Category: field notes

This Thanksgiving I’m grateful to have my work included in two wonderful books!

screen-shot-2016-11-24-at-8-02-25-amThe Montana Natural History Center has put together a collection of Field Notes from its long-running radio program on Montana Public Radio. Once upon a time when I was a grad student in Missoula, I wrote a Field Note about Sphinx Moths for this program and read it (yes, out loud!) for the radio show. I’m so pleased that my Note is now published in this collection, along with 111 other nature-lovin’ writers’ observations. You can order your copy here.

My poem ‘Moose Bell’ is included a new anthology of Wyoming writers, Blood, Water, Wind and Stone, published by Sastrugi Press and available on Amazon. As I’ve written before, I have wandered away, but always keep coming back to live in Wyoming since I first set foot inside its four straight lines back in May of 1996. It is dear to my heart for ‘Moose Bell’ to be part of this project with the work of many talented Wyomingans (Wyomingites? Wyos?). If you’re in Jackson on December 10th, stop by the Valley Bookstore for the Gala Opening at 5pm to celebrate Blood, Water, Wind and Stone. I will be there! And there will be refreshments!

Photo of Sheep Mountain by Acroterion from Wikimedia Commons

field notes read me

Well hello! It’s been a while. Since last spring actually – whoa!

I have been busy – it is summer in Wyoming, after all, and I am enjoying myself immensely. I’m also really excited to share this poem with you, thanks to the kind folks at Gravel magazine publishing it in their September 2016 issue.

You can read “Moose Bell” HERE.

And just to tease you, get ready for another one of my poems coming out soon at Foliate Oak. Something completely different to keep you guessing about me. Stay tuned! In the meantime, I’m going outside to play.


Lady Moose photo By Magnus Johansson (female moose) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

field notes read me

Back in 2001, I left Jackson, Wyoming and a really sweet library job to get a Master’s in Environmental Studies at the University of Montana in Missoula. I’d read a lot of Terry Tempest Williams and written some sappy poetry, and I really wanted to be a Nature Writer and save the planet. Less than a year later, I ended up a defeated, depressed dropout with a student loan, working on an organic farm in Whitefish, Montana for a hundred bucks a month plus room and board. No way could I have envisioned that 15 years later I would be back in Jackson with my own freelance bookkeeping business, finishing the novel about the farm that I started so long ago.

Nor would I have thought that I’d dust off an essay I wrote for one of my grad school classes, with the initial intention of turning it into a blog post. We had to choose an extinct or endangered species and write a brief, creative nonfiction essay. I picked a tiny warbler from the coastal plains of the American South. Maybe I chose Bachman’s Warbler because I grew up in Georgia. Maybe I chose it because I wanted to go small. And not simply size-wise. Bachman’s isn’t famous. But I have never stopped thinking about this lost little bird.  I did a massive amount of research while I was a writer in residence at Hypatia-in-the-Woods in Shelton, Washington – and I did my damnedest to craft an essay that I hope honors one fragile strand in the great web of life. And I am overjoyed that Zoomorphic is publishing “Last Known” in its fifth issue.

I’d really like to thank the field biologists and Bachman’s experts who took time out of their busy lives to respond to my emails and phone calls. Paul Hamel, Sidney Gauthreaux, Chuck Hunter, Robert Norton, Bob Ford, Kenneth Rosenberg, thank you all.  Isabella Kirkland’s hauntingly gorgeous oil painting deserves contemplation.  And mostly especially, a big thank you to Craig Watson of the Atlantic Coast Joint Venture, who read my drafts, sent me his own personal copy of Paul Hamel’s book Bachman’s Warbler: A Species in Peril as well as a precious dvd film of the warbler, and provided invaluable feedback.

You can read “Last Known” here on the Zoomorphic website.


Painting of Vermivora bachmanii by Louis Agassiz Fuertes [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

field notes read me

Last summer I posted about the wildflowers on Josie’s Ridge, specifically clematis. This summer’s rock star is the Sego lily, and her lil’ buddy the Flower Crab Spider.

The Sego lily (Calochortus nuttallii) is one of 70 species in the Calochortus genus (calochortus derives from Greek, meaning beautiful grass) found up and down the Americas from British Columbia to Guatemala. This wild lily is both elegant and tasty – its edible bulbs have long been part of the diet of many tribes like the Hopi and Navajo. It’s the state flower of Utah, mainly because the Mormon pioneers discovered this nutritional fact and didn’t die of starvation. The word sego is the Southern Paiute name for the bulb itself, according to Merriam-Webster.

