Gratitude and Presence In Times of Sadness

dreamstime_s_67074644My mother is at the end stage of her terminal illness. After being diagnosed with stage 4 gastric cancer almost two years ago, the chemo treatments stopped working and the cancer has spread all throughout her abdomen. The doctors said they don’t know how long she has left. Maybe weeks or a few months at the most.

My daughter and I flew to San Diego to see her while she was still feeling relatively OK. As we drove around town from the airport to the marina where my mom is living to my sister’s house nearby, my mind was filled with all manner of thoughts—what we would do to maximize our time there, how to handle certain delicate conversations, and the logistics for the weekend. My daughter, however, had something else on her mind.

“I love San Diego,” she said. “Look at how all the plants and trees are so different than in Denver. It would be so cool to live here.”

My first instinct was to defend Denver and remind her of why her father and I moved out of San Diego more than twenty years ago, but instead, another thought blossomed in my mind. Why was I taking her comment as a personal affront? Why not see what she sees? She was right, after all. The flora was different. Way different.

Until that very moment, I was taking the surrounding landscape for granted. I looked again through her eyes. Some trees had huge red blossoms on them and not many green leaves (I learned later they’re naked coral trees). There were yellow and purple flowers on the side of embankments and in the medians. Trees were bright and deep green with fresh leaves. Grass was lush and dense after a season of rain, a relief from years of drought and brown.

Everywhere we looked, we saw flowers. Rosemary shrubs and pepper trees were as common as ash trees and Russian sage back home. The air was fragrant and humid with an approaching rainstorm, a sensation seldom to be experienced in the arid climate of the plains of Colorado.

We spent the next two days observing all the new and wonderful things San Diego has to offer: a diving seal in the harbor, a manta ray coasting casually near the dock of the Midway Naval Museum, purple trees, slugs, eucalyptus trees, teal-blue coastlines. In the midst of our sad and difficult family visit, we did what we could to stay present to what surrounded us. We appreciated that life was beginning anew in San Diego after a period of drought and death. It was a momentary glimpse of something beautiful and perhaps, not necessarily enduring.

This attention to beauty kept us in a state of gratitude toward life, and indeed was a contrast to the decline and illness we had to witness.

When you have to face a sad reality in your life, is it possible to be consoled by nature’s seasons and beauty? Can staying present to nature’s cycles get you through some tough times? I think so, because you see the endurance of life and beauty after a period of harsh and difficult challenges.

Road Trip to Oregon

After being away from home for three weeks, first on a trip to Ridgway, Colorado to meet with contractors about building a house there, and then two weeks on a road trip to Oregon, it’s good to be home. Not because I was tired of traveling or sleeping in unfamiliar beds, but because it’s good to step back and learn to appreciate again the things you take for granted.

I have some great memories from the trip, and enjoyed spending time outside in nature most every single day. We picked berries and cherries in the Hood River Valley, we fished off a row boat at Long Lake under the watchful eye of Mt. Hood, we caught and released a salamander, hiked up to some glorious waterfalls in the Columbia River Gorge, watched fireworks over the Columbia River, inspected tide pools at the beach, and traced low tide on a cool, windy beach at sunset.

I missed my dog, and I know this because I kept gravitating toward other people’s dogs, secretly wanting to rub them and feel their soft fur. I missed the fresh garden salads I would make. I miss my garden, both at home and at the Grange where we keep a community garden. I miss my pillow, because people who rent out their vacation homes don’t invest in quality pillows. I miss going to the rec center and lifting weights and feeling sore, because doing push ups and squats every day is BORING. But I did get to do some awesome hikes and runs. My favorite was the hike to the summit (1,600 ft summit) of Neakahnie Mountain, a fairly steep, short, but scenic climb through douglas fir and moss heavy woods to one of the highest points on the Oregon coast.

I loved hearing the melodious calls of the Swainson’s Thrush birds, which sounded like the combination of crystals tinkling and a soft flute. Learning about the 60+ year old sturgeon named Herman that lives in a tank in a fish hatchery in the Columbia River Basin near Bonneville Dam was astounding – as was seeing this docile fish, which was the size of a great white shark!

