar were hundreds of cottonwood buds, like tiny claws floating, their medicine being extracted in olive oil. When she removed the lid, I inhaled the aroma of a stream bottom, of detritus and unbridled potential, new and green, ready to unfurl into leaves and canopy—a life force for people, insects and birds.

When faced with the diagnosis, the doctor advised Kristin that she have a lumpectomy, remove her lymph nodes, do chemotherapy and radiation. The foundation of her belief system is to live in harmony with nature, so that is how she addressed her diagnosis. Ever the scientist, she did her research and in the process, shifted her entire life focus to natural healing. Becoming sick infused her with passion to study cranio sacral bodywork and kinesiology, so she could not just heal herself but also help others.

Recently, a PET scan revealed that the cancer is back, now at stage four and spreading to other parts of her body. I tried to imagine receiving this news. How it could crush your soul like a hammer and shatter any positive progress you have made. Then add the confounding affect of those closest to you, who out of love and fear of losing you will question your choices. Decisions like this test the very foundations of your spiritual beliefs. There is no map, each of us must find our own way and Kristin is walking hers with courage and grace.

Once again, Kristin had to make a difficult decision. Still she could not bring herself to abandon the natural course she was on for pharmaceutical treatments. She brought all of her collective resources to bear and sought out talented doctors and is now undergoing aggressive IV and ozone therapies.

For her birthday in late January Kristin called on her girlfriends to gather around her and help with a healing ceremony. She asked us to bring our shared experience to help release anger, regret and suppressed emotions. This is something we’ve been doing every winter solstice so we were ready with all of our ceremonial tools packed. We drove the winding road through forests of Saguaro cacti that have weathered heavy grazing and drought and are now facing the uncertainty of climate change, yet stand fierce and rooted in their survival. Kristin was strong enough to walk the uneven terrain along an ephemeral desert creek. We nestled around the glistening water in the late winter sunshine. Kristin applied the all-natural Tango tinted lip-gloss I gave her for her birthday, laughed and her shimmering lips smiled for us. She passed it around as part of the ceremony. We all looked great in the color Tango.

Feeling the strength of the saguaro cacti

Birthday celebration in the saguaro forest!

We talked about the heavy weight of anger, how much energy it takes to keep the rage burning inside us. We expressed our gratitude for the way this fire motivates action. She told us about the male doctor who warned her patronizingly, “You are going to have to decide how attached you are to your breast.” We imagined him at the bottom of a crack in a nearby rock, tiny in his white coat, without power. We tried to forgive people like him who have done us wrong. We listened to the heavy weight of Kristin’s burdens, the fear people’s judgments, the worry and blame she is holding onto. She handed it off to us in words, little by little then drained more in tears, and we let ours go too, regrets rolling down our cheeks mingling with the pure, cold water melting from the Rincon Mountains. We wrote it all down on beautiful gold leaf paper and burned a tiny fire of the crumpled emotions with our juniper smoke.

I sang her a song that I wrote:

The River she knows a lot
But she’s not gonna tell you everything, oh no she’s not
Get into your boat, grab hold of the oars
Row for your life toward the sound of that roar
There ain’t no going back now
‘Cause you just left the safety of the shore.

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Kristin rowing her boat through Grand Canyon rapids

I imagined Kristin’s body was a river flowing, a powerful, healing life force moving from the top of her head down her spine around the curve of her bottom along the backs of her legs and out the tip of her toes. This river flowed all the way to the sea, uniting with the great unconscious, uncertain, unknowable future, beyond our control. This journey is not unlike others she has taken, remembering her bravery when she rowed her first boat through the Grand Canyon. I was there with her then, holding on, feeling the raw fear, praying, cheering and hugging her at the bottom of each rapid. Kristin grabbed those oars and rowed for her life then, as she knows she must do now.

Home on the range: Living in a house without walls

After about a week alone in that wild, lonely place, I became almost feral—not showering, wearing the same clothes every day and peeing in a bucket in the dining room so I didn’t have to go outside to the bathroom building. I lived in the moment. I would pop a CD into my computer to digitize, sort through my vintage suitcase of random collage paper scraps, then open a song file on my computer to edit the disparate lines, then read Ann Patchett, make popcorn, then transition to the typewriter to write a letter. My creative process was not pretty and it smelled bad, yet it was intensely joyous.

