Private Views of Public Lands: Who Do These People Think They Are? Oh. Heh. Us.

How do government workers stand it? All the democracy, I mean. All the dealing with people on whose behalf they are planning the roads or designing the curriculum…or, in this case, protecting the land.

This land. And this chocolate lily and this death camas.

The cover shot of this blog is part of the San Juan National Monument–which happens to be practically in my backyard. So I spend a lot of time out there–enough to feel a strong degree of ownership. “Yeah, yeah, public land…but they don’t know it and love it like I do.”

It’s not like the path is hard to find or anything.

Which is why it’s so hard, every year as Memorial Day approaches, watching the hordes of visitors begin to tromp my beloved paths. Or, often as not, tromp OFF them, into the meadows and over the fragile lichens, despite the signs asking them oh-so-politely not to…

Have you ever seen a sweeter, more polite sign from the feds? It even says Thank you!

despite the not-subtle blockages of routes…

C’mon, people…sticks mean no walkies!

and, oh yeah, this brand-new sign with the trails perfectly marked and the endangered wildflowers listed (the ones you’re tromping on now, you!!! Get back on the trail! (Easy, girl.)

Thanks, taxpayers! (You’re welcome.)

How do they DO it, those Bureau of Land Management folks who, charged with protecting this fragile landscape, hosted public meeting after public meeting with every possible stakeholder, striking the perfect compromise between use and misuse, the perfect language for every sign–including when NOT to place a sign at all? And then to see how many people deliberately breeze past your handiwork because they NEED to go climb that rock?

THIS rock…which has a perfectly good access if you’d just walk a little further up the trail!

I know, believe me. I’ve scoffed my share of laws–dog off leash for years (though I always leashed up if I saw another person), lichens crushed, flowers picked because I wanted to. But that was BEFORE someone asked me (politely) not to, and took the time to explain why.

Do we need to ask more politely? Explain more thoroughly? Or just resign ourselves to the fact that a certain percentage of people will always do exactly what they want no matter that–or even because–someone’s asking them not to?

I’m really bad at resignation. Guess there’s a reason I don’t work for the Bureau of Land Management. I have too much personal, private passion wrapped up in these lands…which aren’t private in the least.

Which is good. I happen to have neighbors who are equal parts wealthy, environmentally concerned, and generous. I walk and run on their paths as much as on the National Monument; they are contiguous, the same stunning stretch of coastline. And grateful as I am for their permission to drink in the private beauty, it feels weird to me that it IS private. That so few people have access…to wander off its trails, tromp its delicate meadows and lichens and…

Delicate lichens and red-leafed stonecrop that suddenly shows itself golden in the spring…

Oh dear. Here we go again. Guess I’ll just wrap it up this way: I love our democracy. I love the idea of public lands. And I appreciate the hell out of the folks who have to deal with the public ON the land, because…they sure are better at it than I am.

I spent my Mothers’ Day morning dragging brush to our burn pile. My neighbors, part-time islanders up for the weekend, waved to me from inside their cabin where they appeared to be having brunch. I imagined them shaking their heads over me: “Poor thing, no breakfast in bed for her, no restaurant? Out there working at nine in the morning…hope she got flowers at least.”

Truth is, I was in my element. With out disparate schedules, the Mate and I rarely get to do work projects together any more. On a lovely, sunny day, it feels like a gift. And it’s good marriage glue, besides.

So I was thinking about Mothers’ Day when I got to the burn pile and discovered what The Mate had found a day or two before when the last big pile of brush went up in flames:

Fresh-roasted free-range eggs, anyone?

Our neighbor’s chickens? Not the best parenting decisions.

That reminded me of the swallows we’re usually battling this year, trying to keep them from nesting in our garage–or, more accurately, from pooping all over our garage. The nesting ain’t the problem. But there’s no picture of that, ’cause they haven’t shown up this year. Could it be that we’ve finally terrorized the poor things sufficiently, knocking their nest attempts down with a broom and blocking their entry off with deer netting?

So, the swallows get an A in parenting this year. At least so far.

And then there’s the robin who built this nest on the ladder The Mate attached to the side of our house:

Cozy little fixer-upper, good schools nearby…

As you can see, we allowed this nest to stay. Clearly excellent choices on the part of those bird-parents. Right?

Secret to a great life: choose parents who make good choices.

Of course not. These parental ratings are all artificial constructs I’m applying in accordance with the rules I’m setting: THIS ground is for burning. THIS is for storage. THAT yard…yes, good. Good bird. Good choice.

Suddenly the parallel with people was overwhelming. Parents raising children in “bad neighborhoods”–how much choice do they have? In our society, who are the chickens, the swallows, the robins? Who’s in charge of the burn pile, the garage, the ladder on the side of the house? 

