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The garden paradox, part I


By Matilda Browne (1869 – 1947) (Peonies) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

From outside the garden world, we don’t think of gardeners as inscrutable, enigmatic, dark.  We see them as gentle, methodical souls that nurture nature and animals: artistic, ethereal people imbued with magical knowledge of flora and soil.


You might take a gardening class or two, read books, sign up for plant and seed catalogues. It’s different if you get drawn into gardening.  You tumble down the proverbial rabbit hole and find yourself in a magical land for sometimes unexpected reasons. And you find yourself in some puzzling company.


Claude Monet was anything but a mild-mannered person. He led an unconventional life at home and in his pioneering art. Autoportet Claude Monet, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

You can trespass on the tribute to the loftiest of gardeners, now a ghostly presence in parlors and paths. Claude Monet, the father of Impressionist art, shaped a farmhouse and rough ground into a work of art in Giverny, France.  Monet’s last residence is nestled in the Normandy region, where he would have painted and tended garden through the worst of the 1918 influenza pandemic and World War I.



Modification of Smithsonian map, (November_stay_2018update)

Monet purchased the farmhouse and a hectare of land in 1890, about 20 years after he first became interested in gardening. He had been devastated by the loss of his wife, Camille, who had died a decade before, and he had entered an unconventional communal living relationship with the Hoschedè family.  He would eventually marry Alice Hoschedè when her husband Ernest died and become father to her six children. Blanche Hoschedè accompanied Monet on painting trips, married Monet’s son, and cared for the house until her death in 1941.


When Claude Monet moved in with his extended family, he set about creating studio spaces and transforming the garden.


Monet and hired hands labored for years to create a scene shimmering with color in the Clos Normand. Monet laid out a plan for beds, trellises, and paths. Hundreds of bags filled with compost and mulch arrived to enrich the chalky ground. Sacks of seeds spread across beds transformed into carefully designed color clusters throughout the seasons. Tulips, all the rage at the time, dominated during my visit in April.

Monet005Monet purchased land across the road and created an engineered pond that artists and architects marvel at today.  He worked with the local authorities on permission to divert a tributary of the Epte River, and then excavated a pond to hold it.  Over the years, he created a bamboo-filled island, winding paths, and installed a bridge, and spread cultivated water lilies across the surface.  Monet described the ethereal result in paintings still beloved today.

Monet003Monet’s artistic efforts extended to the house, where vibrantly colored rooms housed collections of Japanese prints, Monet’s art, and art by friends of his.  The shimmering yellow dining room hosted his extended family for meals. The Blue Salon housed his cherished Japanese prints, inspiration for his own art.

The man who shaped this place would not be remembered as gentle and uncomplicated. No polite, meek person pioneers a new art form in defiance of rigid tradition.  Monet was described as moody, prone to rages when his art did not meet his standards or vision.

1024px-Claude_Monet_-_Water_Lilies_and_Japanese_BridgeThe garden became a place where he could exorcise bad moods and dispel dark clouds.  While he endured dark moods and raging self-doubt, the family would tiptoe around the house and eat silently. When Monet returned to garden work, everyone knew the dark period would lift.

In the end, Monet’s home and studio became a place where he could retreat from the chaos and terror of the world outside.  He died in 1926, leaving the home to his family.  Blanche stayed in the home, which then went to Michel Monet.  Michel left the home and gardens to the Acadèmie des Beaux Arts in 1966.


Ultimately, the panchromatic home and garden fell to neglect and rough grass until Gèrald Van der Kemp, famed for restoring Versailles, became involved.  Van der Kemp returned from retirement at the invitation of the Acadèmie des Beaux Arts, raised the funds and delved through photographs, letters, and accounts to recreate a version of the original home and garden. Hugues Gall, Director of the Fondation Claude-Monet, has carried on this work since 2008.


Image from Google Earth, gardens in upper half and pond in lower half.  Funding helped build a tunnel beneath the road to access the pond area.

Over 600,000 people a year visit these gardens, some wearing finery hoping for a lovely portrait among the seasonally changing palette.  They move quietly through the house, speaking in hushed tones about the Rouen tiles in the kitchen, and the vibrant colors and character of each room. They pose for photos on the restored bridge over the pond with its quintessential waterlilies.


61QH3ktR7eL._SX349_BO1,204,203,200_How many of those people mistakenly see the ghostly gardener as a gentle, quiet man is not clear. The Acadèmie in its literature makes it clear that this garden is a work of art created by the hands of a haunted man who lived through historic times.

Monet exemplifies the gardener as an artist hand-making a sanctuary to salve a tortured soul.  He would not be the only gardener of this kind. Many of us manufacture a natural space as respite from the hard-edged man-made world of towns and cities, and the hard-eyed look of overworked people around us every day. That profusion of color and texture can be a flowering chapel in times of grief.

In our personal gardens, we are not always nurturing nature, but sometimes, ourselves.


Finding Jehanne

For those hardwired for independence and wandering, it is easy to lose home. Lately, I have been roaming the Great Plains to chase bison and vanishing prairie. I published a multimedia bison history, then ran off to Nebraska to watch the epic sandhill crane migration. Two weeks later, I hopped a plane to France. I was going to a conference to pitch online communications as a means to engage the next generation in the protection of our heritage and environment.

When you sport for a spendy plane ticket, and you’re flying 15 hours, it makes sense to add some travel time. With a week to travel through the Normandy region, I figured I could solve a family mystery. My travelling companion was a historian who had lived in Rouen and was anxious to visit a place she loved. Rouen is the site where France’s patron saint, Joan of Arc, was imprisoned and burned at the stake.

It was my chance to walk in history and unravel why my mother once took this saint’s name as her own.


Rouen has many places to walk through Joan of Arc’s past. This is the Historial Jeanne d’Arc, where you can attend the second trial of young Joan in an immersive experience.