I revisited a song I started years before called “A House Without Walls.” I borrowed the title from a poem my friend, Mike Wolcott, wrote one morning after we shared a cup of coffee at the same house I was getting ready to sell on Meadowbrook Drive. The sentiment was full of gratitude for the shelter and comfort of our house, but because Mike was a seasonal rambler at that time, he also expressed the true joy of living season to season at home in the outdoors, writing: “In a house without walls there is more room for love.”

I too used to live this way before becoming a homeowner. There is little to insulate you from the weather, from the people you work with, from all the good and bad that arrives on your so-called doorstep, which is actually a tent vestibule or tailgate. Temporary dwellings marked my journey—the beaches of the Colorado River were my front porches. Shelter was a bunk in the trail crew bunkhouse or a tiny trailer shared with another intern. Home was a feeling I carried with me everywhere like a turtle shell.

While trying to express this in song, I was in the midst of final negotiations for the sale of our beautiful, luxurious (by my standards) home. We resided there for 15 years and put our blood, sweat and tears into it to make it ours. Yet, here I sat in an old rock house that did not belong to me and somehow it felt more like home.

Frustratingly, I could not seem to find the right words to express this. I was listening to Prairie Home Companion when one of my musical heroes, Brandi Carlile, sang her new song “Wherever Is Your Heart.” The chorus goes: “Wherever is your heart I call home.” I realized that her song had the right combination of heartfelt sentiment and catchy melody I wanted so desperately to write. I fought the urge to feel defeated, cranked it up, sang along and summoned the courage to keep writing. I knew the words had to be somewhere inside me.

On one of my last days at Kane I went for a run down the lonely dirt road. The sun was fading on the Vermilion Cliffs and they were lit up in bright fuchsia and coral red. Long creases of indigo shadows lay down on the land, letting go of the day and everything I had hoped to do while I was there. It broke my heart open. I knew that when I returned I would be different, and that uncertainty was beautiful because it helped me cling ferociously to the present.

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The long lonely road to Kane Ranch. Photo by the author

I realized that letting go of everything was helping me to learn how to be at home in my skin. The landscape of Kane was a huge part of my personal growth. This wildness was lodged deep into the fissure of my being. I was carrying all it had given me with me to my farm yurt in California. Being there in that expansive valley running down a winding road where there is no sign of human settlements for miles, I let myself be open and present and ready for the road ahead, wherever it would lead. I knew I would always belong to this place.

The Necessary Darkness: Writing through Uncertainty

The darkening days of December are a struggle for me. I should be sleeping but the process of turning inward keeps me up all night by the fire, reading and dreaming and scheming. This is the time of year to plan the next farm season. For a novice, landless, itinerant farmer this means a great deal of uncertainty and unrest.

On a recent long night I remembered a trip down the winding Big Sur coast road at sunset. It was the last week of my apprenticeship at the UCSC Farm and Garden, and a few of us decided to volunteer on the farm at the Esalen Institute in exchange for meals and hot soaks. We had to camp somewhere nearby to arrive for a 7 o’clock start. The only reservations available were at Andrew Molera Park, where we had to walk a quarter mile to the campsite through a forest of riparian trees in full darkness. Giant hands of sycamore leaves silhouetted the bright sky glittering with stars. I had not seen the Milky Way in some time, as the coastal fog moves in most evenings. The dazzling brushstroke was invigorating and grounding, like setting eyes on an old friend.

We pitched camp under a towering oak; then, intrigued by the steady pounding of ocean surf sounding somewhere in the distance, we set off in search of it. We reached an estuary where the river joined the sea and gazed at a mirror of starlight reflected in the water. I brought out my ukulele and we sang songs about water and stars. A shooting star with a sparkling green tail exploded across the atmosphere then quickly dissolved. On our way back, my headlamp caught the iridescent pink eyes of a moth dipping its proboscis into the small white flowers of the brickellia bush, a native plant I recognized from the hedgerow on our farm that attracted many beneficial insects.

