A Lance-Leafed Stonecrop By Any Other Name Would Smell As Sweet…Maybe

“What IS that flower? Is that Small-flowered Lupine or Bicolor?”

“Why do you need to know? What possible difference does it make?”

“It makes a difference to ME.”

“Why? So you can show off your rad amateur naturalist skills?”

“No! I don’t need to tell anyone else. I just want to get it RIGHT.”


I have this same conversation with myself, on nearly a daily basis, during wildflower season. Wildflower season in the San Juans lasts about 9 months, so that’s a lot of conversations.

Point is, whether it SHOULD matter or not, to me–it does. Supposedly, I go for walks as exercise. Power walks. But gods help my fitness regimen should I venture out with a camera.

It starts as appreciation. “Oh wow, look at those wild roses go.”

The rest of the year, they’re just brambles.

“Let’s just take a closer look. Mmm, sweet!”

Ready for my close-up.

“Okay, walking fast again. But–oh my, have you ever seen such a THICK clump of Hooker’s Onion?”

Seriously, Mr. Hooker? Couldn’t you have named this flower after your wife or something?

By now my “walk” is a goner. “Ooh, wonder what the world looks like from the perspective of one of those Harvest Brodaeia?”

Not a bad life down here.


Or better yet–don’t. Let’s just keep this rarity to ourselves, shall we? Cactus in the Northwest!

For that matter, why should the flowers have all the attention? Aren’t the new leaves of this Salal just as eye-catching as its blooms?

Caught MY eye, anyway. Silky-soft too.

And the new fronds of the Grand Fir? Good enough to eat!

Some people–and lots of deer–actually do.

Even Madrona bark looks floral in the sun.

Photo credit: My Special Tree

But the worst are those darn ID’s. “What IS this one? Gotta remember to look it up when I get home!”

Non-native, I’m pretty sure. Do I care? Nope. Just wanna KNOW ITS NAME.

Recently, however, my annoying need to NAME plants received a vote of confidence from a well-respected source: botanist and author Robin Wall Kimmerer. I started reading her book, Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses. Dr. Kimmerer is a Bryologist–a moss expert–and a member of the Potawatomi Nation. And right off the bat, she has this to say about the importance of names:

…Often, when I encounter a new moss species and have yet to associate it with its official name, I give it a name which makes sense to me: green velvet, curly top, or red stem. The word is immaterial. What seems to me to be important is recognizing them, acknowledging their individuality. In indigenous way of knowing, all beings are recognized as non-human persons, and all have their own names. It is a sign of respect to call a being by its name, and a sign of disrespect to ignore it. (p. 12)

Yes! Right?! Yes. That part that I highlighted in red…THAT is what drives me to name flowers, to get their names “right.” I want to recognize them, call them out, respect them. Would it matter if I got those names “wrong”? Of course not. I might as well call them Fred or Cindy. But taking the time to look up those names, talk about them with other flower nerds, think about where those names came from and whether they fit or not…THAT matters. To me, and, I like to think, to the flowers.

Hello, Fred. Or Cindy. (Or Menzie’s Larkspur, actually. No, I am NOT showing off.)

As for mosses, and Robin Kimmerer’s book…more on that, next post.

Are you a wildflower nerd like me? Care to weigh in on what drives you to NAME?

My New Year’s Resolution: Keep Writing New Year’s Resolutions, Damnit

Who cares if I still have an unworking Stairmaster in my barn?

[Last year’s resolution: By the end of 2015, I will have either fixed my Stairmaster machine or gotten rid of i])

Who cares if I’m still in the middle of Chapter 16 in a 21-chapter book? 

[Last year’s resolution: By the end of 2015, I will have finished the first draft of Altitude (Book Three of the Flying Burgowski trilogy) and be actively re-revising the first half]

Who cares if I never got beyond the “we should get together for a walk or a cup of tea sometime, huh?” stage of inviting someone I don’t know well for a walk or a cup of tea?

[Last year’s resolution: By the end of 2015, I will have invited someone I would like to know better for a walk or a cup of tea]

As I wrote last year, “The secret to success is having really low standards.” It’s also, I believe, the maintenance of the feeling of forward progress–the alternative to which is stepping into that swamp of grumpiness and self-pity where the only escape is too much chocolate…you see where this leads, right?

So let me take a minute to celebrate the two resolutions that I DID keep last year:

  1. riding my bike in to work at least as often, if not more often, than driving: check!
  2. developing a fitness regimen that includes daily strength and stretching exercises: check!**

** ahem ** Honesty compels me to admit that I officially adopted said fitness regimen all of **cough** four days ago…but HEY. I’ve kept it up for four days, in 2015, so that still COUNTS.