The most inspiring of all was visiting and learning about the replanting of the Tilamook State Forest, where 600,000 or so acres burned in wildfires over the course of two decades in the 1930’s and 40s but was all replanted by an unimaginable human effort that lasted two decades. It’s a lush forest now, and a testament to the human spirit.

No Choice But to “Not Do”

It’s been at least four years since I’ve been really sick. That’s why, when several days ago I came down with a stomach virus that had me laid up with all the horrible physical symptoms and a dose of some thick malaise, I resisted the truth of what was happening with me. I was determined not to let it last too long or be that big of a deal. It was the holiday season between Christmas and New Year’s, so I didn’t have to be anywhere or really do anything, so on one hand it was good timing. But from the standpoint of having “ruined” a perfectly nice stay-cation, it sucked. To make it doubly worse, my husband came down with the same thing at about the same exact time.

The day where I felt my lowest, physically and mentally, I spent either on the couch or in bed, sometimes reading, sometimes surfing the internet, or watching Netflix. Mostly I spent time in that hazy netherworld between sleeping and just laying there, staring at the wall, contemplating my existence.

What I found fascinating after that day of forced rest, is how much better it felt the next day, when I had a minor recovery, to be able to actually want to DO anything. I cleaned, I cooked, I checked my email, I made plans. The accomplishing of small tasks felt stupendous. I felt like myself again, because I was able to drink a little bit of that Western culture drug of choice: DOING. I’m not surprised a bit that I’m indeed addicted to doing, and to accomplishing of tasks and goals. Without that doing, I’m in a timeless, gray fog where not much matters. I love doing. My best days are those where I get a lot done, or do a lot.

But here’s the thing…

That day where I had no choice but to not do felt like a revelation. My brain was doing its job to focus my body on healing by forcing me to become detached from desire for anything (except relief from the discomfort). Work felt very “far away”. Desire and hunger felt “far away”. Ambition and goals were not even visible. But that part of me that is addicted to doing was watching the whole time, and criticizing and lamenting about I was wasting a perfectly good day. The voice wasn’t as strong as it usually is, but it was still there, like the annoying, low drone of the distant highway when you’re cresting a scenic ridge and trying to appreciate the wilderness.

For just a day, I had really succeeded in the art of “not doing” and just being present, and not minding spending a day of just “being”. I wasn’t doing it to accomplish any kind of spiritual goal, or with the intent to observe my thoughts for the purpose of changing them later.

Now that I’m starting to feel better, I don’t like that I had “wasted” a day or even several to the task of taking it easy while recovering from a stomach virus. That monkey mind doing voice is angry that I didn’t go on long snow hikes or take on a big personal project or visit with more friends. But now that I know what true “not doing” feels like, and how it’s a relief from the incessant drone of the task master, I’m telling myself that it was a good experience, because it offered me a rare insight into true being and not doing.



Food from the Backyard

backyard garden permaculture
This is only half of the garden

I thought I’d take a little break from writing about contemplative hiking this week and instead do an update on our home permaculture garden and its ongoing bounty.

Last fall we expanded our backyard food garden by about a fourth with a sheet mulch method of putting down cardboard directly on the lawn, then layering cow manure, horse manure, straw, amendments (powdered sea kelp, ground rock) and dead leaves into a foot-thick pile that slowly decomposed over the winter to form very nitrogen-rich soil. Before learning this method from Sandy Cruz, a permaculture teacher in the Boulder area, in past years we would purchase and haul in bags of potting soil and compost from the local nursery or Home Depot to expand our garden. No more of that! This sheet mulching method is far superior and far cheaper, as a bale of straw is maybe a few bucks and a pickup truck load of fresh manure is either free or, where we get it from, $5. There’s a little more labor involved with shoveling the stinky stuff into a wheelbarrow and out onto the soil lasagna, but it’s worth it. There’s no amount of MiracleGrow that can compete.