A Frayed Knot: Picking Our Way Through The Need

So this piece of string walks into a bar. (Stop me if you’ve heard this.) Bartender growls, “Hey, you. We don’t serve your kind in here. Beat it.” Hurt and angry, the string heads home to her apartment. There she ties herself into complicated loops, and frizzes her ends till she’s nearly unrecognizable. Then she goes back into the bar and orders a beer.

“Hmmm,” says the bartender suspiciously. “Aren’t you that same piece of string I just threw outa here?”

“Oh, no,” the string says innocently, “I’m a frayed knot.”

Ba-dum-bum.

Not the best bar joke ever…but close!

This joke popped into my head recently after reading these lines from Kim Stafford’s book of post-election poems, The Flavor of Unity,

“By writing, thinking, and talking, clarify your vocation, so you can enter the fray without being frayed.”

Copyright 2017 Kim Stafford. Thanks, Kim!

During the Civil Rights Movement, and more recent movements who use nonviolent resistance, participants had to learn to conquer their fear–of prison, of violence, even of death. The most famous freedom song, We Shall Overcome, contains the lyric, “We are not afraid.” Not being currently on the front lines of any struggle, but instead struggling to choose among the many, many causes calling for support since Trump’s inauguration, being AFRAID is not my issue–but being FRAYED? Yes. ‘Fraid so.

My email box and Facebook feed fills daily with calls to contact my congressional reps about the environment, or health care, or immigration, or…you know. If you’re an American, you’re probably getting the same emails. Sign this. Send money to that. Attend this meeting. Join that march. There is too much need out there to do it all.

Which is why I’m very much looking forward to the online course I’ve signed up for with Quaker writer and teacher Eileen Flanagan, entitled, “We Were Made For This Moment.” The intro to her course reads, 

In this time of tumult, fear, and hatred, the world needs the gifts that you were born to share. You may not be sure where to use them. You may not know how to use them to greatest effect, or even if you can make a difference at all, but you know you need to do something to work for a more just and loving world. You are not alone! The purpose of this online course is to help you to meet this moment.

Finding one’s purpose, to me, means finding my path. This means, of course, choosing some paths NOT to take. It’s never easy; we all want to contribute, be supportive, “be there” for each other, or vulnerable people, or the planet. But when we try to be everywhere, we fray…and–mixed metaphor alert–we burn out.

I want to walk a path and stick to it. I look forward to some guided discernment. I also look forward to hearing how you might have dealt with this same issue. How do you keep yourself in the fray without fraying?

 

 

What Do Writers Make? If We’re Lucky, The Same As Teachers: A Difference

Happy Teacher Appreciation Week! And please be patient…I’ll get to the teacher part of this post by the end. But first…

I’ve discovered a new identity in my post-teaching career: community pro bono writer. What began five years ago as a monthly gig, writing the Spotlight on Lopezians for our lil’ paper, has morphed into being the on-call writer for a large portion of the non-profit groups and events on our island.

For example, in the past year+ I’ve written articles for:

  • Earth Day celebrations
  • a rock concert to benefit our school
  • a presentation on Cuba
  • a concert to benefit our local radio station–no, make that two different concerts for KLOI
  • a presentation on fighting climate change
  • the Home Tour, which benefits our community center
  • a brand-new business (OK, this one wasn’t non-profit, but the article was a feature, not an ad)
  • a community kitchen
  • the winner of the community Spirit Award
  • the Dump
  • the dedication of a plaque honoring the founding of our community garden/Farmers’ Market space

All this while maintaining my pace of 10 Spotlight features/year…and oh, by the way, writing my novel.

And none of this has earned me a dime.

I know some champions of writers, most notably Kristen Lamb, who rail against writers giving their stuff away for free. I appreciate hugely this lobbying effort. But do I feel like a turncoat or a wuss for agreeing to write for nothing?

No, I do not–for several reasons. When I said I haven’t earned a dime, that doesn’t mean I haven’t earned anything. Here’s what I’ve earned:

#1, Boldness. No one tricked me into this. The Spotlight articles paid 10 cents a word up until I took on the “job,” but the paper’s editor informed me up front that they were losing revenue and could no longer afford even that minimal $80 fee. I could take the gig or leave it. And I took it because…

#2, Publicity. My articles have created a much larger audience for me than if I had relied only on the few dozen locals who’ve read my books. So when Book #3 comes out, or if/when I apply for a position where writing counts, my work not only speaks for itself, it speaks to everybody here.

#3, Friends. My articles have been a great doorway to meeting new people and learning their back story.