I have never eaten a Sego lily bulb, but I do see these flowers all over hillside trails around Jackson Hole in mid-July, and they are exquisitely beautiful. Also, these lilies always seem to have tiny chartreuse spiders tiptoeing around on their stamens and petals. I finally got a photo of one pretty arachnid and sent it off to two super-helpful plant identification websites, hoping for a name. I got answers within only a day or two! For free!

1024px-Misumena_vatia_qtl2You can read my question (basically: what is this spider??), and the speedy response I got (it’s most likely Misumena vatia) at the Land Grant University’s eXtension website here. This was so fun I’m trying to come up with more questions to ask!

I also sent my spider ID question to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center’s help site Mr. Smarty Plants, which has to be the best cutesy name ever. Mr. Smarty Plants couldn’t give me a definitive answer because hey, he isn’t Mr. Smarty Spiders, which I understand. BUT I still got a great list of insect identification websites.

Misumena vatia, pleased to meet you! I’m fascinated that you use flowers as your hunting grounds. And you can change color to suit your flower! There you are hanging out on some yarrow this time, eyeing your prey. Eight eyes on the prize, spidey!


Photo of Sego lily and her flower crab spider by me.

“Misumena vatia qtl2” by Quartl – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons  


field notes

Continued from my last post, Grassy Lake Road, Part 1

Where was I? Oh yes. Fast asleep in my campsite on the Reclamation Road, just south of Yellowstone. Grizzly Country.

SPLASH! Thud. Splash-plonk!

I sat bolt upright in my tent and listened real, real hard. I’ve heard many an animal nosing around in a campsite before (don’t get me started on the Point Reyes raccoons), but usually I’m in a crowded campground or I’m in a tent with someone else. This time I was entirely alone.

And I was freezing. I realized I’d been sitting up outside of my sleeping bag for several minutes and I began to tremble with either terror or cold or both. I heard more rustling sounds – something coming through the willows along the river bank. Could be a moose. Could be a black bear. Could be….

IMG_3120Well, I had to look. Why are tent zippers the noisiest damn things? I knew for certain that a flimsy nylon tent was not capable of saving me if a big ole bear decided I smelled tasty. I didn’t want to spook any creature, really.  Trampled to death my a moose? Embarrassing (for everybody). But I just couldn’t sit there shivering all by myself, unable to see what was coming through my camp. And no way in hell was I going back to sleep just then.

ZZZziiiiiipppppp. You cannot unzip a metal zipper slowly enough to make it a quiet endeavor. I got up on my knees, poked my head out the tent door and blinked in the starlight. The Milky Way blazed. The birds were still singing – at midnight. The river gurgled and churned. No moon. But enough glow to make out the biggest bear I have ever seen – a gigantic black bulk lumbering slowly and so, so quietly through the grass not five yards from my tent. I couldn’t tell if it was a griz or a black bear, so I won’t embellish.  But it was huuuuuuuuuge.  Almost as big as my two-person tent. And then…it just kept on walkin’.

I did not sleep for three hours. Several more visitors during the night paid me visits. One of them sounded like a clumsy elk tripping over a downed log – but I didn’t peek that time. I feel asleep again soon after and woke up at dawn, alone again.

IMG_0417A couple hours later, post-coffee, I knew I couldn’t stay a second night. I knew I’d come back another time, though. I was thinking this as a Park Ranger drove up to chat with me and give me the standard Bear Safety sheet. I told him about the bear from the night before. He said it might’ve been a large black grizzly whose territory encompassed the JDR, and who was affectionately known as XL.

I can imagine all kinds of responses to this post. You weren’t even in the backcountry, big deal. You are so stupid to camp alone. You should have made noise. You are a rock star! Why didn’t you run for your car and leave?! 

All I can say is: Of course. And: No regrets. I didn’t go looking for trouble, and I locked up my food. I didn’t get mauled to death. I saw something no one else saw; it’s my memory. I will never forget the way that bear moved through the high grass, in the cold dark under the stars. Or the way the Snake River changes its sound – from a fast rushing to a dampened chuckle to a muted cobble-thumping sigh in the watches of night. I was feeling sad and dispirited when I went up to Grassy Lake Road. I recovered my lost spirit there, that raw feeling of being alive in this extraordinary world.

Reclamation Road, indeed.