Compost - from the bottom of our bin and one year old and ready to use

Although we don’t have a perfect permaculture design in our backyard garden, we have incorporated some techniques to make gardening easier, because we’re allowing nature to do a lot of the work.

We diverted the rain from a nearby drain down into a pipe that we buried under the garden. The holes in the pipe allow for a slow, deep moistening of the soil when it rains. Before, the drain would just gush out into the middle of our lawn and form a pond – a total waste of good rainwater. No more.

We mulch our garden with any weeds that may have reared their resilient heads (as long as they haven’t yet gone to seed, and NO bindweed as mulch – that stuff will germinate from its roots). The weeds decompose and return the nutrients back to the soil, and they act as a moisture barrier for the soil around plants they’re covering.

onions growing under apple tree
Planting onions under apple trees deters pests

We planted things to have multiple purposes. The green beans and peas are nitrogen fixers and “feed” the squash and cucumbers, and in turn the squash and cukes shade and cool the ground and prevent weeds from growing. We planted onions underneath the apple tree to repel those moths that bore holes in apples, and it seems to be working for the most part, at least for now. The apples are still the size of apricots, but are looking rosy and healthy. We planted clover, another nitrogen fixer, under the plum tree and around the pumpkin and squash plants, because clover will feed the soil.

We also have raspberries in the low spot behind the vegetables, where they can partake of a wetter environment since that’s where all the water goes when it rains. We haven’t had many berries this year because the birds get to them before we do. That’s ok. The birds deposit their own fertilizer on the soil around other plants we enjoy, too.

Instead of planting the same crop in neat clusters or rows, we planted kind of hodge-podge, so that pests can’t congregate in one area and destroy an entire crop. This has helped us avoid such pests as flea beetles, horn worms and other nasty things. Having flowers around our vegetables also attracts pollinators and letting birds partake of berries and worms no doubt helps with pest control, too. (Although worms aren’t pests. But caterpillar larvae and slugs are.)

The climate around the Front Range has been bad for the cool weather crops this year. It was cooler and wetter than normal for a while in April and May, and then, bam! It got hot pretty quickly. The cool weather plants had a slower start due to the cooler spring, then just petered out when temperatures hit 90 degrees. Therefore, we got only a handful of peas from at least the dozen plants we sowed, and the broccoli heads were pathetically small. We also learned that beets don’t like fresh manure, so our beet crop was generally non-existent due to some of the manure mulch still not being decomposed enough in April. We enjoyed a lot of lettuce, making salads not just for ourselves but for several big family get-togethers in June.

The tomatoes were the funniest story this year. As we always do, we started about three dozen plants from seed in late February. I don’t know what happened, but the good psychic energy we gave the plants paid off and in April the plants were green, bushy and 2-3 feet tall and ready to go in  the ground! It was way too early, though, as temperatures need to be at least 50 degrees overnight and that just wasn’t happening (and wouldn’t be, until late May). But we needed to do something. We started hardening off the tomatoes by placing the pots outside for several hours a day of sunlight. That made them grow taller and leggier. They were getting fragile and spindly, and hard to protect when transporting them around.

green tomatoOur solution was to plant them in the garden and make a miniature hoophouse around each plant. We encircled the plants with wired garden fencing, wide enough to accommodate the growth, and about 3 feet tall, then wrapped each cylinder with clear garden plastic, covering the whole thing with remay cloth each night. The temperature in the mini hoophouse stayed a few degrees warmer and thus protected the sensitive tomatoes from getting chilled.

So far so good… But one day in May a warm front moved in and wind began to whip through the neighborhood. I looked out the window to see tomato cages strewn about the yard and a couple of the plants snapped in half – at the base of the stem! Argh! I had to quickly rush out to remove all the cages that day until the wind died down, then replace the cages again that night. What a pain in the ass.