We woke before dawn, packed up camp and walked back out of the woods still under a veil of darkness. We lamented not being there to see it in the daylight, but then I recalled everything I had witnessed despite the darkness, and all that I had reserved for my imagination.

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The Big Sur coastline from Esalen Institute

When we arrived at Esalen, the sun was inching from beneath the ocean. This place is a retreat for seekers and thinkers, perched on the expansive Big Sur coastline and far away your life, which feels insignificant in comparison to the surroundings. Narrow paths wind through tended gardens, bridge steep waterfalls and lead into the towering redwood forests of the Ventana Wilderness. With our bellies full of coffee and nourishing farm-to-cafeteria food, we gathered in a circle under a shade canopy with the other volunteers. We took turns introducing ourselves with a quick psychic check in, which is an Esalen tradition, and also a common exercise on the UCSC farm. When you are participating in repetitive, physical labor for hours on end with a group of people, it is best to understand what you are bringing into the mix.

Transition emerged as a universal theme for the farm volunteer crew, as it was also with Mother Earth. The plants were slowing down and fields were being seeded with cover crops. I too was harnessed to the season, summoning my energy to trim weed up North before winter so I could return home with some money in my pocket, but that is another story.

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Witnessing small wonders in the garden

We harvested and processed kale, salad mix and herbs for the kitchen, for the most part in silence, at moments I paused to take in the epic surroundings, both big and small–a bee pollinating Queen Anne’s lace flowers and the ocean views just beyond. After work I sat on an expanse of lawn in the afternoon sun, looking out at the sea trying to capture this experience in my journal. I had grown fond of this horizon of salty water churning with the planetary pull. Its largeness was reassuring.

I recalled filling pages from this very spot five years earlier with my best friend Karla on a Sun Magazine writing retreat. We were each granted fifteen minutes alone with Sy Syfranski, editor, publisher and father of the Sun. “Ask or tell me anything,” he dared, “I will listen.” I found Sy sitting on a pile of pillows in one of the meditation rooms and suddenly wondered what the heck am I doing here? I have nothing to say! But his unassuming, Buddha-like manner immediately put me at ease. His round glasses and sparse, wispy, gray curls gave him the look of a wise, self-effacing owl. “I don’t know where to begin,” I said. He asked me why I came to the workshop. Through our short conversation, I took a break from doubting and gained some clarity. I realized that I came to hear my own words and listen to others speak theirs (the best and worst part of writing workshops—sharing). I came to remember why I write, why it feels necessary. I came to remember that the process usually leads me to a deeper understanding and with it I wanted to somehow change the world.

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The Esalen garden 

I wanted to know how Sy faces the blank page every month for his column. Was there a secret code he could share, writer to writer? How does he quiet the naysayers in his mind or overcome procrastination? My column deadline looms constantly, and every five weeks I think I’ll do better, I’ll start earlier. Then suddenly it is the week, the day then the night before and I haven’t. With each deadline my own small life flickers back from the computer screen and I doubt that I can say anything new, original, funny, intelligent or important. This is the necessary darkness of writing and I enter it willingly, driving down this dark road only seeing what is right in front of me, page by page. Owl eyes blinking, Sy expressed that it is always hard, but finding a rhythm to your writing practice will make it easier. The rhythm of my life changed vastly since that time. I no longer the same person I was five years ago. This current chapter I am writing wasn’t even a twinkle in my eye. What has not changed is my obligation to writing, my curiosity for the darkness and all that I find there.

Published in Flaglive on December 22, 2016

Seasons with the Apple Trees: Awakening to the Wonder

This year, in Flagstaff, we were fortunate to enjoy a long, lingering autumn. I drank in the last warm days surrounded by the ripeness of the world, just as it is at its peak, before yielding to the natural cycle of rest. I relished the shock of gilded leaves falling to the ground and the pungent perfume of summer decomposing into the Earth. I appreciate this reminder from the plant world of the endless cycle of death, decay, and dormancy that preambles growth.