My mother’s first calling was to join the convent and devote her life to religion. This clearly did not last; she left and married, producing five offspring who are now scattered across the country, some with children of their own. Only two of us have pursued a life with religion built into the foundation.

MomDonaldAs part of becoming one with God, Catholic novitiates assume a new name, after a saint. At Sinsinawa, Wisconsin, the name my mother took included the saint of her order- Mary – and Jeanne d’Arc. In celebration of her commitment, my grandparents inscribed her name on the only piece of jewelry she would be allowed to wear, a retractable pin-on watch piece.

IMG_2962It is a mystery why my mother took this name. She seemed too rational to identify with a fierce young woman who changed the course of history for France.  Joan of Arc experienced visions and voices of saints and transformed herself into a teenaged warrior fighting for her country and king.


Joan of Arc on Horseback, musée Dobrée [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

As a high school student, my mother had taken up fencing, becoming skilled and competitive in the sport. Perhaps her admiration for this warrior saint started at a younger age- and maybe that is what drove her into the convent.


Fencing isn’t only for men. From Domenico Angelo’s 1763 instructional book, By Charlesjsharp  [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Here is a brief summary of Joan’s life. She was an illiterate peasant born in 1412 during the 100 Years’ War between Britain and France. Five generations of Kings from rival dynasties fought for control of France from 1337 until 1453, in three waves of war. Ironically, the conflicts were affected by rules against women inheriting the throne; when kings died without a male heir, the crown was up for grabs.

After 70 years of loss, desperation drove the French to envision a savior sent by God to  break the British.


English occupation of France, by Aliesin (File:Traité de Troyes.svg), via Wikimedia Commons

In 1928, British forces invaded Joan of Arc’s home town, Domrémy. Joan experienced visions beginning age 13 in which the Archangel Michael and two saints directed her to go to battle and defeat the British, paving the way to crown Charles VII  as King of France.  She persuaded relatives to bring her to Charles. After tests to ensure she was really a maid  (a virgin) and questioning by theologians, she managed to convince Charles to give her troops to lead into battle.  An unlikely but instinctive military leader, she led the battle to lift the Siege of Orleans in 1429.


Jules Eugène Lenepveu, Joan of Arc at the Pantheon de Paris, from Wikimedia Commons

Her first battles were successful and spread fear of the supernatural among the British. She appeared as the embodiment of a prophecy that foretold of a young virgin who would liberate France. Charles VII was crowned on July 17, 1429 as a result of Joan’s efforts.

There was now a price on Joan’s head.


Map of Joan’s battles, from medieval historian Scott Manning. Manning’s blog site has lots of in depth information on her military approach.

However, Charles failed to support her in her next efforts to take Paris. She mounted an independent effort, and she was wounded and then captured in Compiègne in 1430. Charles failed to pay ransom for her, and she was sold to the British.

After imprisonment, trial, and torture, she confessed, then recanted. The main charge against her was that she had again donned men’s clothes, as she had done in battle.  While men’s clothes afforded her better protection against rape in prison, they signalled heresy to the prosecutors. Eyewitnesses claimed the guards took her dress from her, forcing her to wear men’s clothes. On May 30, 1431, Joan was burned at the stake at 19 years of age.


Joan of Arc burning at stake, Jules Lenepveu, public domain, Wikimedia Commons.

The appeal of Joan’s conviction began in 1455, after the 100 Years War had ended. Charles VII may have supported the trial to assuage guilt about his failure to support the woman warrior whose actions facilitated his crowning. The first trial was studied and found to be tainted by corruption and false charges. The next year, she was exonerated.  In 1909, Joan was beatified by Pope Pius X. After that first step, she was canonized in 1920, and is now one of the patron saints of France.

Imagine you are my mother, the daughter of a fatalistic, hand-wringing Russian woman and browbeaten, invisible father who had reluctantly married on the rebound. You are educated, religious, and sincere, aspiring to higher thought and purpose.  What would possess you to take on the name of a long-ago warrior girl who heard voices, had visions, and rode into battle to kill people in the name of her country?


Hermann Stilke [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I was not mature enough to ask my mother this question before drunk-driving teenagers slammed into her truck at high speed and killed her on cold January afternoon long ago.

Dock, Hovland, MN

The dock in our little town of Hovland, where my brothers spread their share of my mother’s ashes in Lake Superior. Photo by Sharon Mollerus (Dock, Hovland, MN) via Wikimedia Commons

Before she died, I was concerned only what mattered to my existence: why she went into the convent, then why she left.  She explained that she envisioned the convent as a place unsullied by human drama, vanity, and politics. She learned Latin and studied for a life of religious devotion. Despite being in a non-speaking order, she did not find that place. She said competition and politics tainted even the cloister.

She became depressed and slept constantly, finally deciding to leave and return to college.  At the time, discarding your frock required writing a letter to the pope, she said. Her leave was granted, and the rest was history.


My mother, date unknown.

My mother reimagined her life and reinvented herself more than once. She married and divorced, not content to scrub floors with an infant in arms while my father chased his secretary. She never remarried and launched a small business effort as a single mother with five children in tow.

When the  Uptown neighborhood in Chicago became hunting grounds for a serial killer stalking boys like my brother, it was time to leave. In a flash, she transported us from a massive city to a tiny cabin on the shores of Lake Superior in northern Minnesota.

The whiplash was massive for us children, but some good came from this. Minnesota connected us with wild nature in a place where wolves and moose roamed the woods and northern lights danced on the ice of Lake Superior. We spent our first years with no running water and no electricity.  We learned to hunt and fish and garden. It was remote, peaceful.


My mother moved us from skyscrapers and a bustling city of 3.5 million people to this. Lake Superior at Grand Portage, photo by Michael A. Orlando via Wikimedia Commons

But I was too young to want that much isolation, and eventually left for college.