Those tomatoes are damn prima donnas, with all that early seed tending, the weeks of marching the pots in and out, in and out of the house. We even did some frantic covering with chairs and tarps in the middle of a lightning and hail storm in early June in a desperate attempt to protect them. All I can say is, they better produce a fine crop this summer. And in fairness I have to admit that so far, they’re coming through.

tomatoes peppers cucumbers
Late July harvest of peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers

We planted a Bulgarian variety of heirloom tomatoes called “vorlon” which has proven to like Colorado weather. The leaves are dark and robust, the fruit is large and one of the first to ripen. The flavor is a bit less acidic than the average variety of tomatoes. It’s like the Hercules of tomatoes in our garden. And yes, a bit less prima donna.

I have to say that so far I’m happiest with the cucumber crop. We planted at least 15 plants and have been picking flavorful cukes, one each day, for a couple of weeks now. We also have a lot of peppers, but with them being neither sweet nor spicy, I’m not quite sure what to do with them.

I’m looking forward to tasting our Italian plums and apples later this summer and partaking of some of the unusual varieties of squash we planted – Pennsylvania Dutch and Honeyboat.

kale and collards
kale and collards everywhere!

We’ve had one serving of green beans so far and about 40 pounds of collard greens. The collards are amazing. They just keep growing and growing, and it doesn’t matter the weather or soil quality. I’m a little burned out on collards, as well as chard, and kale. Not only are we getting it from our garden, but we’re bringing it home from the half-share CSA we have, too. I’m feeling rather bovine-like with all these greens every meal of the day. We’ll have to blanch that stuff and freeze it for fall and winter, to put in soups and stews. I think I’m done for a while.

There’s nothing like the feeling of getting food from your backyard, though, or biting into a tomato or cucumber you just picked a minute ago. It’s a worthwhile venture, and it never really feels like work. I enjoy going out there in late afternoon or early morning, listening to the birds, watching the bees, and zoning out while I water everything. But we come nowhere close to producing all of our own food, just enough to not have to buy vegetables for a few months from the store. I’m sure that if we had to survive off what we grew, the effort would be exponentially larger. Our anxiety would be, as well. I once asked Dave, what if our survival depended on the success of our garden? He admitted that we would be protecting that garden like crazy, never leaving the house if there was even a small chance of a hail-producing thunderstorm.

For now, thankfully, this is just a pleasurable and educational hobby.

purple pole beans
Purple pole bean blossoms

Detroit – From Cars to Carrots?

Is it true? Is Detroit going to be on the forefront of a new, more-eco friendly industry in the new millennium? Is it going to go from building cars to growing carrots (and other crops)?

What an exciting thought!

growing up in detroit
Me in my First Commion garb on the porch of my childhood home in Detroit, circa 1976.

I grew up in Detroit and moved away to San Diego with my parents when I graduated from high school. I’ve seen the city go from a bustling industrial city where my father got his first job in America as a line worker and my mother styled the hair of elderly Polish ladies in her own salon in Hamtramck, to a city that quite literally has decayed and collapsed.

If you GoogleMap “13171 Moenart, Detroit” (my childhood home) you’ll see a neighborhood on the satellite image that looks gappy and strange. Clusters of homes are surrounded with expanses of green, indicating that half the homes have been burned to the ground and demolished. The other half are abandoned or occupied by people who can’t or don’t want to sell their home.

My aunt is one of those people. She lives in an area so devastated by the economy that people are literally giving away free rent in the hopes they can write something off on their taxes, since the homes they own are worthless. She doesn’t own anything of value for fear of being robbed (which she has been, many times) and doesn’t lock her door when she leaves the house. Instead, she leaves her vicious German Shepherd in full view behind a glass “security” door to ward away burglars and vandals.

I wondered what would become of this city, knowing that the American automobile industry probably won’t be making a comeback anytime soon, if ever. Today I read an article in the LA Times online that got my spirits up. Detroit may be on its way to becoming the next urban agriculture mecca!

Hantz Farms wants to invest in Detroit’s abandoned land to build farms and gardens that could feed the locals and even better—offer employment opportunities to those out of work.

