What a difference six weeks makes! Here we were mid-September:

First the water pipes were roughed-in and water pressure was tested. My greywater drains are in too, bringing water from bathroom sinks and shower as well as the washing machine seasonally to sub-irrigate my garden-to-be.  Insulation, vapor barriers and an electric resistance radiant heat system are all in there under the slab.

The slab is covered to protect it during the build-out, since it is also my floor.  We’ll simply sand and seal the cement, which will act as a thermal mass for passive solar heat.

Finally the roofline and windows come into view! 

My architect Mike, contractor Hunter and I met on site last week. The interior walls aren’t up, but the posts and drains show clearly where the rooms, shower, sinks and such will be. I wanted a not-so-big house, and this is by no means a tiny house: it’s about 1600 s.f. But for decades I’ve taken for granted lots of excess room. So when I saw the structure of the bedroom, I asked to know how much room from the end of the bed to the wall: four feet. Plenty, really. Just less than I’m used to. But I take Hunter’s point when he tells me that the house looks as big now as it’s ever going to look. It will shrink as the walls start to go up, and again when the drywall goes in. My mantra: I want a not-so-big house, I want a not-so-big house…

Here’s the current status: the core house has adhesive vapor barrier (the blue stuff). Soon they will be putting up whatever is pre-roof: something that will carry us through the winter snows until the real roof is installed in the Spring. Next to the core of the house is a mudroom, which also serves as what we called an Arctic entrance in Alaska. It’s not as insulated as the main house, but will keep the mud, coats, boots, leashes, and any excessively hot or cold air out of the main house. It also houses the laundry and heat pump hot water heater, both of which need to vent to the out-of-doors. To conserve energy, we want to limit vents to the outside to a bare minimum. A heat recovery ventilation system keeps the air filtered and exchanged with great frequency, and the vapor barrier lets moisture out but not in, kind of like GoreTex. That way, we can have a super-insulated house without dying of Legionnaire’s disease or getting black mold.

How it looks today

The drain next to the blue-covered part of the house is for the outdoor kitchen sink, right in front of the mudroom. To the left of that is a small outdoor closet/shed, just in front of the carport. The patio is covered by 8′ of roof, which will keep most of the high summer sun out while letting the low winter sun in.

Our weather has been holding, with just light rains. I hope they get it covered so they can focus on the inside! Thanks for following along.

And We’re Off!

Racing weather and seasons, we stumbled out the gate. 

Groundbreaking was scheduled for Monday, August 2nd.  I had the bright idea to introduce myself and Sunny to my near neighbors before kicking up dust.  I made up cards letting people know who we were and how to get in touch, taking them door-to-door with an offering of home-roasted Thai-spiced cashews.

First stop was the house with the transformer I’ll be linking to.  Erika and Will were out on their deck enjoying the afternoon when I told them the excavator would start work on the utility line next morning. Glancing around for the transformer, I found it newly tucked behind some very recent landscaping, including a boulder as tall as I am.  Their smiles faded as I explained.

Sunny poses by a large boulder next to the electrical transformer
Sunny posing for scale.

Next up, a visit to the neighbors directly across the street from my home-to-be.  The door opened before I could leash Sunny and knock.  I stuttered an introduction. Sunny ran into the house. Their little dog Ziggy took issue with her impudence. They scuffled, Ziggy ran out, Sunny followed. They raced off, returning to the porch in full chaos. I stepped on Ziggy. “Lovely to have met you….”

As I turned to the next house, the Sheriff pulled up and was on his way to the door just ahead of me.  Enough.

Monday came, but the excavator didn’t.

The excavating machine stands ready to begin demolition on the weedy home lot.
On Monday the excavator (machine) had arrived, but the excavator (person) was nowhere to be found.

When the excavator says he will be there, he isn’t. When he says he won’t be there, he is. He was next scheduled for Thursday. No excavator. Then the timeline got pushed to Monday, with two days of utility line digging before the lot would be dug. My friends Karen and Jon had decided to move a pluot tree from my lot into their orchard. I told them they were safe until the following Wednesday. I had hoses hooked to their water to try to coddle my beautiful young Sequoia in advance of work that would impact its roots.  But by Friday afternoon, a day when no work was scheduled, the pluot, two hoses, a sprayer and a water timer were lost to the giant claws.  

The excavators came Monday and returned again Tuesday, when they said they would be on vacation, displacing an arborist I’d asked to come. But all is forgiven: by noon they got the water line in, the foundation trenched, and we’re back on schedule!

That rectangle is my house! The little island in the forefront is my mudroom. I’m taking this picture from my carport.

The excavator is scheduled to (not?) return next Monday to finish up.


Roasted Thai Lime-Chile Cashews

  • 4 cups raw cashews
  • 10-15 dried chiles de árbol, seeded
  • 10-15 makrut (Thai) lime leaves, cut into 1/4″ slices
  • 2 tablespoons melted unsalted butter
  • 2 tablespoons melted coconut oil
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground ancho chiles
  • 2 tablespoons finely grated lime zest  (optional)

Preheat oven to 325°F. Combine the ingredients excluding the lime zest in a large bowl; toss to coat. Spread in an even layer on a large rimmed baking sheet. Roast for 8 minutes and turn; continue roasting another 8-12 minutes until cashews are fragrant and just starting to color. Set the baking sheet on a wire rack until completely cool. If using the lime zest, transfer nuts to a bowl and toss with the zest. Supposedly these nuts store well in an airtight container for days, but I can’t attest to that. 