When my mother died two years after I left, she was in the process of reinventing herself once more. She, too, wanted out, this time to start a different career in a place with fewer social problems and less harsh winters.

And maybe that defines the affinity or aspiration she found in a child saint. Jeanne d’Arc- or Jehanne, as she signed her name- was clear-eyed and fearless, the penultimate risk-taker, willing to put everything on the line for her ideals.

I sometimes felt we were pushed aside for my mother’s ideals, but I am ultimately her daughter:  driven, idealistic, curious. I was resilient enough to make it through her death, and have reinvented myself more than once as well. I have a strong sense of fairness, right and wrong.


This monument marks the place where Saint Joan was burned at the stake.  She reportedly called to Jesus repeatedly as she died.

Walking through lovely Rouen, reading the books I bought, and contemplation brought me no enlightenment about our family puzzle.  My mother’s voice is long silent, and she left no writings. My mother’s heart is as inscrutable as Joan’s was bold. But it does not really matter.

Both these women died before their time, like countless women across the globe. While Jehanne was burned for her beliefs, my mother was martyred by drunken hubris and our penchant for excess.

The enduring mystery is perhaps not about my mother and her dreams and choices. Perhaps the real question is what these two women- and millions like them who passed too soon- would have created in this world had they lived longer.


From the Church of Sain Joan of Arc, Rouen


Visiting Joan of Arc sites in Rouen:

Rouen Normandy Tourism and Congress has a superb guide to all things Joan of Arc in Rouen. Here are a couple of sites.

The Historial Jeanne d’Arc provides an immersive experience where you are guided by audio and visuals through Joan’s history in the context of her second, posthumous trial. Chapters play out in a series of rooms. You will enter the remains of the room where she was condemned the first time and exonerated the next.  There is a well-deserved fee, and you can obtain audio in a number of different languages. The experience is almost overwhelming, so it’s good to do on a day when you are fresh and have time to soak it up. Plan for a meal and drink after to absorb it.

On a walking tour, you might miss the Joan of Arc Dungeon, where the Maid of Orleans was imprisoned and tortured. When we were in Rouen in 2018, there was major construction underway by the tower; I can’t imagine the protections that must be in place to ensure the construction didn’t impact the structure!


Photo by Vitold Muratov, from Wikimedia Commons

The Church of St. Joan of Arc has unusual architecture with deep meaning. The building is peculiar looking from the outside, with an adjacent market, but immensely peaceful within. The roof is molded in the shape of an overturned longship; reportedly, early Christian churches were often in this shape.


Photo from Architecture Revived,


The roof of the Church of Saint Joan of Arc, from within.  Photo Van der Vieren

The stunning stained glass windows were removed for protection during World War II, when the original church was destroyed by bombs. They are restored here in all their glory.




How time flies

A year has passed since I last posted on this blog. A long year, an epic year; sometimes glorious and sometimes tragic. Our nation spins into a historic place in the universe, where anger and anxiety erupt like the burning lava from restless Kilauea.


Photo U.S. Geological Survey

As the nation reels toward some dark unknown, I reinvent my life at home. This July 4th, I won’t go to the barn with apples and carrots once the fireworks start. Larkey isn’t there anymore to become anxious and need my company.  He passed away suddenly, catastrophically in May. He not only isn’t there in form — I can’t find him in spirit anymore.


We got in one spring bath this year. 

IMG_2089[1]I am reimagining the barn space because I won’t replace my horses. I work too far from my home to acclimate and train a new horse. They are herd animals, so more than one is better. I can’t be sure I’ll be around for the entire life of a couple young horses, and it isn’t easy to find a new home for equines.

But I can’t bear the silence, the vacancy walking through the barn. I am never lonely without people, but this feels alone, and lonely.

IMG_3417So I planted flowers in Larkey’s hay bins, to honor him and to soften the memory of what happened in the outside paddock. When the barn swallows are done nesting in September, I will clean his stall, repaint, and turn the space into an outdoor painting studio for the warm months. Maybe then his spirit will come back and keep me company.

The outside wall has been decaying, and needs reinforcement and new surface.  It is a perfect, sunlit surface for a green wall, an herb garden. A coworker helps me find an idea and I start cleaning out the space within.

I will clean the horse trailer and sell it.  I will never need one again, and this one has been sitting unused for years, unless you count bird visitors. The proceeds can go toward a camper van, maybe.


I believe this is a Pacific slope flycatcher nest.  Last year, a Bewick’s wren nested here.

After decades with horses woven tightly in the fabric of my life, I am wandering adrift in the starlit dark searching for a new universe to occupy.


This is what I was doing instead of blogging- thousands of hours of work storytelling. This ESRI Story Map is best viewed desktop with Chrome or Safari. 

The neglect of this blog did not mean I fell silent. I had trailed the story of the North American buffalo across thousands of miles and hundreds of hours of research. I labored to create this story in a multimedia online platform- something different, maybe something that would attract a younger audience. Maybe they would care and step up to support prairie and bison conservation. I spent hours every night on this project, missing time with Larkey, missing time to exercise. It published in January and was better received than I expected.  The project gained a life of its own, with a blog and social media channels that needed tending.


The badlands of Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan were as far away and unpeopled as I could find.

With Lark gone, I took to the road to process my new life.  I had already gone to Nebraska for the sandhill crane festival, then France for a conference and vacation.  But I needed away again, so I traveled to Montana and Saskatchewan.  I drove, and wandered grasslands, and slowly the nightmares and sleepwalking ended.


I am very blessed to have a home of my own. Sure, it’s a lot of work, but it is a quiet place –and my own place. 

Now I am home again, digging myself out from an explosion of greenery, and figuring out what is next. The barn swallows are back from South America.  Rufous hummingbirds have arrived from Mexico and joined our resident Annas hummers. Red admiral and swallowtail butterflies appear on warm sunny days, dancing on the breeze.

