Archives for May 2011

Summer writing

Although this is my first “summer break” in years–I was in staff positions from 2006-2010, and I taught during summers when I was a grad student before then–I’m working harder at research and writing than I have in a long time. You see, I’m considering this my Summer of Strategy.

Lucas is in preschool through mid-August, so I have childcare taken care of for this summer–but it’s the last one where that’s assured, so I want to get as much writing done as possible.

My department’s (admittedly kind of low) bar for tenure is three articles in good journals.  Before I arrived here, I published one that will carry some weight, but I still want to have at least three strong articles when I go up for tenure in year 4 or 5 (yes, it’s quick here).

I sent out one article yesterday–a major revision of the article where one reviewer said I needed to familiarize myself with the work of (ahem) Leslie Madsen-Brooks. I reacquainted myself with my own work, cut about 70 percent of the content from the article, recrafted its argument, and rewrote the rest.  It was a beast, and I’m glad to send it off, though I do so feeling both relief and dread.

Today I’m looking at another article I revised a bit earlier this spring.  It looks to be in pretty good shape, so I’m hoping to get it out in the next week or so.

I’m also working on a giant grant. Seriously, it’s enormous in every sense. Overwhelming, really.

Plus I’m traveling to archives in Southern California in July ,and maybe in early August as well, for a third article.  The research for this third article–which remains a largely undefined nebulous mass–is making for some interesting reading.  This morning I was reading the annual report of the California State Board of Horticulture for 1889.  It’s a hoot and a half, and florid in the way of feminist utopian novels written during the same era.  A sampling from Mrs. Flora M. Kimball’s welcome address:

You come to us, gentlemen, not as horticulturists alone, but as apostles of the gospel of fruit, trees, and flowers. We recognize the truth that planting trees, garnering fruits, and developing new forms of vegetation, is not your highest work.  A richer harvest than the merely economic awaits your labors. We rejoice in your presence to-day, not so much from anticipated benefits to our horticultural industries as from the richer harvest of morality, beauty, and religion that will spring from the scattered seed of thought you have brought to us.  No nature is so depraved that it does not respond to the refining influence of trees, flowers, and fruits. (331)

God, I love the 1880s and 1890s U.S.  I need to spend more time there.

Gardening in what is, apparently, the Arctic circle

Gardening: I like it, but in a spend-a-few-minutes-a-day-on-it, minor hobby kind of way.  After all, I rent, so it’s not as if I can tear up the front or back lawns in favor of large raised beds or rows.  (I did make a couple of raised beds in the backyard in Davis, but the landlord dinged our security deposit for the cost of removing them.  Lesson learned.)  I’m stuck, then, planting around the edges of the yards, even though I currently have a rather huge lawn; we live on a corner, so we have grass on all four sides of the house.  It’s a push-mower nightmare, I assure you, and I’d much rather plow it under.

All my life, I’ve been able to treat gardening as an afterthought because of where I grew up.  My mom worked hard in her garden, but she could grow things year-round with relative ease because Long Beach is in USDA hardiness zone 10b and Sunset climate zone 23.  (Tomatoes at Christmas!)  In Davis, I enjoyed USDA hardiness zone of 9b–the same as Tucson, folks–and Sunset climate zone 14.

Here in Boise, I’m in USDA zone 6a and Sunset zone 2b.  My gardening season has gone from 11 months to maybe 4.

This makes gardening a bit, erm, challenging for someone whose idea of gardening long has been:

  1. Dig hole.
  2. Toss in some potting soil.
  3. Stick in plant or seed, regardless of season.
  4. Tamp down soil.
  5. Water regularly.
  6. Ignore.
  7. Harvest food.

Here, folks say not to put tomatoes in the ground until the snow is off Shafer Butte (elevation ~7600 feet).  I can see the butte from my house, and after administering last rites to tomatoes I planted much too optimistically early, I’ve been eagerly watching the snow recede.

Then yesterday morning we had a rain/snow mix in the valley and the damn peak is covered in snow again.  It didn’t help my mood that a colleague then mentioned it occasionally flurries here on the 4th of July.

I’m twitching from wanting to get something growing.  So yesterday Lucas and I went to a gardening center and bought some of those little plastic trays for starting seeds.  Some of the varieties we planted are supposed to germinate within the week.  We’ll see.

Our yard has a mix of sun and shade, tree canopies of differing densities, and fences of 3 different materials and heights.  So there are definitely crazily local microclimates to contend with. We’ll be experimenting wildly to see what works.  It’s kind of fruitless (ha!) because I’d like to move to another neighborhood within the next year, and all my experiments probably won’t apply in my new location.  Still, it’s What Passes For Science Around Here.