023 (2)

And all of those so-far-unkept resolutions are just that, I’ve decided: not failed, just late bloomers. Who’s in charge here? That’s right. So here are my new low-resolution resolutions:

By the end of 2016 I will have…

  • Finished, revised, and published Altitude
  • Kept up my biking vs. riding to work ratio
  • Kept up my daily fitness regimen (the secret to success here was  Son Two’s idea: “Why don’t you do it while you watch The Daily Show, Mom?”)
  • Made reservations for a 2017 trip to New Zealand to research my next novel (New Zealand?! Good on ya!)

…oh, and that Stairmaster? Maybe the unknown person I invite for a walk or a cup of tea will help me figure out what to do with it.

Got a resolution to share? Don’t believe in ’em? Tell me about it either way. And…Happy New Year!

Secret To a Happy Life: Choose Your Parents Wisely

Wish I could take credit for that idea. Wish I could take credit for my own blessed life. But I know better. There’s Providence, luck, fate–and then there are good role models and good genes. My mom gave me both.

Today (June 3) is her 80th birthday. 60 years ago this month she married my dad. I’m blessed to have both parents very vigorously in my life. But today is Mom’s day.

My mom is psyched to turn 80: a new age group for her to dominate in track! Here she is, just a few days ago, getting ready for the 80-and-up mile:

What I want to be when I grow up

What I want to be when I grow up

When she first married my dad back in 1955, Martha Smith was no athlete. The family joke is, she was probably in the worst shape of her life at age 20, and she looked terrific. Raising three kids, starting a farm and co-founding a school toughened her up, but then a new path opened. Some time in the late 1960s, my dad discovered distance running and immersed the whole family in it. And Martha Smith Klopfer discovered a hidden talent.

She was FAST. And tough. And competitive. At age 45, she held the national age group 10k record. But she also excelled at the marathon, with a personal best of 3:07. And she did all this with no team to support her, no coach but her husband, and a full-time job of raising teenagers, running a farm, and helping to guide the school she had helped to found.

Lest you imagine from her athletic creds that my mom’s a driven, Type-A personality–nothing could be further from the truth. More like “Type B…or, no, maybe C…but then again, B is nice, I could see B…” Time has always been a fluid substance for her. When I was in high school, the words, “I’m just going out to the barn for a few minutes,” spoken in late afternoon, became code for, “So someone else might want to think about fixing dinner if you want to eat before eight.”

With this in mind, it should come as no surprise that my mom’s also a poet. A very good poet. Here’s one of my favorites, written about something that happened between her own mother and the Guatemalan gardener she practically adopted:


Little Bird


I think I washed the windows too clean.

The little bird saw straight

through the living room and right out

the other side to the sky.

He flew fast, like a pelota, hit the glass,

fell to the ground and was still.

A drop of blood came out near his long beak.

I picked him up. Pobrecito.

He weighed nothing and did not move.

I wish that I had left the window dirty.


But I want to do good work for Mrs. Smith.

She is kind to me, tells me to sweep the patio

or trim bushes, even when they don’t need it.

I don’t want her to see this dead bird.

It would make her sad.

Quickly, I get the garden trowel,

dig a small hole under the Pyracantha,

cover the bird with earth and leaves.

I wipe the window clean again.


Once my mother came to visit.

Mrs. Smith helped pay for the flight.

She practiced Spanish with my old sick mother,

both of them laughing.

Later, I could not go to Guatemala

to help bury my mother.

My father and brothers had been killed.

The same people also wanted

me in a shallow grave.


Mrs. Smith comes out of the house.

“Good job, Manuelito,” she says.

I say, thank you Mom.

She thinks I call her “Ma’am,”

but she is my California mom.

She has made tamale pie for lunch.

She says she likes to cook for me,

though she doesn’t cook much

since Mr. Smith died.


We sit down to eat at the patio table.

Something moves under the Pyracantha.

I jump to my feet.

“Look! It’s still alive!”

I tell her how the little bird hit the window,

how I thought it was dead and buried it.

I dig it up and brush it off and lay it in her hand.


The little bird blinks and ruffles its feathers.

Mrs. Smith says,

“He was only stunned.

I’ll keep him safe until he can fly again.”

I love that poem. But poetry’s not Mom’s only art. She’s also a weaver. Wish I had a picture of one of her weavings to share, but you’ll have to imagine the gentle interplay of color and shape inspired by natural scenes.

Then there’s Carolina Friends School, about which I’ve written before. Click here to read about how she helped to found North Carolina’s first integrated school.

All in all, my mom has given me a good dozen reasons to look at her as a role model; I’ve only mentioned the most obvious here. But chief among those is Mom As Athlete. I mean, look at those legs! Here she is, biking down a mountainside in Greece at the tender age of 78:



So, to sum up: Character: check. Talent: check. Athleticism: check. Oh, and terrific genes, ’cause did I mention HER mom lived to one hundred and three?