Hummer052118I count my blessings.  I am lucky to have been tested young and learned how to adapt. I am resilient, and have the ability and resources to recreate. As the world gets darker and narrower, many find themselves trapped. I am not, at least right now. The terrible memory of Larkey’s death still sneaks up on me, but I am not an anguished parent adrift in a strange country with no idea where my children reside. I am not now in a war zone, wondering when the bombs will detonate.

SatyrAnglewingAnd I have things to do.  More stories to tell, artwork to create, images to capture.  I need to get back into shape to backpack in the fall. I don’t know what the next year will hold for me, for the nation, for the world. But today and every day I can find something bright, and count myself fortunate for the time being.


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The wild kingdom

TowheeWeb(Video below) A coworker recently discovered that her very tall bamboo was very invasive. When she recently bought the house, she was told it was that non-invasive kind. Right. It had sent roots under a shed and around the sewer pipe.  It was coming up everywhere. Eradicating it would mean digging deep down to remove every bit of root.

“Or I could move,” she said. “And get away from it.”

She won’t be the first to express that sentiment.  Nor the last.  Here in the Pacific Northwest, everything grows- with a vengeance.  If you amend your soil, give plants some summer water, then voila, they grow bigger than the plant list says and take over the earth. If blackberry or ivy is on your property, you can’t turn your back without fearing a coup.


Even the house is habitat to a Pacific slope flycatcher.

I’ve been planting for 17 years. I buy bareroot plants at the annual Conservation District sale. Then there are plants that I propagate.  My neighbor gives me plants. Plants volunteer on their own, too.

For years, I felt like I had to save every seed, every live stake, and plant it somewhere. There weren’t enough barriers to keep out my neighbor’s cows.  There weren’t enough plants for nesting.


Goatsbeard, salal and bleeding heart in bloom.  There is a path in there somewhere.

Then the balance started to tip.  I had starts coming up everywhere.  Plants needed dividing.  I started noticing hawthorns and cherry trees growing wild along the roadway.

The volunteer red dogwood reached 20 feet into the air, and 30 feet across. A volunteer willow erupted into an exploding green fountain.  Cherry branches drooped over the gate, dark red leaves shading the entry. Pacific ninebark branches drooped low over the driveway. The weeping cedar in front of the house grabs me as I try to clean the roof.  Oceanspray sprouts in the gravel path, and wood sorrel carpets the garden along with some groundcover the previous owner planted. The rose that beavers mowed down last year springs back as a lush hedge.

I started to be grateful when something died, or the squirrels or rabbits ate it.The giant cherry trees my predecessor planted tipped over.  Oh, darn. The Italian prune plum that grew to 20 feet in two years blew down. Oh, darn. I even gave away hundreds of plants the last couple years to get rid of pots and thin things.

This winter, we got 4 feet of rain between October and March.  The spring wore on, cool and wet. When I came home from a trip to the Montana prairie after two weeks of nice weather, the contrast between the dry, open prairie and my jungle was overwhelming. I felt like I was entering a tight leafy tunnel as I drove through the gate.

CoyoteTwitterWildlife thrives in this florid abundance. American goldfinches show up at the feeders in flocks, and disappear into thickets to hidden nests.  A robin angrily attacks its reflection in one window after another for weeks. Squirrels race after each other up and down trees. A tangle of garter snakes unwinds from the crack between the concrete pad and barn floor. A red-tail hawk hunts from owl perches and weasels roam the fence rails in search of eggs and small birds.


I won’t complain or move, because I signed up for this. And wielding a loppers beats checking the latest news in this historic crazy time. Dragging cuttings into slash piles and digging out weeds wears me down so that I sleep at night. Diligent effort opens corridors and paths, and gives shrubs and trees a fresh start.

As I work, kingfishers rattle warnings on the river where they have burrows, robin parents escort a fledgling out to forage, bald eagles trill at a youngster testing its wings, hawks soar over the field. A towhee takes a stand on top of a cedar and a Pacific slope flycatcher sneaks insects to nestlings tucked on top of the breaker box.


You know your habitat is complete when the vultures show up.

I could move, maybe to an apartment in the city, tidy and spare, with no yard work.  I could join a gym and work out without getting sunburned, scratched by thorns or scalded by nettle. Or I could just stay here for awhile, where everything is simpler.





June 2017-reposted from

Somehow I missed that stage in adulthood where people decide camping is too hard, and either stay in motels or travel in trailers with a compact semblance of home.  I hit motels on long driving days, or when I need a shower and a real meal.

The memory of lying at night on a guest bed in my grandma’s screened porch stuck with me. Away from noisy, scorching inner-city Chicago, I watched fireflies in the cool night air, fell asleep with the sound of crickets, and woke to the sound of birds. To this day, I leave my windows open in summer, with birds as my alarm clock.

Buffalo Camp at American Prairie Reserve is my yard multiplied, with bison to boot. When I traveled to the Reserve in May, I woke up each morning to big skies and birdsong. As I was making coffee, a bachelor band of bison would wander by, taking a leisurely breakfast.  Deer often tiptoed behind them looking like spies trying to fade into a crowd. A medley of colorful birds made the rounds, hopping from ground to shrub to sign or platform.  Rabbits hopped, nibbled, and hopped again, ever watchful.


More people need to camp here to protect my car from maurauding rabbits.

Any postcard picture has a few stories hidden behind the carefully crafted image.  During last September’s trip, I woke one night to a terrible thumping under the hood of my car, and found a rabbit trying to turn it into a burrow.  I am told they can eat wiring and hoses in the process, so I was lucky to catch it early.  The trick is to move the car every day, which feels wrong when the stay is meant to be about hiking.

The first night of this trip, I woke in the night and decided conditions were right to view a universe of stars without the light pollution of home.  I strolled to the bathroom without a headlamp, and stood outside afterward to gaze upward. Something caught my ear: the croaking of a bullfrog?  Not quite awake, I thought it seemed odd.  Then another croak, then another.  Suddenly I realized that there simply wasn’t enough water for bullfrogs. Those sounds were grunts coming from bison lying around the bathroom.  I carefully retreated down the path.