Groundbreaking News!

Don’t expect the drama of City-Girl-Falls-in-Love-with-Mountain-Man-and-Moves-to-Alaska. And don’t mistake Groundbreaking News for Housebreaking News — No New Puppies! This is a photo-journal of the construction of my home-to-be for a few friends who have asked to follow along through the process.

It was July 2019 when I decided to sell Blue Moon Stead and move into town. I had for years thought I would spend a lifetime stewarding that lovely farm and wildland, even after Gary’s passing, but things were changing. In 2018, my lovely Ella died at age 13, after doing her best to help me raise little Sundog. Later that year serendipity connected me with a veterinarian who is breeding the critically endangered Dales Ponies. I re-homed Bess and Duchess with her, reuniting them with their full sister as well as with Bess’s daughter. I knew they could be so much more than the pasture pets they’d become once I found myself alone without a mentor in things equestrian.

When my farmer-tenant left in 2019, I had to decide whether to make a long-term commitment to a new farm family. As much as I loved that place and miss it still, it was overwhelming. So much to do, so few do-it-yourself skills! As I made more friends through the years, I was spending a lot of time driving to and from town. I sold Blue Moon Stead just as the pandemic was hitting, finishing my move days before the movers were declared non-essential during lockdown. Dear friends rented me and Sunny a 1970’s double-wide just a couple of blocks from the main drag of our small town; then they sold me a lot adjacent to their home, just a few blocks away, on which to build a home of my own.

I took a big leap from San Francisco to the Alaskan bush. Gary and I made another leap to our 120-acre Blue Moon Stead, with dreams of farming with draft ponies together. My six years alone there, farming and taking on farming tenants, was an adventure of another sort. This last year was one of not-quite-settling-in to my new place. The adjustment to town has been easy enough — even Sunny took it in stride. But the long-delayed task of going through Gary’s possessions and the feeling of not yet being home has taken a toll. Designing (with a wonderful architect) and building a house just for me has been a good tonic for these feelings, and another big leap in its own right.

The process has not been without its harrowing moments — watching lumber prices skyrocket, among other things — but here we are, about to break ground. Wish me luck!

Calling Miss Manners

Ella on hayBy Ella “Miss Manners” Pinard

We love our humans, though they do require a lot of attention and patience. Sure, there are a few “dog whisperers” who seem to be born with a real understanding of the dogs-eye view, but many otherwise wonderful human people just don’t know how to be with the dogs they love. If you are recently rescued or adopted you may not be ready for advanced handling techniques.  But if you are past the puppy love stage and in a real relationship, cuddle up to your human and look interested; perhaps they will read this out loud to you. I’m going to explain how to teach your human basic good manners.

Does your human order you around, even when they want you to do something you want to do?  And since most of us want more than anything to please our humans, that’s just about everything.  So why do they take such a tone with us?  Doesn’t it make you want disobey, just to teach them a lesson?  Well, that’s what I did. For about fourteen years. Dog years, of course: I’m not that old, and I’m not that patient. Contrary to decades of pack-reviewed research, I believe that humans do have emotions much like our own and a sort of real intelligence too, but sometimes they learn very slowly.

Apparently there is an old human school of thought that we are just a watered-down version of our wolf ancestors. The wolf people famously have an alpha in each pack, the one who provides clear direction and discipline if necessary. This doesn’t mean they’re rude, just clear. But there’s a myth still being perpetuated among human people that the pack we share with them needs an alpha, and that being an alpha means being rude.

Now, it’s my nature to always want to be with my human, always keeping an eye on her. I love her more than anything, even more than a stranger with a chuck-it (and I do love strangers with chuck-its)! Beyond that, though, keeping her safe is my job, just like it’s her job to provide a home and food. So why would she think she needs to say “ELLA, COME!” in a rude tone of voice when we’re about to go outside? My human’s not generally a rude person; it’s just how she was taught. But now, after my patient training, she simply keeps me in the loop about what we’re going to be doing. No yelling, no commanding, just letting me know what we’re up to.

How did I do it? The rule is “Deafness to Rudeness,” a form of non-violent resistance. If my human told me “ELLA, SIT!” I ignored her (unless, of course, food was involved). If she called me to come, I ignored her. I got so good at this she actually thought I’d gone deaf!  It wasn’t easy, because after she called four or five times – making all sorts of crazy arm-waving motions – I would finally come, and my little sister Sundog would join in the rude-fest, grabbing me by the scruff of my neck as I got close to the door and dragging me over the threshold. My human thought this was terribly funny – you can guess how funny I thought it was!P1040683

After several years, my dear human finally tried petting me and talking to me about going outside – and then rudely calling me. On those rare occasions, I came the first or second time she called, depending on the level of rudeness. Then once when I refused to sit down in the car, she turned to me and said in a gentle tone, “Ella, please sit down.” So I did. Finally it clicked with her. She decided to see if I would come and sit and such when I was politely asked. She stopped yelling commands at me. Now, when she’s getting her outdoor shoes on and is ready to go, before she can even turn around to call me I’m at the door with her, stretched and ready to go.