So, yeah. Can I pick a parent or what? Pretty proud of myself for that.

Now’s your chance to brag on your own mom or dad or Significant Elder in your life. I love when you share.


Road Trip V, Days 3-5, Oakland to Bishop, CA: To Blue Highway or Not to Blue Highway?

I’m pretty sure no one ever wrote a book extolling the romance of interstates. They’re fast, efficient, and generic as hell. The Mate and I like to think of ourselves as less-traveled road travelers…except when, you know, we have to BE somewhere by a certain time. Or the weather is iffy. Or…yeah.

So on our road trips, the question of whether and when to steer down those blue highways for a life of cslower adventure comes up fairly often. Example:

Me:  Google says it’s a half-hour shorter to take route 50 from Sacramento and bypass Lake Tahoe altogether.

Mate: Yeah, but…what kind of road is that? How high’s the pass it goes over? Does Google know the road conditions?

Me: Umm…8,000 feet…and no, Google Maps doesn’t, but let me look up the weather and see if…Yeah, it’s a high of 56 in the town nearest the pass, so I’m pretty sure it’s clear.

Mate: But look at the size of that road! It’s a two laner through all these towns, and then the mountains. Does Google know how many stop lights there’ll be? What if we get stuck behind a slow truck?

Me: All I know is, Google says it’s faster.

Mate:  Is that the same Google that sent us to a bank in Santa Rosa when we were looking for a state park?

See what I mean? Our problem is, we want too much. We want scenery, which is why we opted for going down the eastern side of the Sierras on our way to Albuquerque, instead of driving I-5 to LA like normal people.

We want camping, because we’re cheap outdoorsy folks.

And we want our daily workout.

So we don’t leave Oakland till 8:30 because our cousins’ 18 month-old twins are so CRAZY CUTE, and why get stuck in traffic anyway? Which means that we now have an hour of discretionary time, once we arrive at our destination, either to set up camp, or to go biking, but not both. Not in February when it gets dark at 5:30.

Donner Pass--where's the snow?? (Courtesy wikimedia)

Donner Pass–where’s the snow?? (Courtesy wikimedia)

In the end, we compromised. Took I-80 over Donner Pass, marveling at the scrubbed-looking granite, and at the fact that we were driving there at all without having to chain up. (Serious climate change evidence up there.) Then we diverged before Truckee, to skirt true-blue Tahoe on a highway nearly the same color (hyperbole alert; I mean it was a small road). Got to Bishop in time for a glorious Sierra-ride, and then crashed in a cute little motel.

The view from Bishop (Courtesy wikimedia)

The view from Bishop (Courtesy wikimedia)

(But I got my camping fix: I cooked dinner on our stove out in the courtyard.)

I look forward to more blue highways on this trip. But I’m grateful for the opportunity sometimes to pull onto a big gray one too, and haul.




Fitness In Your Eighties: Keeping Up With My Parents

We just got back from vacation, and my husband and I are exhausted.

Not from the long flight back from Greece, although that took its toll. (I swear, jet lag should be declared an illegal drug: Just Say No.) We’re exhausted from trying to keep up with my parents.

It’s my own fault. This whole Cyclades Islands bike tour was my idea. “Let’s invite my parents,” I said. “We always have so much fun doing athletic things with them, and they won’t be able to do this kind of thing forever.” (Plus my mom is super laid-back and my dad grabs every check and pays for everything if you let him is super-generous.)


We are tired out from trying to keep up with Mom and Dad on all those hilly bike rides. Did I mention that my mom is 78 and my dad is 83?

They’ve always been terrific athletic role models, WAY ahead of their generation. My dad, a zoologist, got into distance running in the mid-1960s as the result of a near-death experience being chased down a beach by a bull elephant seal (at least the way he tells it, and hey, it’s his story, right?). My mom and my sisters got into running soon after. I wasn’t a huge fan, but I got into it in due time. (For more on this,  https://gretchenkwing.wordpress.com/2013/09/19/ill-put-a-gird…ok-maybe-years/

Mom became a running star almost immediately. Not that many women over 40 were running in the early 1970s, let alone racing, and mom was FAST. When she turned 45, she owned the national 10k record. Her picture graced the cover of WomenSports magazine in 1975–a journal that, sadly, did not survive into the 80s. Dad was never quite as competitive, relative to other men, since there were more of them. But he embraced each new age group eagerly, ready to face down his rivals.