Photo of meadow and Camp 2 by me. Bear Safety sheet from National Park Service.

field notes

There’s a 40-mile dirt road running from Idaho to Wyoming (or…Wyoming to Idaho) between Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. It’s called the Ashton-Flagg Ranch Road – after its destination points. Or Grassy Lake Road (on some maps, Grassy Lakes Road), referring to the large reservoir just west of the John D Rockefeller Jr Memorial Parkway. The Bureau of Reclamation built the road around 1911 to haul materials and supplies from Ashton, Idaho to the construction site of the Jackson Lake Dam. So, on the Forest Service maps, it’s called Reclamation Road.

IMG_3097I called it home one night a couple weeks ago when I needed to get out of town. I packed up all my glamping supplies (tent, 2 pillows, monster Thermarest, down sleeping bag, hammock, cooler full of gourmet cheese, beer, and chocolate) and headed north. I got about five miles from home and remembered my Coleman stove. I went back for the stove – a woman needs hot coffee in the morning. Now, I can do camping with nothing more than a sleeping bag and a headlamp, but not if I don’t have to. I don’t mind Clif Bars for every meal, or mice crawling in my hair in the middle of the night, but I don’t love it.

IMG_3105Along the eastern end of the road, mostly following the Snake River inside the boundaries of the JDR, you’ll find 8 developed camps spread out over ten miles. That’s a total of 14 campsites (I counted), and they’re all free. They’ve got fire rings, picnic tables, bearproof trashcans and some of the cleanest (shockingly cleanest) vault toilets I’ve ever encountered. I thought about driving as far away from Flagg Ranch as I could and taking the last open site, then got lazy and chose Camp 2. Absolutely no cell service, hardly anybody driving by on the road, and my own private beach on the river (okay, I did share it with a few Canada geese and several rather vociferous killdeer).

IMG_3113Across the road sprawled a vast meadow of camas in full bloom, and for a while I watched a pair of sandhill cranes poking around in the tall grass. A squadron of American white pelicans zoomed up the river. Ruby-crowned kinglets foraged in the boughs of the lodgepole pine stand where I strung up my hammock. The mosquitoes were eager, but few, and rolling myself up burrito-style in my hammock saved me.

Around dusk, I dutifully locked up all my food and everything remotely smelly, and fell asleep in my tent while reading. Then I woke up at midnight to the sound of something very heavy splashing and kerplunking at the river’s edge.

To Be Continued

Photos of Grassy Lake Road, Camp 2, Snake River and Camas (Camassia quamash) by me.

field notes

I dig fossils.

I mean, not literally. I have never been on a fossil dig; I’m no paleontologist right? But I dig fossils, man. I didn’t realize this until a recent trip to John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in eastern Oregon. And of course, I have been gettin’ my Darwin on – lots of fossil talk. I listened to the audiobook of Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution Is True on my Oregon road trip. Pretty good overview of evolution with detailed examples, but I cracked up every time the narrator adopted a limply terrible British accent to read the Darwin quotes.

I didn’t plan on going to John Day Fossil Beds. Driving back to Wyoming from Bend on Oregon 26 (oooh, so gorgeous), I didn’t want to show up at my motel early, so I stopped at the Sheep Rock Unit of the monument.  The monument is actually three separate areas – a total of 20,000 square miles – spread out along the John Day River valley. I showed up at the Thomas Condon Visitor Center – ten minutes before closing. Bummed! I speed-wandered through the exhibit (40 million years in 8 minutes) and grabbed some pamphlets before the Ranger chased me out. Then I ambled across the road to the Historic Cant Ranch, a restored old sheep ranch and house, just as a big dark thunderstorm started to brew.

IMG_2963When’s the last time you really thought about fossils? High School science class? That museum somebody dragged you into on your last family vacation? Me too. But now I’m starting to become more interested in the fossil record. I’ve found a good overview website from the American Geological Institute about evolution and the fossil record that also has a handy concise summary of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. And there’s this web page from Nature – the most detailed, image-rich resource I’ve found that explains how scientists can determine the age of rocks and fossils.

The John Day monument’s landscape is beautiful – colorful striated cliffs, rolling meadows, the gentle river. And it’s extremely important to paleontologists; they are still actively digging, researching, and compiling within this important repository for the big mammals of the Cenozoic. The fossil assemblages are remarkable for their sheer quantity of specimens as well as the intactness of the communities preserved in the rock layers. As the Oregon roadsigns told me, it’s a Journey Through Time.