We’re still working on training in other situations, but we’re making fast progress now that she knows I will gladly do what is wanted so long as I’m treated with kindness and respect just like anyone should be. And she’s more willing to do what I need her to, because she understands our relationship is one of mutual love and reciprocal duty. We’re a family, not a hierarchy. Now when I tell her with wags and kisses that it’s time to go inside for dinner or that it’s time for her to come in out of the rain, she almost always listens to me. She finally sees that I am just being sensible and kind, keeping her safe and gently reminding her of her duty.

For my next trick, I may try to teach her to say “thank you” instead of “good girl”!  “Good girl” is alright for puppies just learning to please their humans, but I know for a fact my human wouldn’t like someone saying “good girl!” to her, and she’s younger than I am! (Again, dog years.)

This level of leadership is not for puppies. Without focus and maturity, any leader will fail. But if you’re a grown dog ready to take your relationships to the next level, I hope this will inspire you to be patient and persistent in training your humans. With your firm and gentle guidance, I am confident your two-leggers will learn to treat you with the respect that any loving and beloved member of the family deserves. Our worth is not defined by our species, but by how we treat each other. Human people see things differently from dog people, and this can lead to misunderstandings. But we should always remember: all people are worthy of our best efforts.


Lucky Still

Three years after his passing Gary is still a big part of my everyday life, my inner world. Since then, changes in my world and in the world generally make those three years seem long. On one hand I half expect to find Gary next to me when my morning eyes open, so well do I remember his scent, the rough of his red beard, his laugh of delight, his teasing, warming presence. Yet some days I ask myself, has it been three years or four? So much has happened.

Gary and I meet Konall, April 2013

When I do awaken, it’s little Sundog’s scent, her fur and warmth I’ve been nestled up to; Ella warms my feet. Gary helped me start looking for “the second best pup in the world” in his last weeks (Ella is, as Gary often reminded her, the bestest pup in the widest world); Sunny joined us in October that year. Ella is still my guardian and constant companion; Sunny is our comic relief, but she’s also smart and sensitive, with great empathy.

Ella checks out Sundog’s potential as a playmate.

I now share Blue Moon Stead with Laura and Brian. It was Gary’s idea to seek out a couple to live here, and it has made my life better. Good friends and neighbors, they help me immensely. Another of Gary’s dreams has come true with Laura’s multi-species grazing – it’s a joy to see her sheep and bunnies, chickens and ducks, all eating the grass and weeds while laying down fertilizer.

That last spring we had together, Gary held the fort while I went through the Master Gardener program. I thought I would learn about plants, and I did. But I also made great good friends (including a whole contingent from Kodiak Island, AK), and through them other friends, and now feel very much part of the community here in the Columbia Gorge.

When I walk through the woods or sit by the pond, turn compost or pull weeds or plant crops in the high tunnel he almost finished, when I cook in the kitchen he designed, when I stop to watch the lambs romping and playing at sunset, find a new orchid or spectacular mushroom in the woods, or just hang laundry in the sun, my mind turns to Gary, my aunt Vee, my mom and dad, and others gone from me who made it possible for me to find myself, to find myself here.

Cabin amidst the trees from the paddle boat on Blue Moon Pond.

The Adventure of a Lifetime

Vee in 1953 overlooking Delores River near her hometown.

Vee in 1953 overlooking Delores River near her hometown.

On the occasion of Dia de Muertos, I would like to tell you about my beloved Aunt Vee, who passed away in August at the age of 90.

She wasn’t born on a horse, but might as well have been. “Best babysitter I ever had,” her mother used to say of Comanche, so patient and careful was he not to dislodge little Vera, who sat in awe atop the impressive gelding  Later, as a toddler, she entertained herself trying to climb up his leg or the fence he was tied to as a means of embarking.

Vera became a voracious reader well before starting school. She recalled to me how she walked to school that first day with Richard, her big brother by five years (and my father). He was told to hold her hand – a bit of an embarrassment at his age – and she had to run to keep up with him. It became a habit that stuck with her. “Never walk when you can run,” advised her father. Vera (now Vee, a nickname she got in school stemming from her initials, V.V.) was in complete agreement. She was a good athlete and a sought-after player on all the boys’ ball teams, and so excelled in academics that she skipped a few grades.

At home she had chores, of course. One of hers was to round up the horses and put them into the corral for the night, among them her father’s prize cutting horse. Cricket was a spirited animal trained to cut cattle from the herd, capable of turning 180 degrees in a single move. Vee, a girl of 10 or 11, was under strict orders never to ride him. Each evening she would put a piece of her mother’s oil cake in her pocket and seek out a mount for the task at hand. Cricket was the only one who came for the oil cake, and little Vee – without the benefit of saddle or bridle or even so much as a rope – hopped on and herded the horses into the corral. One night as Vee and Cricket headed into the corral behind the other horses she saw her father watching them, a ghostly shade of pale. For the very first time Vee realized that she was in fact riding Cricket; just because she hadn’t saddled up didn’t mean she wasn’t riding him!  She jumped off and began a profuse apology. Her father cut her short. “I wouldn’t do that for a million dollars,” he told her. “You can ride Cricket any time you want!”

Vee with her father (my grandfather) in Colorado.