Together, they dominated the roads of North Carolina, then branched out around the country, running marathons, 10ks, 5ks, plus one and two-milers on the track. They even attended the World Masters track championships. And they cleaned up annually at the Levi’s Ride and Tie, a crazy cross-country endurance race involving teams of 2 people plus a horse. (My sisters and I got free Levi’s all through high school thanks to their prizes. 🙂 )

These days they’ve slowed down–just a little. Mom’s had a tough time with soft-tissue injuries and spends more time biking, riding, and doing weights and pilates than running. Dad still runs a couple times a week, and usually bikes the six miles to his lab, but he’s considering buying an electric tricycle to help him get home when fatigue finally catches up to him.

As if!

Not only did fatigue not catch up to him on our bike trip, the rest of the tour members hardly could. My husband and I kept waiting for Mom or Dad to ride in the sag wagon that followed our bike tour. Never happened. They rode every hilly, windy kilometer.


So I guess I just want to say Thanks. Thanks for being such great role models, not just for me and my sisters, but for everyone who sees you riding past, grey beard and grey braid flying in the wind. Thanks for showing the rest of us that a healthy old age may depend in part on good luck and good genes, but it DEFINITELY depends on hard work–work that doesn’t stop when the joints get creaky.

And yeah–thanks for the genes too.

P and M

How about you? Did you inherit any kind of fitness regimen from your parents, or were they your examples of how NOT to live? How do you find a way, in your super-busy lives, to model fitness for your children? Let us hear!

“I’ll Put a Girdle ‘Round the Earth in 20 Minutes”–ok, Maybe Years…

24,901 miles. 40-some-thousand kilometers. That’s one big girdle!

Puck (in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream) got the job done in 20 minutes, seeking out that famous love-potion flower.

(Original image from NYC ballet, courtesy dancetabs.com)

(Original image from NYC ballet, courtesy dancetabs.com)

But I get bragging rights. I’ve run around the world THREE TIMES. I’m willing to bet all distance runners do this sooner or later:

  • calculate our weekly mileage, allowing for known variation over the years
  • multiply that number times the number of weeks in a year
  • subtract a small percentage for illness and injury
  • multiply the total times the number of years we have been running

...Voilá! Le grand total: 75,000 miles and counting.

My secret? Not marathons. NO WAY. Never ran one of those, never plan to. Watched both my parents training for ’em as I grew up, and that cured me of any desire to suffer ridiculously for three-plus hours run one.

No super-long runs either. The longest races I’ve ever run were good ol’ 10ks (6.2 miles); the longest training run, 15 miles, and that only once.

Nope. All I’ve done is run, mostly 3-6 miles, usually 5-6 times a week…for a long, LONG time. I’ll be 52 next month. I started running when I was 7 1/2. (You do the math; my brain is tired from all that mileage calculation.)

It sure wasn’t my idea to start running as a 3rd grader. My dad, a scientist, was one of the original Health Nuts of the late 1960s, and when he learned that running improved your cardiovascular system, it therefore followed that NOT running would lead to an early grave, right up there with eating hot dogs. So we became a family of runners, by paternal decree.

I hated it.

My sister and I used to run down our country road in North Carolina for our little 2-milers, sneak into the woods, check our watches till enough time had elapsed, then run home, panting heavily. Let’s just say I was no Zola Budd, bounding around like an eager gazelle.

But…I was fast. Put me in a couple of races…I beat people. I beat GROWNUPS. I loved that. I loved medals and ribbons and later, trophies. I kept running, and training, but for the wrong reason: ego.

Except that ego kept me in the sport. And, like early religious training, that depth of immersion causes a certain amount of internalization–swallowing the river water in which you’re baptized, so to speak. My river was FITNESS. And 45 years later, I am truly grateful to my dad for doing that to me.

Sure, I had my years of rebellion. In college I walked off the track team…in the middle of a race (not proud of that). In my 20s I quit again, gained weight, decided I liked myself better as a runner, came back to it more seriously than ever. I also gave up racing in my late 30s, tired of fighting a painfully persistent hamstring injury. But now, in my 50s, I still run.

Not every day. These days, in fact, my mantra is “A mile’s a mile.” That means I can walk or hike or jog at any pace and it still counts as mileage. It just might take longer. (OK, strolling through a museum doesn’t count. Note to self: look up WHY STROLLING THROUGH A MUSEUM IS SO FRIGGIN’ EXHAUSTING EVEN WHEN IT ISN’T BURNING ANY CALORIES.) I’ve even worked out my own cool little equation to compare miles on a bike to running miles.


Because, yup–I’m still counting. Workin’ on that fourth girdle.

How about your own sports history? Were you raised with a sport that saw you through? Have you had to invent yourself as an athlete? Do you have a sport or fitness activity that you rely on every day? What does that sport do for you? Let us hear!