(Consider the rest of this post a bit of a gardening journal.)

Because we’ve passed the last average frost date, I put in seven new tomato plants today–a mix of heirloom and conventional–and I noticed that even the frost-killed tomatoes aren’t fully dead; they’re sprouting new leaves.  3 zombie tomato plants + 7 (for now) healthy tomato plants = a lot of tomatoes, I’m hoping.

I also have about 20 strawberry plants, one raspberry cane, and 4″ starts of a few kinds of squash, plus eggplant and two kinds of bell pepper.  The strawberries are out in the sun and seem pretty happy, but the others are still sensitive and spend nights under the patio roof.  (Well, the raspberry went into the ground too early and may or may not survive.)  The potted cilantro is thriving despite the cold; the two kinds of potted basil (Genovese and Thai) not so much.

We started seeds for two kinds of radishes (scarlet globe and French breakfast), broccoli, two kinds of basil (sweet and dark opal purple), acorn squash, pumpkin, two kinds of eggplant (Black Beauty and early long purple), cantaloupe, a mix of five kinds of salad greens, and oregano.  If I knew I was going to be gardening in this yard next year, I’d plant asparagus and artichoke–I wouldn’t think they’d thrive here, but my friend Barbara Ganley is a total inspiration in that regard (and many others).  And I’m glad to see that my much more knowledgeable partner in Pacific Northwest horticulture, Gardengrrrl, is blogging again.*

This weekend I plan to weed the beds in the front yard and scatter flower seeds of various sorts on a small sunny berm there, then put some sweet peas and beans along one of our fences in the backyard.

We may get a chest freezer for the garage. I’ve added a book on preserving foods to my Kindle reading list, so if I’m feeling inspired late this summer and early in the fall, I may try my hand at putting up some jars of stuff or drying out some herbs instead of tossing fruit and veggies in the freezer. Maybe I’ll even make jam for the first time ever.

That’s crazy talk.

I’ll post photos once seeds have germinated and when I have more stuff in the ground.

* I totally envy her Sunset climate zone 6 and USDA zone 8a.

Fragments of nostalgia


When he was sifting through his father’s papers, my cousin Ian found an essay I wrote in 1996, and he kindly forwarded a digital copy to me a couple years back.  (I had sent the essay to my great-uncle John 15 years ago because he helped me out by providing some photographs to illustrate the paper.)  The essay, written for an undergraduate course in nature writing, weaves together family history and seismology.  I was not yet 21 years old when I typed it on my Mac Classic II in my dorm room at Grinnell College.

I was rereading the essay tonight and retyping it as my computer isn’t recognizing the text of the PDF.  And you know what?  It holds up.  All that stuff my high school teachers and undergrad professors told me about being a good writer?  I really should have listened more carefully and maintained those narrative nonfiction muscles.

Honestly, I wrote better as an undergraduate than I do today.  That’s pretty depressing.


My grandfather died 20 years ago yesterday.  I still miss him.  I called my grandmother yesterday to see how she’s doing.  I really enjoy our chats, however brief they may be.  She wasn’t feeling well at all–she’s dying too slowly of the cancer, just as Pops was two decades ago in an adjacent bedroom of their bright yellow California bungalow.

It sounds as if the doctors are giving her a fairly aggressive treatment so that she doesn’t die of the cancer–colorectal cancer is apparently a pretty horrifying way to die, but I’ll spare you the details–but rather of something else:  The treatment?  A common cold + a compromised immune system?  An overdose of pain medication?  Who knows? (This is difficult to write, but I remember my writing profs saying that the uncomfortable stuff makes for the best writing.  I’m not buying that at this moment.)  The result is that the combination of radiation, chemotherapy, and pain pills, coupled with the confusion of managing and combining all her prior meds with the new ones, is making her miserable.

I knew I couldn’t bring up the anniversary of Pops’s passing.  And maybe she herself had forgotten the anniversary, though I suspect not, as she is cursed–a few months ago, before her diagnosis, I would have said blessed–with a clarity of mind that makes coming to terms with her own illness all the more difficult.  Her mind and pain are both exceptionally sharp.


I was following an Internet rabbit hole yesterday and happened to click on a photographer’s portfolio of family portraits.  In the background of one was the play structure at a park in Davis where Lucas and I often met a good friend and his kids.  I choked when I saw the yellow slides that Lucas was at first so hesitant to go down.  I remembered the welcome temperature of the shade, the cold concrete of the picnic table’s benches, the heavenly sandwiches half-wrapped in waxy paper from the deli of my favorite grocery store.

I’ve gained so much here–great colleagues, academic freedom, autonomy, a clearer sense of my intellectual self, a renewed vision for my own public history practice, great students, and a recovered self-confidence.