Vee with her father (my grandfather) in Colorado.

The one-room school in her home town of Gateway, Colorado, didn’t have a twelfth grade, so Vee went to Grand Junction to finish school, working for a family there in exchange for room and board, as my father had done before her. She was also able to continue piano lessons, and became a very accomplished pianist. After graduating in 1941 at the age of 16, she enrolled at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where her big brother had gone. Growing up, Vee and Richard each had some cattle of their own. Vee had sold hers to help Richard through school, and now he sent her part of his military pay so she could continue her education.  It is my great good fortune that Vee’s roommate at Boulder was a graduate student who went on to become my mother!

Vee thrived at Boulder, and found a mentor in an English professor who was seen by some as a bit of a curmudgeon. He ate occasionally in the dining hall, and complained to Vee that the young denim-clad women never dressed properly for dinner. One Saturday night, Vee got all the girls to wear formal gowns to dinner. The professor laughed and laughed at the surprise, and was ever after more widely appreciated. When Richard came to visit his little sister, often at inconvenient times, her mentor set him to grading papers, taught him some native American dance, and generally kept him from being underfoot. Eventually, Vee figured out that it was her roommate, Mary, who accounted for the frequency and duration of Richard’s visits, and the rest is (my) history.

Vee enjoyed and excelled in college, graduating not long after her 20th birthday.  Because of her gift for languages, her mentor recommended her to a war-time program where she was taught to read Japanese in its romanish form. She was given a post in Washington, D.C. that she rarely spoke of, because her work there was so confidential. Her job was to translate Japanese teletype messages as they came in to the office of her boss, a nephew of General George S. Patton. One morning she and another young woman arrived early for work and picked up a teletype. It was Japan’s unconditional surrender. They sat on it nervously until their boss arrived. “Don’t say anything until you hear this on the news,” he told them. Vee didn’t say anything for many years.

After the war, government work was clearly going to be too dull for Vee. She worked briefly in Indiana, but was eventually prevailed upon to return home to teach in the one-room school, though she wasn’t much older than her oldest students. When the town asked her to stay on the next year, Vee said she had other plans. What plans? Ummm….she had to think quickly. “Alaska,” she said. “I’m going to visit Alaska.”

So it was decided. She bought a plane ticket from Seattle, but on the train there met a librarian who urged her to join her on the ferry instead. The year was 1949. Shortly after arriving, she met the love of her life, Keith Specking, marrying him less than a year later. “I liked his eyes,” she told me.

And now I will begin shamelessly plagiarizing the lovely obituary my cousin Joan wrote for her mother, which I note in italics.

They owned and operated Rabbit Creek Inn, a six table restaurant 10 miles south of Anchorage. She claimed she was a lousy cook and waitress and liked to tell the story of tripping over Rusty, their big Irish Setter, and spilling an entire platter of fried chicken on the floor of the restaurant. In addition to the restaurant, they homesteaded 160 acres and built the cabin where they lived the first four years of their married life. The first August there, her husband and his partner went on a moose hunt and packed it out on their backs. “Why don’t you use a horse to pack it?” she asked, introducing her husband to horses and their value to hunters in Alaska.

In 1953 they moved to Hope, Alaska, on the Kenai Peninsula about 90 miles from Anchorage. As they raised their family, they started a big game guiding business based out of their main cabin at Brushkana Creek on the Denali Highway in central Alaska. For nearly 40 years in the guide business, she spent hours over a wood cook stove in a cabin or a tent, helped pack horses with supplies needed for a pack trip back into the wilderness, led back horses over wilderness trails, and drove long distances to pick up clients.

At the museum in Hope, you might still find a pamphlet talking about the effect of the Good Friday 1964 earthquake, magnitude 9.2, on that little village. A letter from Vee to a neighbor, who was away at the time, reported on the damage not only to the homes but to the land, much of which swamped, and the supply drops being made during that time of physical isolation from the rest of the world.

In the late 1960s, her husband ran for the state legislature and spent years as an elected official and then working for the governor. They lived in Juneau during the winter months while he was involved in politics, and summers in the Interior hunting camp.

Vee’s many adventures in Alaska are too numerous to share here, but are not forgotten, thanks to her own writings.

Vera and Keith retired to 160 acres outside of Eagle Point, Oregon, and built their own home. They spent summers trailering their horses up the highway to Alaska, stopping to fish and camp along the way.  They had many visitors at their ranch “Chimney Rock” and Vera continued to ride and even show her beloved horse Limelight. 

Chimney Rock: view from the kitchen window.

Chimney Rock: view from the kitchen window.

It was at Chimney Rock I met Vee and Keith about twelve years ago, having seen them only as an infant. My own parents had passed away, and vacation time that would normally have gone for a visit to them gave me an opportunity to finally meet my father’s sister, my mother’s college roommate. My mother had always told me that if I met my Aunt Vee I would know the meaning of true Western hospitality, and she was so right. I only wish I had met her sooner.

Upon Keith’s death Vee moved to Helena and spent her final years living at Shelby House, enjoying coffee on the patio and conversation over meals with friends.

Calling to talk to her at Shelby House was one of my happiest rituals, and I only wish I could call her now to fact-check my work and tease out the story of yet another one of her many adventures.


Spring Showers

Spring rainbow today over the high tunnel and corral.