#4, Warm Fuzzies. Pro bono writing for good causes feels good. I struggle sometimes to fit in all the community involvement I feel called to. Driving places, phone-calling…those are harder for me. But writing? Easy as pie–and keep in mind, I’m really good at pie.

All of which brings me back to teachers. All teachers eventually get sent this wonderful spoken word piece by (former) teacher Taylor Mali, “What Teachers Make.” It used to speak to me as a teacher. Now, I’m finding that it speaks to me as a writer as well.

So I’ll say it again: Happy Teacher Appreciation Week. If my little articles can make a portion of the difference I once made in people’s lives as a teacher…I’ll take that proudly.

Sometimes All You Need is To Be Smacked Upside the Head by a Golden Eagle

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m a “mentor” of a little girl. Just after that post, I attended a meeting for mentors, where we were asked to share something we appreciated about our “mentee.” One fellow mentor said he loved that his kid “gets me out of my head.”

Anyone relate to that?

For those of us without small children or even pets around the house, getting out of our heads can become a strangely invisible challenge: we aren’t aware of how badly we needed to do it until something flies by and–aaahh…That’s better. Perspective restored.

Today I was running along my usual gorgeous route, which just happens to pass through the scenery depicted on this blog’s cover photo. No slouch, as scenery goes. But was I digging those craggy rocks, that deep blue ocean? Ha. Not a whit. I was stuck deeply in my own head.

Rehearsal schedule. Grocery planning. When am I going to get my garden going? Three pieces to edit–not including my own. Article to write. Need to catch up on sleep from three 3 a.m. bakery get-ups in a row. Time with Mate–when’s THAT supposed to happen? And am I going to have time to practice my subjunctive before the next Spanish class?

Then a golden eagle flew over my head. Followed by another golden eagle.

Imagine two. (orig. image courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

I’ll admit–several dozen bald eagles might’ve flown over, unnoticed, as I ran along–and good job, baldies, getting so common after nearly going extinct and all. But goldies? They stopped me in my tracks.

I’m sorry that’s what it took, but it did the job. Aaahh…That’s better. Thankyouthankyouthankyou. Perspective restored.

Care to share a similar getting-out-of-your-head experience? Child, animal, plant–or something not of nature? I would love to hear.

Real-Life Flower Children: Rediscovering the Best Kids’ Game Ever

Note: if you are any of the following, you’ll want to skip today’s post:

a) a human child

b) someone who doesn’t enjoy human children

c) someone who’s in a stage of life where what human children enjoy isn’t particularly relevant.

You’re dismissed! See you next time.

Everyone else, come celebrate with me the simplicity of playing out in nature with a child…and a stick.

Yes, a stick. No, not to throw–that’s dogs, people, not kids. (Unless you’re talking bridges and streams, in which case you’re playing Poohsticks, and don’t let me stop you!)

When I was a kid, my favorite solo game (when my older sisters refused to play with me) was Stick Dolls. Take a stick. Dress it up in leaves and flowers, using grass for a sash. Name it.*  Game on.

*Often flower names like Lily or Violet–but I definitely had a long-lived pair named Beth and Roger.

Fast-forward 40 years to now, when I am Very Much Not a Kid. My own are grown, but not (yet, if ever) in grandkid-production mode. So of course I’d forgotten all about Stick People…till I got myself a Little Sister.

Well, technically, she’s my “mentee” and I’m her “mentor,” through a program we have here on our too-small-for-official-Big-Brothers/Sisters-organizations island. But it’s the same thing. We meet once a week and hang out, cook, do crafts, and PLAY.

Guess what our favorite game is?

Meet Rose Stick–always stylin’.

Guess what my heart was doing the first time I taught my little girl about Stick People?

Yeah. It was SWEET. That was two and a half years ago. Rose Stick has gone through a few iterations, and developed a family: little sis Daisy, big brother Bill, and parents Rainjewel and Bob. (My lil’ girl saves her creativity for the gals, it seems.) But Rose is very much herself. Some days all she does is forage for tiny food to serve on bits of bark or seashell. Other days she chases bad guys who try to kidnap her sister.

But the whole time, Rose Stick is helping me teach my little girl about nature. Dandelion hat? Absolutely–dandelions are an invasive weed. Calypso orchid hat? Nope–that’s RARE.

Salmonberry blossoms? Absolutely!

But these little beauties are off-limits.

And Rose’s bedding? Moss and lichen are only OK to use if they’ve been kicked loose by someone else’s feet; no picking. They’re slow growers, vital to the ecoweb.

Who knew this stuff was even more precious than flowers?