I am a manic mess in the days leading up to imminent hard consecutive frosts. The apple trees around town produced a bumper crop and I could not stop myself from harvesting the bounty from random neighborhoods and parking lots. I had collected a few boxes of these apples in my basement with no concrete plan for them. These apples from untended trees were so small that cider was the best way to handle them. I heard about a man who built a cider press and set it up on weekends at the Market of Dreams on Fourth Street. I had to check this guy out. I found a smiling, gray-haired man operating a handmade cider press, surrounded by giant plastic tubs and laundry baskets full of all varieties of apples. This man, Ward, a retired engineer from Wisconsin, worked most of his career in the oil refinery industry. A few years ago he received “a call,” as he described it, when he witnessed an abundance of apples going to waste on the trees around Flagstaff. This inspired him to build a cider press from scrap wood, an old bed frame, and a car jack to make sweet cider for whoever desires it. He looked a little worn out, as he had been at it for almost two solid months; not just pressing, but picking from his favorite neighborhood trees as well.

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Ward’s DIY rack and cloth apple press travels to harvest festivals around Flagstaff

I understand what Ward means when he describes the call he received to devote his free time to all things apples. I got a call like that last year during my apprenticeship at the University of Santa Cruz. Whoever is working the switchboard for the apple world found my direct line and I answered. I fell deeply in love with the 130 plus varieties of apple trees at the Farm and Garden. Orin Martin, our fruit tree guru, began our first pruning lesson with the poem by Pablo Neruda “Ode to the Apple:” “When we bite/Round your innocence/We return/for a moment/To be also newly created creatures: Then we have something of the apple.” I didn’t want to ever return from that place.

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I heart Macintosh apples

Apples are tasty, as are all the things you can make with them, but fruit trees are wondrous and mysterious. The care of these trees involves a series of interventions and a relationship between you and a complex living organism. This is a world rich in metaphors and Orin is well versed in them. The buds are arrows, and when you cut to an outward facing bud the branch will grow further in the direction it is pointing. He encourages us to create alleys of light between the whorls of branches because you need sun to make fruit. It is the lateral branches bear fruit, so you are always looking for ways to generate more “fruit hooks,” the perennial flower buds where fruit is a possibility. Orin compares pruning to gospel music, as it is a call and response between you and the tree. Sometimes I am the caller and sometimes the responder, but always I am searching for the harmony and with hands clapping together in praise.

I watched Orin’s fluid and precise movements with awe during our summer pruning sessions. He’s been at it for more than thirty years, and I’m beginning to understand that it will take me that long to get the hang of this. That means I’ll be in my seventies by the time I’m proficient. The first time I lifted my Felco hand pruners to thin a branch from a young Cox orange pippin, I felt certain the tree could sense my hesitation and cowardice, the way horses do. How could I make such a bold decision about this tree’s growth? The moment I felt the resistance of my pruners against the young wood and the resolve when it fell to the ground I was hooked. Light filtered into the greenery, dappling leaves that had been previously shaded. I could see the shape of the tree more clearly, a cup that was rapidly filling with sunlight so it could become more fruitful. Pruning is like sculpting, but with tangible, good tasting rewards if you do it right.

I’ve been making the trek through winding switchbacks of Oak Creek Canyon’s fall foliage display to help with the last of the apple harvesting, sorting and cider pressing at Garland’s Lodge. Rob Lautz, my Arizona fruit tree guru, has managed the three-acre orchard for the last thirty years. This winter I worked part-time on the pruning crew, and this is my first season seeing the result of those cuts.

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Old-time apple sorting at Garland’s Oak Creek Lodge

As the Macintosh apples roll through the spinning horsehair brushes of the apple polisher and come out shiny, I consider all the effort, every decision on behalf of Rob and others that it took to grow this fruit. The trees bloomed three weeks earlier due to a warm spring and Rob fretted nightly that flowers would be pollinated, set fruit, and grow big enough to survive the occasional late spring frosty nights. They weathered a summer hailstorm, but you can still see pockmarks from the bruising on the young fruit. Then there is always pressure from codling moths, a serious insect pest, which can destroy the crop.

The fruit is crisp, fresh and tart; it’s sweet too, but the sour notes play the melody in my mouth. There is nothing like this available in any grocery store. I am grateful for the call to awaken to this world that exists underground and in the branches of the apple trees.