Spring rainbow today over the high tunnel and corral.

Every morning, little Miss Sundog puts her feet up on the bed and wakes me with copious kisses, usually right around 5 am. She’s learned to wait patiently (sometimes) while I rouse Ella with pets; morning pets are like caffeine to Ella. This morning, after these loving rituals, we came out to find the downstairs door wide open. (Gary always scolded me for not making sure it was shut tight!) Even so, and without an evening fire, the thermometer upstairs stood at 60 degrees, just a shade warmer than the rainy morning temperature outside.

The Great Blue Heron awaits his mate.

The Great Blue Heron awaits his mate.

It’s felt like Spring for much of the winter. But it was the 18th of March when I felt Spring had truly arrived. Not one but two Blue Herons appeared around the pond, apparently in a mating dance. The river otters, which I’d thought gone, reappeared. A mated pair each of wood ducks and mallards swam companionably. Sunny and a frog surprised each other on the porch.

And the Wood Duck too!

And the Wood Duck too!

Though I often feel nothing gets done around here, I know it’s not true. What doesn’t get done is housework and taxes. But the farm is showing signs of life.

The garlic we planted in the first days of November is coming up beautifully, along with a fine turf of wheat grass from the not-so-clean straw I bought as supplies dwindled. I officially created Blue Moon Stead, LLC, so I could hire some help. And I found a chef who wants to become a customer! I’m experimenting with growing a custom mix of microgreens for him, and he’ll be looking for green garlic and garlic scapes when they come on.

It's a duck! It's an otter! No, It's the sunny little Sundog!

It’s a duck! It’s an otter! No, It’s the sunny little Sundog, bringing back a stick!

Ella enjoys a good roll in the grass, something Sunny doesn't quite understand.

Ella enjoys a good roll in the grass, something Sunny doesn’t quite understand.


Sunny prefers to lie in wait for the right moment to start a fight.

Andrew, my helper, is here most days as we make up for lost time in preparing for spring. As I take the pups on their walks, I’ve been pulling knapweed and other invasives and pruning elderberry trees; Andrew is burning the piles while fire danger is still low. He’s hand-tilled and amended the high tunnel soil, and put low tunnels inside so we can get an early start on planting. Although I’ve never wanted to grow market vegetables, this year I need to generate income along with this new expense, so we’ve decided to trellis tomatoes and cucumbers in the high tunnel and grow lots of basil, all of which are in high demand. I’ve also started veggies for personal use.

The microgreens are another project altogether. It’s a question of whether I can get the hang of growing many trays of different vegetables and get them to germinate at the same time. Some need more heat and light than we have now, so we are adapting part of Gary’s workshop, which has heat and electricity, with heat mats and grow lights. I’ll grow beets, carrots, kohlrabi, peas, broccoli and kale, among other things, and just as the first true leaves appear we’ll harvest them. It’s more intensive than ideal, but fairly high value. Because I do have indoor space it may be something I can do year-round. Most importantly, I have a potential buyer! I attended a cooking class at one of the good local restaurants with my friend Norma, and the chef mentioned using microgreens. Norma reminded me of that when she took me to lunch for my birthday, so I emailed him just to find out what he looked for. To my surprise, he said his supplier was retiring after 10 years, so could I grow these for him? We’ll see!

Dogfight! A favorite pasttime of both girls. I think....

Dogfight! A favorite pasttime of both girls. I think….

The chef is also interested in green garlic and garlic scapes. I’m not sure how much green garlic I want to sell, as it is early harvesting the whole clove at a smaller size and weight, so the economics may not make sense. But the garlic scapes, a seasonal delicacy in June, I believe, need to be cut anyway to encourage the growth of the bulb. (Note to Annette and Terry: they have to be harvested long before they get tough like the ones we tried to eat last year!) I don’t know how many scapes there are per pound, but I will have many pounds of scapes to sell.

Garry Oak branch inoculated with shiitake

Garry Oak branch inoculated with shiitake

I’m also growing mushrooms! I’m taking an online course through Cornell on growing mushrooms commercially on logs. I’m planning to start at a sub-commercial level of 50 3-foot logs of shiitake mushrooms, and the first harvest will be next year. I’ve started one log of shiitake as well as some oyster and stropharia (wine cap) mushrooms. The oysters and stropharia come on more quickly, so I might do more of those as well.

Nosework practice -- Mira found the chicken in the box first!

Nosework practice — Mira found the chicken in the box first!

Sundog concedes the point and moves on while Mira collects her chicken.

Sundog concedes the point and moves on while Mira collects her chicken.

I’m not the only one in school. Ella is taking her first class ever, joining Sunny in learning Nosework. They love this class. What’s not to love? I hide cubes of ham or something tasty inside boxes, on top of chairs, under baskets and just in a variety of places at various heights. The dogs do what they do best: sniff around to find them. Eventually they will learn to find non-food scents, starting with essential oils of sweet birch, cloves and anise. Most mornings I hide the treats out on the deck, and one at a time the girls diligently (and eagerly!) do their homework. But I have to make sure the cat is inside – Mira is a pro at nosework, and can beat the girls to a treat if I’m not careful!