A bachelor band of bison bulls camped around me most nights.  Flattened spots around camp came from a few nights before I arrived, when the whole herd sacked out in Buffalo Camp.

A couple nights later, I woke to a grunt and sniff right behind my head.  The only thing between me and the bison was flimsy yellow-green nylon.  I wasn’t worried about getting stepped on since the tent was elevated on a platform. The tent was tied down right on the edge of the platform instead of the middle, so he could stand there and investigate it.  I wasn’t sure what – if anything- to worry about.

I could hear the animal lower himself to the ground, first one end, then the other. He lay right behind me, close enough that I could smell him.  His head moved back and forth like he was grooming, and he leaned back on the tent. He may have been scratching off loose hair with his horns.  Little gurgling sounds bubbled up from the digestive labyrinth that processes and re-processes food.  He seemed to burp.

This was awkward.


Downright itchy.  Sorry I can’t help, big guy.

I’m one of those people who can fall asleep anywhere, like crowded train stations in foreign countries where unguarded, you can be robbed or killed.  I’m usually awake and curious, but if I need sleep, I can get it.  In this case, I fell asleep after awhile because I was tired from hiking and had no choice.  I woke to a sigh, the sound of cloven hooves scraping gravel, and one slow step after another as he walked away.

The next morning, as on most mornings I was there, the sun rose on what looked like a scene printed on a historic postage stamp.  Bison and deer, birds in the sage and shrubs and trees, pale yellow willow catkins lighting up in the sun. APRBisonBuffaloCamp

There are no longer herds of bison, deer, and antelope stretching for miles.  And I’m camping, but I have food and water with me, portable electronics and a high speed way to reach a doctor or grocery store if I need to.  I’m housed in hi-tech fabric and poles. I’m sleeping swathed in synthetic fabric, not skins.

But here in Buffalo Camp, I could imagine myself as one of the early foreign travelers  as I stepped out of my shelter to a dazzling variety of life moving across the landscape.

For more views of Buffalo Camp, watch the rough little video below.  To check it out yourself, visit here.




After half a dozen trips across the West, I decided these travels need their own blog.

I do not hail from the West, but rather, the Midwest.  I fled to the coast as many do for work.  But as the West Coast explodes with housing and business development, I find myself driving away from the tower cranes, burgeoning condos, metastatic housing development. I live in a farming area, a river valley, surrounded by increasingly lush vegetation and rich wildlife.  But increasingly, it’s not far enough away.

So a couple times a year, I head east, letting the scenery fly by as I unwind behind the wheel on the interstate.  I end up in Montana or Wyoming, looking for wildlife, public access, open space, few people. I get to unwind, mull over my life, think about future adventures. Each trip, I travel a little farther, and disappear a little more.

These journeys need their own place to live.  To follow them, visit


skiingforthesuckerholeHeavy weather didn’t wash away the colors of skiers skimming trails in the Methow Valley.  Occasional wet snow couldn’t dampen the teals and fuschias and yellows of modern outerwear. Petite teardrop packs rode neatly on people’s backs if they carried anything at all. Space age skis with optimized length and shape for easier turning painted the ground with a vibrant color palette.

oldfriendAnd there I was, in my red and black, 23-year old North Face shell, everything else black, carrying a black and green, 20-year old Arcteryx pack.  I wore my old Karhu half-metal edge, long, pointed skis. It’s not that I don’t own more modern gear. That gear hung neatly in closets, or slept quietly in a drawer.

Why would I reach for old gear when I have new?  It’s not stubborn thriftiness, because I already wrote the check to replace my well-worn gear.

And it’s not misplaced attachment to glory days of yore.  A long-ago manager taught me how that looks with tales of his youthful exploits as a Yosemite Valley climber.  As a new climber, I was very impressed with his conquering El Capitan, but after a few stories, I realized the throwback climber’s clothing and old stories he wore like a badge of honor were all that he had to offer.  I wanted to keep living, have new stories to tell.

No, the reason I keep my old gear has to do with memory and familiarity. That pack has traveled to New Zealand twice, Tonga, the Arctic, Costa Rica, Canada, Hawaii a couple times, the Southwest, and the Midwest.  It has ridden in airplanes, cars, and carts; hiked, scrambled, skied, and climbed.

Those skis took me on my first trip to Methow Valley 22 years ago, traveling hut to hut in the Rendezvous area, and many other places. The goretex shell- well, that’s been everywhere including the tops of volcanoes.

mazamawelcomeIn a time when powerful people want to turn the world upside down, we’re weathering one piece of bad news after another, and nothing seems steady or logical, we turn to the familiar.  My outdoor gear is my memento, my keepsake of a life lived as fully as I could considering I’m not a natural athlete, but naturally work too much.

The fabric of old jackets and packs holds our shape and memories, and worn though it is, provides a reminder that life can make sense, and can bring adventure and joy.  Times like these, you are afraid there will be no new memories to be had. You’re hunkered down wondering if you have to protect your finances to avoid future government catastrophe and worrying if you’ll make it through that ultrasound finding or weather your estranged brother’s death if the next stroke is fatal.


Wapta Icefield, in another old jacket

The memory of standing on a volcano, tired but triumphant, gazing at a sea of peaks, reminds you that there is a world, and that the ageless mountains will someday shrug off all of humanity in one big heave.  It makes the day-to-day anxieties small in relation to the planet. The looming monsters shrink to ants.


But romanticism aside, using old gear has its costs in a way that cradling a family memento does not.


The Clip Flashlight survives wandering grizzlies in Wyoming- but not the rain

My trusty Sierra Designs Clip Flashlight tent, the one edition that never had a long enough fly, just can’t keep out the rain anymore. I brought my new Mountainsmith tent on a Montana trip last year just in case.