Published in Flaglive on November 10, 2016

Beginner’s Mind: Apprenticing in the Plant World

If you’ve ever started over a later stage of life you may relate to the challenge and frustration of humbling yourself to the daunting task of learning something entirely new. When I decided to delve into the occupation of farming in my forties, I encountered the walls I had constructed in my own mind around learning. Because I worked in the field of botany and restoration for fifteen years I had inevitably developed a persona as “an expert” when it came to plants. I did not anticipate all that I could learn and experience when I let go of knowing.

Lesson #1. You are no longer #1. Months before I became an apprentice at the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems last spring, we received an email that urged us to “prepare to realign our priorities to meet the needs of plants.” No problem, I thought. I am totally ready for this. This meant responding to timers I set on my phone multiple times a day reminding me to drop everything and water the seedlings under my care in the greenhouse. Then I had to clear my social schedule on weekends to irrigate acres of vegetables in the summer heat, and I began to experience that shift in my priorities. It turns out that cultivated plants have serious needs, and you must be invested wholeheartedly in their survival.

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Plants have serious needs! Onions growing out of their seeds.

Lesson # 2. Forget everything and awaken your beginner’s mind. Liz, the Zen Buddhist farm manager, painstakingly demonstrated specific harvest efficiencies for every crop we grew that often made the plants healthier and more productive. She showed us seemingly simple ways to move our bodies and pack boxes that she had accumulated in her twenty-five years as a farmer that would have taken me years to figure out on my own. Like how to snap a chard stem at the base of the leaf where you can feel it yielding to the pressure. “Trust the intelligence in your hands,” she urged, “just beyond your conscious mind.” It was as if I was helping my body remember. This work is old, and most of us have a farmer somewhere in our ancestry, as growing our own food at one time was necessary to our survival.

Lesson #3. Unleash your powers of observation. I remember when I was twenty-one and an intern at Canyon de Chelly National Monument, I was full of questions. Everything was new about the place, especially the plants, and I wanted to know it all—their names, uses and stories. One day a Navajo elder politely told me that we have two eyes, two ears and one mouth so we can listen and observe twice as much as we speak. I remembered this as a farm apprentice full of burning questions, and tried to be quiet. I started to understand that careful attention is key to finding the answers.

As a scientist, I viewed plants as objects to be named and classified and in the process became blind to their spirits. Because I could say their Latin name and could recognize them in crowded meadows, I thought I knew them. I developed serious biases—weeds are bad and rare plants are special. Yet weeds are here for a reason, in many cases because they were brought to new continents as important medicine. I abandoned my botanical training that begged me to name and classify plants and apprenticed in their unspoken world. I began to unlock the feelings that they inspire in me and let my heart guide my botany.

I paid close attention to how they transformed through out the season, learning their needs along the way and getting a feeling for their personalities. I introduced myself to them by starting a conversation—and came to appreciate them for countless reasons, There were the plants that always attracted a bevy of insects to their flowers. I noticed how many different species of wasps were attracted to the large, umbelliforous flowers in the carrot family like fennel, dill and Queen Anne’s lace. I found many species of bees dozing sleepily first thing in the morning on the petals of Echinacea and Zinnia flowers.

Eucalyptus, rose geranium, citrus blossoms and Tulsi basil exuded powerful aromas that had a calming or uplifting affect on my spirit. I found they also have tremendous healing properties when taken as teas or essential oils. I experienced how zinnias made me feel lighthearted and joyful, while honeysuckle filled me with nostalgia and longing for home. Slow growing, yet tough and beautiful lisianthus flowers demonstrated patience, and St. Catherine’s lace, an enormous-flowered, native buckwheat in our hedgerow seemed to know the secret to attracting everything good in your life. Once I observed these aspects I researched how their flowers, leaves or fruit could heal me and started making teas, tinctures and flower essences.

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Making healing tinctures with plants

I was no longer a person who wrote a book about plants or had taught others how to name and identify them. As a new farmer, I returned to what had attracted me to botany in the first place—wonder. Reawakening my beginner’s mind gave me the opportunity to have a deeper relationship with plants. Every plant has a story, especially those long cultivated vegetables and flowers, and for most humans it began with observation and experimentation, long before we had books and names for things.

Published in Flaglive on September 22, 2016