As I wrote this morning, Mira sat on my lap. It had taken her months to get on reasonably comfortable terms with Sunny, who takes a bit too enthusiastic interest in her. Ella, sitting on the couch next to us, turned to see me rubbing under the kitty’s chin and decided if I was petting I might as well be giving her a tummy rub. As she turned belly-up, she “accidentally” kicked Mira in the face.  So my lap is now cat-free, the sun is long up, and it’s time for me and the pups to go on our morning walk this warm and rainy spring morning.

Wet from a swim, ears wide as she eyes Ella in attack mode. That's my puppy!

Wet from a swim, ears wide as she eyes Ella in attack mode. That’s my puppy!

But can you believe this is my little puppy?  Sundog at 6 1/2 months.

But can you believe this is my little puppy? Sundog at 6 1/2 months.

Recent Reads: 

The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint, Brady Udall (Highly recommended!)

Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis, Timothy Egan

Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West, Dorothy Wickenden


The Death of Winter

Ella chews a stick while Gary watches the bonfire

Ella chews a stick while Gary watches the bonfire

A number of years ago I wrote to Gary wishing him a happy Winter Solstice. He wrote back saying it was bittersweet, representing as it does the “death of winter.” I only came to understand his sentiment the winter we were together at Brushkana: the joy of late sunrises, cozy fires, animal tracks in the snow, astounding views under the crust of the river, sunset skiing atop the river past browsing moose. We had time to read, reflect, talk, dance, cook, write, carve, and plan.  Shortly after Solstice we started to gain an hour of light every 10 days, an astounding change that left me in a continual struggle to adjust. Spring in Alaska still allowed for beautiful skiing and other “winter” pleasures, but we felt a sort of obligation to those longer days, to use them more intensively.

Today another winter begins, and dies. Six months ago today, my family and friends joined me here for a memorial service for Gary. Since then, I managed through some projects to improve the cabin and property that Gary had suggested to me, sold our Norwegian Fjords, Drader and Konall, to loving new homes, brought the outside cat in, and adopted a sunny little Sundog.

Drader (left) and Konall on their first day here.

Drader (left) and Konall on their first day here.

We are not without joy, the six of us. Ella is a bit jealous of Sunny, but clearly enjoys playing with the little heathen. Sunny is game for anything, and in her rush to keep up with Ella she tumbles like a circus clown, though less and less as she grows. Bess and Duchess have a new winter pasture in view of the cabin; they beg for attention and apples, and I see them running and kicking up their heels when they think we’re not looking. Mira, the cat, has moved up to the loft, but takes pleasure in using a variety of annoyingly urgent vocalizations to train me to climb the stairs to provide room service or a little cuddling. Sunny almost never chases her anymore, but “almost” seems to be the operative word so far as Mira is concerned – she remains cautious. Ella sweetly mixes perfect maturity and her lovely manners with sibling-rivalry neediness. I take pleasure in most every day, in the rhythm of my chores, the challenge of training little Sundog, the satisfaction of seeing projects develop and come to fruition.

Ella and Sunny enjoy a peaceful moment.

Ella and Sunny enjoy a peaceful moment.

I miss Gary terribly, of course. All the usual things I expected to miss – his hug (and if you ever got one, you know what I mean), his eyes and smile, his crazy wonderful ideas, his wisdom and practical skills, the way he danced, the scratch of his beard on my face, his habit of telling me my meals were “scrumptious,” and how he called me “Stinky” and made it seem the best possible term of endearment. I wish I could get his advice on how to keep Sunny from chasing deer or going ice skating; I wish he could share the joy of hearing a new bird, seeing a new sunrise. And I wonder what all Gary might have accomplished, in work and art and for our neighbors and community, had he lived another five or twenty-five years.

Gary carving the Spring moon at Brushkana.

Gary carving the Spring moon at Brushkana.

But I never focused on how stark it would be to lose that one person who bore witness to my daily life. Not having really been alone before, for the first time I am facing the question, “Who am I when no one is looking?” And I feel the weight of the question, “What might I accomplish in the next five, or twenty-five years?”

I find that when no one is looking I only have enough housekeeping motivation to keep a clean bathroom and kitchen unless company is coming. I find it hard to cook for myself, but am getting better. I don’t seem to be in danger of wanting to drink too much, but while writing this I just polished off a plate of the first cookies I’ve baked in recent memory. My hair is uncut and unwieldy, and some days I don’t even try past the first brushing. Laundry gets done, but my car is so dirty that I can’t make it into town without mud all over my pants. I need appointments with the dentist, eye doctor, and a dermatologist to look at a mole on my back that Gary’s not here to describe to me. I put off simple things, am months late on a wedding gift (sorry Eric and Nigeen), and will miss getting things out in time for Christmas. I have some good friends and see them regularly, but find it way too easy to shelter in place here with my animal family. I tell myself I want to learn how to do things like maintain the tractor, but I can’t bear to watch youtube on something so boring, and if I can get someone to do the job for me I manage to find something urgent to do rather than watch and learn.

Gary directs as niece Kristen moves the orchard box into the garden.

Gary directs as niece Kristen moves the orchard box into the garden.

Friend Steve thought he'd retired from farming (in Fairbanks!), but made a return visit to Blue Moon Stead this year to plant garlic.

Friend Steve thought he’d retired from farming (in Fairbanks!), but made a return visit to Blue Moon Stead this year to plant garlic.