No waterproofer will revive a goretex membrane that, upon examination under microscope, probably doesn’t exist anymore. I have a newer jacket that traveled to the Arctic with me, because that’s not a place that tolerates bad gear.


Water crossing, Auyuittuq Traverse- not the place to cling to old gear.

And when you beat the camber out of skis, they ride flat and slow on the snow, making you work even on the downhill.



Five years ago on these same skis, when they were only 17 years old

So maybe the trick is to keep making new memories with new gear, and memorialize the old in decorations like the ski fence I drove by on my way here.


There is much to love about the new.  The Methow Valley Ski Trails Association has worked hard to remain relevant and to engage new audiences.  They offer trails for kids, with illustrated StorySki boards about polar bear polka parties, and sassy animals tempting them to learn about nature and practice ski techniques.  I endured my first years of skiing on hand-me-down wooden skis in woolen army surplus knickers and layers of old logging jackets.  These kids wear light, warm gear and knitted hats with goat horns, and play all the way down the trail.  No grim determination needed here.


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There are trails for dogs, and the dogs are good dogs.  These aren’t the predatory pooches hopping on your skis and nipping at your calves as you careen downhill.  They run with their owners and only approach if invited- and I do invite them, because I love dogs.

methowdogheavenThere are trails for fat bikes, with beefy snow tires. Trails for skate skiers and snowmobiles.  Easy, medium, and hard trails. Trails that the neighbors decorate with crazy pink flamingos. methowtrailflamingos



A rare selfie, with stick-induced wound

This weekend is a new start on an old, dead tradition. Friends and I used to ski the Methow Valley every year on the holiday weekend because I share a birthday with dead presidents. Those friends are gone, or quit skiing, or became overwhelmed by life.  Heck with that, I figure.  I still ski. I still share a birthday with dead presidents who got us government workers a Monday off.


I skied unapologetically in my old gear, and didn’t bother to cover up the scrape on my chin where that argument with a stick ended with a win for the stick. The freedom that comes with not being beautiful is exhilarating, and a stick scab from a speedy maneuver into the woods is a hero’s badge. The memory of flight comes from poling hard downhill to gain speed when the snow is good and the glide wax is fresh.

But next year, maybe next year if I make it through and the country still stands, I’ll bring my new gear, that light gear in brighter colors, and make new memories on the pyre of old traditions and lost ways.




The limits of sight


The first photographers who labored to put image to paper almost 200 years ago couldn’t have known that someday, a small camera within the budget of average Americans would be able to capture the crescent moon.  My little camera sees this New Year’s moon in more detail than the first photographers ever could. And  in another 200 years, we will probably live on the moon if we live at all.


Credit: Dcibillus, Wikimedia Commons, 2009

But using an electronic eye to see into the heavens doesn’t resonate like using imagination to daydream the moon and stars. Cultures around the world saw the sliver of waxing or waning moon and turned it into concept or goddesses or some symbol of the mysterious.

It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Using that electronic eye catches scenes quickly, gives a nice visual to tell a story with, lets us race by and get to the next part of our lives.  But slowing down, seeing that symbol hanging in the dark sky far above and imagining its meaning and power, stays more with us.

I spent the holidays puttering, cleaning, slowing down, simplifying not making resolutions to do more and better, but just stopping to think and to reach back to the things that make me happy.  The things that should inspire gratitude.

In a busy life, it’s easy to forget to be grateful. It’s been unusually cold here, and the cold stretches on. The ground is hard and the water tanks freeze nightly.  I carry water for half an hour every morning. It’s bone-chilling damp and frigid when I get off the train in Seattle. But electronics give me pause and perspective:  The jet stream that is chilling us with arctic flow is pressing a massive incoming pineapple express into northern California, which will experience major flooding, avalanches, and landslides.  That storm would have been barreling down on my area – if it hadn’t been so cold, that is. make_img


Mt. Baker, with a little steam rising to remind us it’s an active volcano.

And we’re not dry cold:  we’re having a phenomenal winter season, a good ski/snowshoe year, so there’s still time to get out to the mountains and enjoy and get back in shape for backpacking season.



larkeyMy remaining horse, and all the animals I’ve cared for here are also a reason for gratitude.  I bought this house, located in such a perilous place, for my horses.  Here I am now, down from four horses, two dogs, and two cats that came with the house.  I one horse left, and he’s ageing and looking sore on one leg, and we can’t figure out what it is.  I’m feeling the loss of my other horse, and this animal’s aching.

This stage can seem like the twilight of a flawed day that started with a brilliant, hopeful dawn.  You become worn being the angel of death ushering beloved animal companions one after the other  into eternal night. You wonder what would have been had you done something different.

Well, here’s the deal.  My dogs and horses forced me outside to get fresh air and exercise even when I didn’t want to go. They grounded me and gave me a badly needed sense of responsibility. They gave me reason to locate in a quiet sanctuary that protected me in some major life changes and difficult situations.

hawk3This sanctuary is where I learned to heal the land and make a home for wildlife.  Teaching other people what I learned over a decade of habitat restoration has made me a better communicator. Volunteering to give workshops lets me give something back to the world. My habitat project has helped my really see and understand wildlife. Animals have driven my art, my interests, my travel.  The drive to restore even more every year keeps me moving, digging the earth, creating hedgerows and gardens and wild, tangled refuges.

And my home is modest, but at least for now, I have a home.  My own home. Many, many people do not due to poverty, natural disaster, and war. Or they share dangerously cramped space with too many people.

whitehorseBy the end of holiday break, I could see my house as far more than an object and investment again. I slowed down, puttered around, rearranged my space, reconnected enough to see it as more than a snapshot.  Not  racing by, on a schedule to get things done, as a place of chores and responsibilities and somewhere to rest between work days.