Anyway, that’s it–this post is just me sharing my joy at rediscovering my inner Flower Child. And wondering…anyone else play like this? Or see their kids do so? Please share a story!

 

Writing Prompts: A Hate-Love Relationship

“I don’t have TIME for writing prompts. I have serious revisions to work on!” 

Those were my thoughts a couple of weeks ago when my writing group met without anyone’s writing to workshop. We’d made a commitment, as a group, that when this happened, we would do writing exercises. Whoever hosted that week got to assign one.

My writing colleague/friend chose, “Create a list of scents from your childhood, good and bad. Then pick one and write about it.”

Luckily I LOVE my writing group. So I submerged my bad attitude in a pool of pleasant acquiescence. Inside I was thinking, “Argh. I’ve just ripped the guts out of chapters 5-8 of my new novel–the last thing I need is to be freewriting about my childhood!” But I followed instructions.

Here’s what my pen wrote:

Most people would call it a stink, not a smell: goats and their manure, goats and their milk. Goaty. Yes, hay is involved, and other sweet notes: warmth; cream; the nuzzle of a muzzle; baby-goat lips; that conversational “meh-eh-eh.” But mostly: ew. Little pellets everywhere, like those imported chocolate cordials, only made of shit. But they didn’t smell like shit. They smelled goaty. Hearty. Healthy. Researchy. Unique. Cute. Intelligent. Second-class but proud of it—“alternative,” like my school, my entire childhood. Goat Barn. Who has goat barns? No one I knew. Who could tell proud stories of being butted, of making “milkshakes” by bouncing a goat on one of the gangplanks across the muck? Who could use a goat as a safe spot in a game of tag and turn her teats into milk-guns?

Don’t worry. This stroll through the goat barns of yore is not going to cause a sudden veer toward memoir. I’m still working on chapters 5-8, and I’m still blogging about–as you see–whatever I feel like.

But this writing prompt, unwelcome as it was, did me an unexpected service: it reminded me of how important my weird childhood is to me, how I treasure that uniqueness…

My folks still have a goat or two, just for funsies.

…like everyone treasures his/hers/theirs. How we define ourselves gives us the courage to move forward. Sometimes that self-definition inhibits, and boy, when that happens, we have work to do. But when it empowers? We need to run with that.

So now, when my revisions start getting the better of me, when I start to wonder, Is this work even worth it? Is anyone even going to read this? Who cares?…all I have to do is think about that goat barn. And I’m armed “to the teat” with a powerful sense of worth.

Darn right, I have a story to tell. I was practically born in a barn. Thanks, Writing Prompt!

That same writing friend also shared this post, “On Hating Writing From Prompts,” by Alice Lowe, on Brevity’s Blog. Writing? You’ll love this. You know why.

 

 

A Call to Right

Like many millions of us, I’ve been examining what my role is, as a new citizen of Trumpmerica. This post from my author friend Iris Graville captures an idea I love: Writer as Righter. What do you think?

Iris Graville

A plastic bag dangled from the door of our mailbox, a thin cardboard box raincoated against the drizzly, winter day. Suspecting the box contained a book I’d ordered, but not remembering which title I was awaiting, I walked briskly home, my yellow lab changing his trot to a sprint to keep up with me.

bookWhen I freed the box from the bag and tore it open, a thin, green volume slid out—Kim Stafford’s latest collection, The Flavor of Unity: Post-Election Poems. kimThe son of poet William Stafford, Kim greets the dawn each day as his father did, “writing the date, a few sentences about the previous day, then an ‘aphorism’ (a thought, a pattern observed, an idea…), and then a poem, half a poem, or notes for a poem.” While some of this writing eventually ends up as published poems, Kim finds that, “mostly, this custom allows me simply to…

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Road Trip VII, Days 32-34, Sheridan, WY back to Lopez Island: Going to America, Big-Time

When we Lopez Islanders take the ferry to the mainland, we call it “going to America.” We are literally insulated–“insula” being Latin for “island.”

Road trips take Going to America to a new level. 34 days. 23 states plus one Canadian province. A (rough) total of 65 friends and family members. More bike paths than I can remember.

…like this rails-to-trails path along the Illinois River Canal

The Mate and I set out on our seventh Road Trip more or less as usual: same camping gear (barely used, thanks to the weather), same cooler, same road food. (Remind me to tell you about Noodlebag sometime!) And of course, same ol’ Red Rover.

In the ferry line: almost home!!!!

But something felt different this year, striking out across this huge, gloriously varied country. That something was our new president. Knowing I was driving through state after state where the majority had voted for Donald Trump made me…cringe a little. Mainstream Republican is one thing. But this pussy-grabbing, egomaniacal, racist ogre? How was I possibly going to relate to my fellow citizens in the rest areas, parks and motel lobbies?