On a more positive note, I have managed to catch up on a lot of backlogged work and projects, with help, of course, and have embarked on some important new ones. Finding little Sundog was a bit of serendipity, and an important one for Ella and me, to help take care of us both as 10-year-old Ella ages, and so Ella could help me raise the little one. With a lot of help from a friend, I planted a crop of garlic – 8500 cloves – a project unforeseen at the time of Gary’s death. I joined his acupuncturist in an effort to grow and nurture growers of Chinese medicinal herbs, and became a Master Gardener, meeting some great people along the way.

Ella and Sundog keep me smiling.

Ella and Sundog keep me smiling.

The death of winter foretells the spring. A new year is soon to begin. I’ve had some time to adjust to my new circumstances, and will have to take the opportunity of seasonal rebirth to help me hone who I am when no one is looking. And to find an answer to the question of what I might accomplish in whatever time is left to me. I have been on the receiving end of so much compassion and empathy, grace and kindness – in short, so much love. One thing is sure: this is a time for me to start to look beyond my own needs and cares to offer generously to others in that same spirit of lovingkindness.

With heartfelt gratitude and love to you all, I wish you a happy season and a wonderful New Year.

(This was published yesterday on, where many of my subscribers still reside!)

Here Comes the Sundog

Sundog, rainbow of the darkest days.

Sundog, rainbow of the darkest days.

These last five months have been full with the work of keeping up and catching up on long-idled chores and projects around Blue Moon Stead, and with the love of friends and family who have been so good to be in touch with me, to be here with me, to cheer me and help me adjust to this new life. There has been both a sense of emptiness and fullness, with waves of grief and gratitude for Gary.

Turning compost is time-consuming, unless you can get someone else to do it! In my best Tom Sawyer fashion, I convinced my brother, Richard, that it was fun!

Turning compost is time-consuming, unless you can get someone else to do it! In my best Tom Sawyer fashion, I convinced my brother, Richard, that it was fun!

Gary and I always knew the key to me managing my deep sense of loss would be healthy busy-ness, and we were certain that Blue Moon Stead would provide.  It has. Gary left me with a list of projects and priorities and, of course, others have come on their own.

Richard cleaned all manner of debris from home improvement projects off the deck, making room for pond-side dinners on the warm September evenings during his visit.

Richard cleaned all manner of debris from home improvement projects off the deck, making room for pond-side dinners on the warm September evenings during his visit.

I’ve had work done on the cabin to make it more comfortable, especially in winter. I’ve had parts of my forest cleaned up for fire safety and forest health.  My brother, Richard, after spending quite a bit of time here in the month or so after Gary died, came back for ten days in September to help with everything from shoveling manure and turning compost to assembling carts, taking nails out of boards, putting up horse fences, and moving all manner of things from the deck and porch into storage.

I have sold Drader and Konall, our handsome Fjord geldings, and have been getting training on how to work with Bess and Duchess, my two Dales Pony mares who will remain with me.  I’ve begun growing Chinese medicinal herbs at an experimental level, and am preparing to start some as true crops, working with Gary’s acupuncturist toward developing a consortium of growers in the Columbia Gorge region.P1040636

Meanwhile, I needed a crop that will be harvestable next year (most of the Chinese herbs require 3 or more years before harvest), so am planting a whole lot of garlic this fall.  Our friend Steve, who visited us last year, offered to help. Steve farmed in Alaska, so knows the meaning of Extreme Gardening! 

Ella checks out Sundog's potential as a playmate.

Ella checks out Sundog’s potential as a playmate.

Little did he know that I was looking into getting a little Malinois puppy like Ella, and the timing couldn’t have been more, well, perfectly imperfect. Steve arrived on Thursday, less than 48 hours after we welcomed little Sundog (Sunny) into our family.P1040688
Well, I welcomed her, at least!  Ella tolerates her little shadow admirably, but doesn’t hesitate to growl, show fearsome teeth, and bark to discourage Sunny from using her tail as a chew toy, or from using Sunny’s own chew toys as chew toys, for that matter. Mira, the cat, has returned to the home with a great deal of caution and trepidation. She is a bit hurt to see someone else occupying her lap – but that’s the only way I can know where Sundog is as I write this!P1040689
 – Sundog gets into everything — in this case, a small cooler!
P1040683We have a soggy week ahead to plant garlic – I’m hoping the lure of a little puppy will bring some friends in to help. It’s been hard getting back to writing while absorbing the reality of life without Gary, though his love and influence remain with me. But winter is looming, the Sundog is here, and a different rhythm will pace our days. I hope that means I will be writing again soon!
                                                       – Taking a long walk is the best way to wear the Sundog out!

The End

The End


During our four years together, Gary and I said our share of “I love you’s”, but another feeling often poured from our hearts and out of our mouths.

“We’re lucky,” we said.

I met Gary not quite ten years ago on my first trip to Alaska, at Brushkana, where I was visiting my Aunt Vee and Uncle Keith. Uncle Keith rang the breakfast bell that first morning and in strode Gary, with his big red beard and trademark feathered hat, carrying the .22 he’d been using to pick off some pesky red squirrels, his dog Bella by his side. He was a real life mountain man.