I once again see home as a living place filled with stories and memories, souvenirs and mementos, many good times and some tough ones; the silent, non-judgemental keeper of my dreams and decisions.  My land is a driver for my best aspirations and successes. My horse is a welcome anchor, a creature who needs me as a familiar herd member, not a burden.

Sure, I wander around with my camera some, taking pictures of wildlife, the New Year’s Day sunrise and the crescent moon.  But I also stop, listen, imagine the moon and the hooting owls and trumpeting swans as symbols of something unearthly, daydream a novel of a mystical place where they are all gods- and well, you know.  Become human again.

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The holy grail of Monteverde bird watching:  the resplendent quetzal. Photo by Kim

There- you have the reason everyone goes to the Cloud Forest:  to see the resplendent quetzal.  This member of the trogon family is understandably a key fixture in Mayan and Aztec legend.  Apparently, the quetzal lost its most beautiful song when the Mayan lost their country to the Spaniards, and will only sing again when the land is once again free. These striking birds symbolized freedom since they reportedly would kill themselves in captivity. In fact, a breeding program at Zoológico Regional Miguel Álvarez del Torohas produced only about a dozen birds since 2003.  The song they sing is, for the time being, distinctive.

When we arrive, there is a pair of resplendent quetzals in trees by the parking lot. Astonishingly, some people decide they will skip the tour because they’ve seen what they came to see without leaving the parking lot.


Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Preserve is internationally famous and so amazingly busy.  We are advised of two things:  arrive for the first tour if you want to see any birds, and hire a guide.  If you get there late, the throngs will chase the birds away.  And if you think your untrained eyes will find birds and animals, well, good luck to you.


The potoo on super zoom. Seriously, not finding this one by myself due to camoflauge.

I learn thoughout this trip why ecotourists should hire local guides.  It’s not just for their sharp eyes.  Guides at reserves share with each other information on where there are potoos posed still on a nest within a broken snag, bats roosting for the day, sloths sleeping, and hummingbird nests with young. You are benefiting from the sharp eyes of many guides.

And along with dollars that go to lodging and food, your guide fees and tips give the local communities reason to preserve these lands, to let the jungle come back.

At Santa Elena Reserve, our young guide tells a tale of wanting to guide only for the tourist dollars.  “I knew nothing about our birds and animals here,” he says. “But it was better money than cattle farming at home with my family.”

An older guide gave him a pair of broken binoculars.  He managed to fix them, and  found his world transformed when he saw his first bird in fine detail.  It stopped being about tourist dollars right then:  he was instantly hooked on his country’s wildlife .

When we walked with him, he demonstrated excellent tracking ability and found a quetzal breeding pair in the forest by subtle sound.

In Monteverde, the guides have equally interesting stories. Our guide walked us throught the complex life cycle of the strangler fig as if it were a suspensful drama, an unfolding story.

These strange trees are completely dependent on pollination by the fig wasp, which in turn depends on them. These are not bad trees, according to our guide, despite their name. “Tourists hear that they strangle trees, kill them, and they want them all to be removed,” he tells us.  “But they are part of the forest.  They’re natural. They help the birds and animals.”


I think about that rule- removing things that kill other things- and how ironic it would be if we applied it to ourselves.


Looking up inside a strangler fig that has swallowed its host.

Our companions on this tour are two artists that sit for coffee with us in the cafe afterward.  Greg Frux has completed multiple trips to beautiful Death Valley, first as an artist-in-residence because, he said, the artist who was supposed to go didn’t realize he or she would be camped out in a tent in the desert.  He shows me his wonderful field book and says he wants to do a painting of the strangler fig.  I don’t see anything from Costa Rica on his website even today, but he’s had many other grand adventures.

Aside from the wonderful coffee shop, there is a good gift shop with work from local artisans.  And there are hummingbird feeders.  The day is darkish and foggy, as it should be in the mist-shrouded mountains, and my photographs are only marginal, even though there are unbelievable numbers of hummingbirds there.  A local woman weaves nearby, and I’m interested, but I don’t know if we share a language.



It’s hard to compete with the brilliance of hummingbirds, but this weaver was just as colorful.









montehummer1After the tour, we walk the trails, but it is getting hot now, with the sun out.  The guide has said the sun shines more than it should in the Cloud Forests.  “Climate change,” he tells us.  “Sun will destroy the forest.  It needs clouds, and mist, and cool.”


The next day, we traveled to Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve, much smaller and more peaceful. This is a community-run reserve, and it has a much more intimate feel.  It has fewer rules than Monteverde, so the guide takes us in the opposite direction of the other tour groups.  This is where we track the sound of a quetzal dropping fruits in the forest, and hear the “rusty gate bird”- the black faced solitaire.  It does sound like its common namesake, but its song resonates through the forest and with the song of the lonely toucan, means Costa Rica to me from there on out.

I learn an important differentiator of my home and this place, something that should have been obvious.  The trees here don’t have rings.  I learn this when I ask the guide about a large, old cedar. Radiocarbon dating, he says.

At Santa Elena, I find beauty in forest plants.  They are dramatic, sculptural and embossed with hairs and modified leaves and flowers.  They grow where ever they can, on the ground, all over the trees, hanging in the air.

At this less crowded reserve, we lingered.  We ate lunch, drank coffee, enjoyed listening to people talk. We bought gifts in the small shop adjacent to the cafe tables. Sure, the ride up to Monteverde was rough. I was still struggling with a respiratory infection, but the moist air felt good on my lungs and I understood exactly why we had come here. It was for the resplendent quetzal and everything else wonderful about this place.

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After 3 years, I haven’t made it back to Costa Rica yet.  I wanted to go back the next year, then the next, and- well, I’m too curious. I wander too much and am easily distracted by new adventures.