The answer: focus on our American commonalities.

Commonality #1: Sports. We sports fanatics share as much passion–maybe more–as political parties. Tarheel Nation probably comprises a lot of Trump voters. When we’re cheering our beloved Heels to another possible national championship, we love each other.

Haven’t made it to the Dean Dome since ’15, but–there in spirit!

Commonality #2: Love of landscape. Whether we love it for loud recreation like snowmobiling and hunting, or more quiet pursuits like hiking or horseback riding, I know our love of the beauty of the land is the same. We might use different language–“sacred” vs. “awesome,” “transcendent” vs. “niiiiiice”–but we are talking about the same thing.

“Whose woods these are I think I know…”

Best way to appreciate nature: be a tree!

Commonality #3: Judgementalism. Somehow, I find comfort in knowing we all share this flaw. A small example: I find myself feeling “judgy” when staying with friends who don’t compost or recycle, or who buy produce that comes from halfway around the world. But at the same time, I have friends who probably judge ME for my ginormous carbon footprint, with all the driving and flying I do.

A larger example: Indian Country. We passed, and passed through, many reservations across America. Somehow the land that makes the most impression on me is in the rural mountain West–probably because, unlike the eastern states and the west coast, the swath that runs from Montana south to New Mexico LOOKS THE SAME as it did 150 years ago. (Again–not talking cities here. Just the land.) Driving past the site of Little Big Horn or Sand Creek, for example, I have no trouble visualizing exactly what those warriors and soldiers would have seen as they confronted each other, or the view families would have had from their encampments.

All that land was theirs. Now almost none of it is; it’s been swallowed up by a dominant, unsympathetic culture. If I were Native, would I be able to contain my rage? So who am I now to feel like my country’s been hijacked by the supporters of Donald Trump? I’m still part of the mainstream.

I’m not saying “it’s all relative.” Of course there are extremes I don’t hesitate to call Bad: pussy-grabbing, for instance. Big no-no. But this trip has helped remind me that the people I struggle to understand probably have just as much trouble understanding ME.

 

In the middle of a long day crossing Montana on I-90, we stopped at the Missouri Headlands State Park.  It is, as the name implies, the beginning of that body of moving water we call the Missouri. It’s a good place: Lewis and Clark’s party camped there for three days.

Not a bad camp spot.

Lewis and Clark were sent by Jefferson to stitch our country together, west to east, by waterways. They failed, of course–Mighty Mo don’t cross no Rockies!–but the land routes they found served the same purpose in time. And of course, as American culture spread across the continent, other cultures were soon shattered.

“This rest area is your rest area, this rest area is my rest area…” See you there, America.

The lesson here? “This land is your land, this land is my land.” We may not agree on much. But in asserting my love for this big ol’ country, I’m not going to whine about it having become “unrecognizable” to me, as some on the left like to do. I DO recognize American culture, warts and all. And some of those warts are mine.

 

 

Road Trip VII, Days 29-31: Down ‘n’ Out in Estes Park, Colorado–NOT

Getting sick sucks. Getting sick on vacation in Estes Park, Colorado, gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park? That’s a bit harder to sound-byte.

Pretty sweet spot for a town, right?

On the one hand, I couldn’t do my usual racing-around-seeing-things stuff. Hiking? Noooo.  Biking? Also a no, thanks. Shopping–nope. And it’s hard to get excited about discovering restaurants when you’ve lost your appetite.

But on the other: I’m on VACATION. I get to lie around and not feel pressured about all the work I’m not getting done! What could be more fitting?

Even better, attitude-wise: getting sick when you’re vacationing with a friend with a scary heart condition.

The one hike I did manage, at 9,000-ft. altitude, had me gasping for breath and walking in slo-mo. Which is exactly what our friend does ANY day he hikes at altitude.

Pretending I don’t feel like curling up for a nap

So, Gretchen’s pity-party was swiftly cancelled. I spent the rest of the weekend soaking up scenery from the car or the window of our rented cabin, and soaking up friendship.

Long’s Peak–a LONG way away, thanks to the miracle of telephoto

Rocky Mountain hiiiiigh….from my car window….

Oh, and that friendship that was in danger of being tested by sports fanaticism? The sports gods were kind to me: our friends’ UCLA Bruins lost on Friday while our beloved North Carolina Tarheels won, so we all cheered together on Sunday as the Heels advanced to the Final Four. Just so you know. 🙂

Thanks, Nature. I needed that.

It’s a lesson I can’t seem to learn too often: compassion and gratitude beat back self-pity every time.