I miss California.  A lot.  Not enough to pull up stakes and go back right away–I’m committed to pursuing tenure here, as I think the department and university are a really good fit for who I am and what I do, and Lucas has landed a spot in what may be the best school in the state–but enough that I think about it every day, wondering when I can return and thinking about whether I’d prefer northern or southern California, as I’ve lived in both regions and both have their charms.  I fantasize about entrepreneurship, about kickstarting something big with Fang that will allow us to move into a home within reach of Pacific breezes.

I also recognize this is a pattern.  I long to be wherever it is I’ve left.  More than a third of my Master’s thesis for my M.A. in poetry writing is about missing central Iowa.  When I was in Long Beach for a year between a stint in Iowa and moving back to Davis, I thought constantly about Davis’s idyllic charms.  In Davis I thought about the big, sunny rooms in my parents’ house, and how three generations of my family still live on the same block, and how nice it was to be able to wander half a block to Grandma’s house to share a cookie and lemonade with her and to talk about her cats or whatever reality show she happened to be hooked on at the moment.  When I was an undergraduate for a semester in Fredericksburg, I kept envisioning the pastel wallpaper and semigloss-white windowsill next to my bed in my childhood bedroom, and I wanted nothing more than to stare at that corner, which in my previous residence in the house had seemed so prosaic.


Things that would help in the short term:

  • Moving to the other side of Boise.  It’s where all the ex-pat Californians live.
  • Spending more time downtown, among the funky shops and in the humanely-scaled urban streetscape.
  • Exploring the foothills.  Hikes.
  • Bicycling.
  • Fresh spring and summer produce.  (If fruits & veggies would finally show up at the just-reopened farmer’s market. . .)
  • Gardening.
  • A long spring.  It’s still too early to plant tomatoes here–as the locals point out, the snow is still on Shafer Butte–and I’m going to be pissed if we get only two weeks of spring before summer gets blazing hot.
  • Lots of writing, lots of processing, sparked by a more intense Shiva Nata practice.
  • Maybe Friends meetings.  Discernment.

How do you ground yourself in place?  How do you live in the now when past places sing their siren songs?

Not lost

One hypothetical I play with all the time is where I’d go if I had one chance to travel back through time–if I could visit any time and place in human history for, say, a week.*  Typically I decide I’d visit the 1893 Columbian Exposition because I’m all about the wackiness of the 1890s U.S.

Every once in a while, however, my resolve–to taste the first Cracker Jacks, walk through Machinery Hall, and sip Pabst before it won that blue ribbon–wavers.

Tonight is one of those moments.

See, it’s pretty easy for me to develop a good deal of affection for the long-dead women scientists I study, but occasionally one proves standoffish, and I can’t seem to crack her shell.  In a sense, in my searching for her, she refuses to be found.

Tonight, however, I managed to fall in love a little with Lester Rowntree (1879-1979), who studied and sustainably collected the seeds of native Californian plants.

In 1939, when she was 60, Rowntree wrote a fabulous article in The Atlantic Monthly about her travels around the state. (In her 50s she had gone through an apparently ugly divorce and found herself deliciously free of the concerns that had plagued her for decades, so she opted for largely solitary travel and exploration.)

Her article is so damn delightful, and it speaks to me not just as an historian, but as an English major because so many of her stories do important metaphorical work for this historian-come-lately.  Her anecdotes remind me of the importance of taking calculated risks, which is something I sometimes forget to do when I’m comfortably ensconced in my windowless, fluorescent-lit office in the history department.

Here’s Rowntree writing about her next adventure:

I expect the going will be tougher than anything I’ve had so far, but I’ve heard so many terrible tales about the dangers to a lone woman on desolate Mexican byways that I’ve stopped believing any of them–things cannot be as bad as they say. At any rate I’m surely going to find new flowers and see new country, and as my friends often remind me, ‘Sensible people don’t have adventures.’

And then there’s this anecdote:

“Are you the woman that’s lost in the mountains?” [one of the two men picking their way through the chaparral] yelled.
“No!” I said indignantly.
“You must be,” they said.
“I’m not!” I shouted.
Ignoring this, they announced, “We’ve come to find you.”
“You can’t,” I said, “because I”m not lost.” […]
“Better come with us,” they pleaded.” […]
“I won’t,” I said firmly. “I’m not lost and I won’t be found.”

Excuse me for a moment–I’m setting the dials of my time machine to 1939; I’m going to explore Mexican byways with Lester Rowntree.  I’ll let you know when I return.

*What about you?  Where would you go in a time machine?  And would you travel forward or backward in time?  I’m curious.