But I can tell you why I really want to go back.  It’s not the adventure travel activities and resorts, because my friend and I avoided those like the plague when we traveled to the Pacific coast in 2014. It’s the quiet lodges at refuges where the owners and communities are working to save what is left of the rich wildlife in the country.

This post is about the first leg of our trip, from Liberia to our lodging near the Cloud Forests of Monteverde and Santa Elena. Our trip started in Seattle, with clear skies as we flew over sleeping Mt. Rainier. Mt. St. Helens rises above the clouds in the background, a stubby reminder of what happens when our Cascade stratavolcanoes decide they are too symmetrical and lovely.


Our travel plans led us to the smart choice of flying into Liberia.  Sure, we drove out past 40 kms of road construction leaving town, with men mixing and pouring concrete from wheelbarrows in 90F heat.  But after we flew out of San Jose at the end, I would recommend Liberia instead.  At the very least, Liberia wouldn’t be hosting the Costa Rica vs. Paraguay soccer game at the national stadium as San Jose was when we were passing through.

We had a stopover in Dallas both ways.  Don’t do this.  Or at least, if you must, give yourself about 4 hours to lay over in this airport.  We almost missed our connection on the way back, making a Chariots of Fire dash in our socks out of security and reaching the gate within a minute of closing – and this after our flight landed 2.5 hours before.

I can’t remember the airline we flew, but it doesn’t matter: the leg room and service are minimal on all of them when you’re in economy class. The only weirdly wonderful, throwback service I’ve experienced is from Air North going to the Canadian Arctic. Expensive to fly, but they have real food, free wine and capuccino and hot, moist towels before and after meals. Oh, and leg room.

I flew with an awful respiratory infection.  A doctor sent me with prescription nasal spray and Sudafed to avoid rupturing my full eardrums.  It was brutal to clear my ears, and the second takeoff felt like a near disaster.  My right ear has had a slight ringing ever since.

We landed in the early evening in Liberia, taxied to our nearby hotel, and sat on the veranda eating fruit and drinking juice in soothing warm air,  listening to night creatures chirping.  A gecko appeared on the wall, making an amazingly loud sound.

The next morning didn’t start out as a dream vacation. We gathered our rental 4WD, after finding the price skyrocketed over the quote with insurance coverage.  Since an automatic was twice the price as a manual transmission, we got the manual. This meant I was doing all the driving because Kim doesn’t drive a stick and that’s all I’ve ever owned.

The Korean SUV was a true Rent-A-Wreck; the suspension was shot by a thousand tourist yahoos and the air conditioning died within 10 minutes.  We kept the windows shut to keep out dust from the 40 km of aforementioned road construction.  That pretty much cooked us.

Then we took a couple wrong turns.  The first wasn’t too bad, but the second was a wrong turn out of Cañas onto 142, instead of continuing to 145.  People complain about the road to Monteverde, but they’re talking about 145.  The connector between was a steep, bone jarring, unsigned route.  The scenery was gorgeous and it was the type of lonely I like.  Kim- well, between no signs and bouncing around on lousy suspension in a crappy 4WD with no air conditioning, she was understandably losing patience.


Kim, taking a much needed break from the hot, suspensionless SUV on the road to Monteverde.

2222014_sharetheroadThe upside of the drive was that we weren’t lost, and we saw one cause of decline of the resplendent quetzal, a charismatic bird everyone going to Monteverde Cloud Forest wants to see:  a fragmented travel corridor between the mountains and the sea. Cattle ranches have denuded forest, leaving flying quetzals vulnerable to winged predators.


In the middle of nowhere appeared an “Info Center”- with no facilities or people to give information.  Had to stop for the picture, anyway.


A sign! The speed limit is the funniest one- at that speed, our vehicle would disintegrate.

We finally made it to Cabinas Capulin.  It was a little hard to find someone to check us in: the lodging operation is operated on a restored portion of a working dairy operation. They, like others, are adding ecotourism to their portfolio to weather the uncertainties of farming and to benefit from local tourism.  They’re not as connected as some, so we had to set up our own guide reservations in the Cloud Forest Reserves, which require certified guides.



Our cabin was small and comfortable, with great deck and views.  The wood in the cabins was from fallen trees that can no longer be harvested because they’re endangered.  We learned on the trip that wood is poached along with exotic animals and birds from tropical forests.

The view from the deck was filled with lush, beautiful trees with birds fluttering everywhere.  The family built trails as the jungle began to restore itself, but clearly, some trees had been there awhile.


We wandered the trails the first day, and I met my first strangler fig.  These tropical plants earned their name by their survival tactic:  they begin to grow in the canopy of a live tree, drop roots to the ground, slowly surrounding the host until they shut it down and become a tree of their own.


The Capulin strangler fig was on one trail, and on another, enormous ant mound that would be dwarfed by the underground complex and satellite mounds we couldn’t see.  A parade of leaf cutter ants marched along the trail, bounty on their backs.  The leaf pieces are not for their dinner table, but to feed the fungus they farm underneath the dirt. Awesome video of these ants is at Deep Look on YouTube.


leafcutterantsThus my first view into the complex, interconnected world of the rainforest:  an environment where any creature that plows the soil and recycles organic important is absolutely critical.  Even a soldierly group of ants with a labyrinthine underground world.


Emerald Toucanet

We saw other birds here, including an emerald toucanet and pale-billed woodpecker, and came upon the other ubiquitous feature of Costa Rican tourist areas:  the zipline. Cabinas Capulin has a small one, which we did not avail ourselves, but up the road is apparently the Big Daddy of ziplines, and an aerial tram.  We passed.

cabinas_palebilledwoodpeckerCabinas Capulin was really our jumping off point to Monteverde and Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserves, which I’ll cover in the next post.  Suffice to say, it is an inexpensive place to stay, and a coworker recommended it when we couldn’t get into the Ecolodge San Luis, a branch of University of Georgia. And Cabinas was a secluded, relaxing place to be after our rather inauspicious start.