This isn’t just what Detroit needs, it’s exactly what the national economy needs. We need new jobs that represent industry with low commodity potential, which according to Herman Daly (“Ecological Economics”) is one way of attaining a steady-state, sustainable economy. We invest in the service sector, instead of looking for yet another mass-produced “product” to help solve our environmental, energy and social problems.

In the case of wide-scale urban agriculture, we can hit many birds with one stone. Abandoned land can be used for the common good—by providing jobs, by feeding the local community with locally-grown (hopefully organic and inexpensive) foods, and by raising the value of the surrounding properties. Who wouldn’t want to live across the street from a community garden or farm? It sure beats living across from an empty lot that’s used as a trash receptacle, at best.

I applaud Hantz Farms for their vision, and wait with cautious optimism to see my hometown transformed into the kind of city I always knew it could be, given the right amount of ingenuity and hope.

Contemplative Outdoor Activities for Children

Richard Louv states in his book, Last Child in the Woods, “The shift in our relationship to the natural world is startling, even in settings that one would assume are devoted to nature. Not that long ago, summer camp was a place where you camped, hiked in the woods, learned about plants and animals, or told firelight stories about ghosts or mountain lions. As likely as not today, “summer camp” is a weight-loss camp, or a computer camp. For a new generation, nature is more abstraction than reality. Increasingly, nature is something to watch, to consume, to wear —to ignore. A recent television ad depicts a four-wheel-drive SUV racing along a breathtakingly beautiful mountain stream—while in the backseat two children watch a movie on a flip-down video screen, oblivious to the landscape and water beyond the windows.”

If children don’t feel a connection to nature, and don’t see the importance of conserving the integrity of the natural world, where will the Earth’s future environmental stewards come from?

Teaching children that all life is connected is important, so that when they become adults they understand the importance of careful research and planning when it comes to technology and development, so that we don’t lose species. They’ll know that we cannot survive without a thriving and healthy ecosystem, and that an ecosystem consists of everything from clean water to healthy soil to insects and birds. Many critics of conservation and proponents of things like drilling ANWAR and the Gulf of Mexico say that environmentalists care more about polar bears and reindeer than they do about people.

That statement implies that we don’t need polar bears, or caribou, or any other animal for our survival on Earth. What these critics don’t consider is that when you lose a keystone species such as the caribou, or you obliterate pests in agriculture you also threaten needed pollinators, you are directly affecting what happens to humans.

We need to teach children how to enjoy and respect nature, so they’ll be able to make the right decisions for their future.

These are a few no-cost or low-cost ways of enjoying time outdoors with children.

What Animal Are You?

This is an activity for children ages 6-10 that can be done while walking in a wilderness area or trail. This activity will help a child realize that animals need hiding areas and appropriate habitat to live.

Talk to the child about the kind of animals that may live in the area you’re walking. Ask them to describe what animals they imagine might live there. Then ask them to pick an animal they like the most out of the list you came up with together, or the animal that’s most like them. Ask them to imagine what they would do to find food. Where would they go? What would they eat? What would it taste like? Then ask them where they might go to rest and sleep when they felt tired. Help the child by pointing out possible places—rock outcroppings, under logs, burrows, in a thicket. Have the child tell you what they would be looking for if they were that animal and needed to find a place to rest or sleep so they weren’t disturbed by humans and predators.

Smell a Tree, Touch a Flower

This is an activity for younger children, perhaps 2-6 years old, as well as for older kids up to age 11. It can be done in the backyard, in a park, or along a trail. This expands the child’s awareness of it’s surroundings beyond the cliché or the obvious.

Ask the child to smell a nearby tree bark. Some trees, like ponderosa pine, smell like vanilla. Ask the child to tell you what they think of the smell. Then ask them to touch some flowers and tell you which one feels softest, or the most delicate.

Ask the child to look closely at the leaves of a tree and see if they can find evidence that an animal or insect visited that leaf.

Draw What You Feel

This is an activity for children ages 4-11. It can be done anywhere outdoors, including a backyard or a park, especially where there are a lot of trees, flowers or animals. You’ll need some paper and crayons or drawing tools to give to the child. This activity builds an empathetic connection between the child’s emotions and what they observe in nature.