Gary glassing

Gary glassing

When Gary was 15 years old, he had begun spending summers and more with Vee and Keith and my cousins Joan and Glenn and our dear friend Heidi. My aunt so thoroughly considered him her adoptive son that for many years I assumed he had no other family to speak of, though I could not have been more wrong. I didn’t know my aunt and uncle growing up, except through letters. I’d sought them out in their Oregon winter home about two years before that first trip to Alaska, not long after my own parents had died. What I’m trying to say is this: the odds of me ever meeting Gary were – if you can forgive the pun – extremely remote. We were just really lucky.

We corresponded a few times a year after that, and Gary’s letters revealed a reader, a poet, a creative thinker and artist, a spiritual soul deeply connected to the natural world. He lived his life – a life so exotic to me – with a grand sense of humor and high adventure. We became dear friends.

In 2009 Gary was diagnosed with sarcoma, a rare form of cancer. Living remotely as he did, with only an unreliable satellite phone for communication, Gary accepted my help finding specialists. I traveled to Portland to join him for doctors’ appointments and see him through surgeries. Gary never forgot it was cancer that brought us together.

“We’re lucky,” he reminded me, even as the disease took its awful toll.

When Gary first confessed his love for me, I was surprised. When he said he would follow me to San Francisco, I was disbelieving. But he and Ella left their homeland and his beloved ponies, and came to join me in a rented flat next to the freeway. Someone asked Gary not too long ago what was the best time of his life. Though I still have trouble taking his answer too literally, he was, he assured me, sincere.

“San Francisco” he said without hesitation.

Gary open studio

Gary at his first SF studio. Photo courtesy of David Gartner,

Every day he and Ella saw me off to work and then walked to his studio, where he was able to carve full time for the first time in his life. When I got home in the evening, Ella would be watching at the window for me; seeing me pull up, she would run to the kitchen where Gary was fixing dinner, and the two would greet me at the door. Gary loved the stimulation of the City: the diversity of people, the parks and beaches, the beautiful organic fruits and vegetables always available, the library and bookstores, the art, music on the streets and in concert venues. He never lost his wonder at all the plants that thrived year-round in the mild climate.

He quickly discovered “street finds” and “free stuff” on craigslist, and the amazing salvage and recycling places in Berkeley. Gary found the most unexpected uses of what others threw away. He made a dance stick in the shape of a horse from a single chair leg found on the street, and just this March we saw our dear friend Brent dance with it at a pow-wow. Our next-door neighbor in San Francisco considered it life as usual in the City, I’m sure, when she saw a bearded guy in a do-rag taking a broken child’s chair from her garbage. Her surprise came when Gary returned it to her, repaired and beautifully painted, decorated with a charming chip-carved flower. Gary spoke to the homeless people I’d learned to overlook, even if only to ask them how they were, and to listen to the answer. He showed me my own world through new eyes. We were lucky.

Brushkana cabin with addition in progress.

Brushkana cabin with addition in progress.

After a year in San Francisco, Gary and Ella returned to Alaska, where he worked to make his Brushkana summer cabin into a cozy year-round home for us. He built an addition with room for our coats and boots, his carving table, and a shower stall for me. We didn’t have running water, so he bought a 3-gallon sprayer normally used for pesticide; it made a wonderful hot shower. If San Francisco was the best time of Gary’s life, Brushkana was the best time of mine. Gary had little time to carve as he made us a home and kept us safe and warm, patiently teaching me what he could. How to make a fire, stack wood, ski, drive a snowmachine, make a snow shelter, insulate the cabin with snow bricks, keep the water hole from freezing over, test the ice, tie knots, pick and clean and can berries, even how to use the outhouse properly without stinking it up. Gary and Ella were at home in their beloved Alaska, and I reveled in our life together in a tiny cabin in a vast and beautiful wilderness. We were lucky.

Gary building addition to our cabin

Gary building the addition to our cabin

The last two years were filled with doctors and scans, research and treatments, diets and supplements, appointments and disappointments, choosing and abandoning, packing and unpacking, hope and despair, gratitude and anger, laughing, loving, crying, growing and dying. We understood how precious each day was, and we were grateful. Our tribe grew closer and dearer as family and friends gathered around and touched us with their love. I know no one with a stronger will than Gary, or a stronger will to live. We worked so hard to find a way. Gary was willing to do anything, no matter how difficult, to regain his health. At the same time, he was at peace with his Creator and his fate, able to reconcile that struggle and that peace.

Gary pulled in several tons of loose hay while undergoing chemo.

Gary pulled in several tons of loose hay while undergoing chemo.

Gary wrote this: “The saying, ‘it is a good day to die’ means that you have done well in your living and it is a good day, you can go without regrets, leaving loved ones behind, you will, no matter, but leaving them loved is good. We all will leave this and go on. Don’t fear the new or what must happen, accepting but not giving in, there is a balance somewhere between those.” Gary wrote that a year and a half ago.

Evening at Blue Moon Stead.

Evening at Blue Moon Stead.

We were lucky. I am lucky, and I am so very grateful. How precious it is to have loved and been loved by such a man. Gary changed me. He changed my world. Gary left me here at this beautiful place with our beloved Ella, making me part of a larger and stronger tribe, including each one of you and his own family, so dear to me now. I love you and need you all. And I pray I will never forget how lucky I am.