Ask the child to look around and draw what they see that makes them feel three different ways: 1) peaceful or happy, 2) worried or unhappy, and 3) curious or confused. They may end up drawing such things as flowers for happiness, or maybe a piece of trash or a dead plant for the unhappy emotion. Give the child ample time to complete the exericise. Then ask them to talk about what they drew and why.

Field Guide Trip

This is an activity for children ages 6-12. It can be done anywhere outdoors, but is best done in a park, open space or wilderness where there are many birds, insects or wildflowers present. You will need a field guide from your region, which you can check out of your local library. Pick any of the following types of guides: wildflowers, trees, animals, birds, or weeds.

Bring the field guide along on a walk or hike and challenge the child to find as many plants or animals as possible that match what they see in the field guide. Read the descriptions of the animal and plant and why what they’re observing is what they see in the book (does it have the same colors? Does it live in the area where it is described?). Ask the following questions about the plant or animal:
1. Is it native to the local area?
2. Does it live here year-round?
3. Where does it go or migrate when it’s not here?
4. What happens to this plant or animal in the winter?

Discuss what you find and then make plans to visit the same area in a month or two to see if different plants or animals appear there.

Contemplative Fishing

This is an activity for children ages 4-12 and involves fishing. If you enjoy fishing, it’s a wonderful way to teach a child about ecology if you bring them along. Learning ecology helps a child understand the interconnectedness of all life.

Ask the child to tell you what they see and hear at the pond, stream or lake where you’re fishing. Do they hear frogs? Do they see reeds and plants near the water? How clear is the water?

A good way to know that fish are actively feeding is to watch for risers. Explain to the child what a riser is (a circular disturbance on the surface of the water that indicates a fish has surfaced its mouth) and what the fish may be trying to catch and eat. Explain why you’re using certain bait. If you’re bass fishing, you may be trying different colorful lures because bass have great memories – and if they got caught and released once with a pink lure, they may be leery of anything pink in the future. If you’re trout fishing, explain that trout enjoy very cold water but they don’t enjoy water that rushes quickly, like in a stream. Ask the child where they see areas that a fish may want to rest or hang out, and that’s a good place to cast the fly.

This is also a great opportunity to talk about the food chain. The insects are necessary for fish to eat. The small fish are eaten by the larger fish, and the larger fish are eaten by ducks, pelicans or other predators like cranes or herons (or humans). The sophistication of your your explanation depends on the age of the child.

Neighborhood Pride

This is an activity to do with your child from toddler all the way to their teenaged years. You take a walk in your neighborhood with a trash bag and pick up trash and debris. You teach the child the value of serving the community, not littering, and having pride in where they live. Smaller children can hold the trash bag, while older children can wear gloves to pick up debris.

Discuss how it felt to do this activity. Was it embarassing? Did it feel good to clean things up? Did the child feel angry about the people who littered? How does it make them feel about taking care of the Earth?

Children’s Garden

You need not have a backyard in order to help your child plant and grow something. This is an activity for children of all ages and can be done indoors on a sunny windowsill, or outdoors in a sunny location. If done indoors, you will need a small pot, some good potting soil and some seeds that your child selects. You can plant beans, flowers or vegetables, but for beginner gardeners such plants as peas and beans do very well and grow quickly with the proper care. If done outdoors in a garden, you can help the child plant the seeds in a tilled, enriched soil and let the child weed and water the area throughout the season.

Children take a lot of pride in growing their own food, as evidenced from my own 10-year old daughter, who loves to pull out beets and carrots that she planted and eat them raw, right on the spot! (after a good rinsing, of course.) This is also a good way to teach children about the importance of good, appropriate weather for growing certain kinds of food, and the importance of enough sunlight and moisture. Tomatoes don’t do well when it’s too wet or too cool. Peas and lettuces wilt in weather that’s too hot. Children also learn what plants look like and where their food comes from, as well as gaining a culinary appreciation for vegetables.