IMG_3007The word fossil comes from the Latin fodere (dig) and fossilis (dug up). I spent last weekend digging in my garden. Actually, it’s a plot in my town’s community garden that I share with two friends. I pitchforked the heck out of one corner (I cannot take credit for the rest), and yanked out a wheelbarrow-load of quack grass by the roots. I’m calling it quack grass, but I’m not 100% sure that’s what it is. I am 100% certain it’s annoying, pervasive and hard to remove. But it’s gone (for now), and I replanted some strawberries in a wee corner patch. The rest of our plot is ready for peas, lettuce, kale and even quinoa. Seeds shall be sowed over Memorial Day weekend.

The goal this summer is to start seed saving. I’ve never done that before, but it dovetails nicely with the first chapter of The Origin of Species – Variations Under Domestication. I’m rereading that this weekend. Also, I always find myself thinking of Punnett Squares and Gregor Mendel’s pea plants whenever I’m trying to grow food. Maybe a post about that later. Right now I just keep adding to my Seeds reading list.

I love multi-tasking, so I listened to The Reluctant Mr. Darwin while gardening in a soft spring rain. David Quammen is my favorite science writer, though this book reads more like a mini-biography. So far, Quammen focuses on Darwin’s deep relationship with his devoutly Christian wife, Emma, and on his relationships with his scientific contemporaries, all of which contributed to his intense internal struggles over how and if he should share with the world his discovery of descent with modification by means of natural selection. Thus far, it’s a wonderful portrait of the man. Grover Gardner narrates the audiobook, and I always enjoy his voice; I’ve listened to him narrate the excellent Miles Vorkosigan novels of Lois McMaster Bujold.

More gardening and Darwinning adventures to follow!


Photos of Sheep Rock, leaf fossil and strawberry patch by me!

book reviews field notes my darwin project

IMG_2838I know Spring is here, because April and my list of poetry month projects loom large, the redwing blackbirds are conk-la-reeing all over the place, every pair of shoes I own is caked with mud, and the Teton Park Road is plowed and open for non-motorized access.  Also today I saw a mountain bluebird while I was out walking on the aforementioned road, spring wind blasting across the melting snowfields.

Driving home, there were seven moose (maybe more but I didn’t want to run off the highway trying to count) hanging out in the sage flats and getting harassed by paparazzi.  And lo, a group of bison just on the other side of the Elk Refuge fence (mercifully on the other side of the fence, since everybody was right up against it, ogling those one-ton beauties).

IMG_2831For several mornings now, a herd of elk has visited the field south of my house.  And yesterday while I was walking along the Snake River, the two bald eagles who nest along that stretch indulged themselves in some graceful, and I hope fun, soaring above the braided channels.

So yeah, I am totally bragging.  Wyoming is some kinda sweetass awesome if you’re into Nature and stuff.


Mountain Bluebird By Jesse Achtenberg (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service WO-2283-CD60) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Grand Teton National Park and Snake River photos by me.

field notes

I recently received my 75th rejection letter for the poems I’ve submitted to various print and online journals.   Not surprisingly, it hurt less than the first rejection letter did.   Using Duotrope to manage my submissions has given me the organizational capacity to submit more pieces more frequently, and it’s also allowed me to find more potential venues for my work. I keep submitting and trying to be a better poet, and I know I will find a home for my best writing.

IMG_2612 But this is also a post about New Orleans. I spent the 2014 Christmas holiday there, and I would go back every year if I could.   Before the trip, I felt certain that I’d fall in love with NOLA because of the restaurants, the music, the bars, the chicory coffee, étouffée, the French Quarter, the beignets, the history. And oh yes, I did. But more than that, and most important, it’s the people. Everyone I encountered – shop clerks, bartenders, street musicians, fellow tourists, waitresses, panhandlers – everybody – was so happy. Not the fake happiness you see when someone’s trying to earn a buck off you. Genuine cheer lit up every street like holiday lights.IMG_2586 During my week in the Crescent City, I pocketed all kinds of wisdom and lore.

Here’s a few of those shiny tidbits that I save like a magpie to repurpose in poems.

Be nice or leave. A popular sentiment I saw on tshirts, storefront signs, placards. It comes from the folk art of Dr. Bob.

Where y’at? This isn’t just a greeting but the catchphrase of a major New Orleans dialect, Yat. There’s a Wikipedia article about Yat.

Literary greats like Tennessee Williams and Sherwood Anderson once called NOLA home.

If you have a signature Hurricane at Pat O’Brien’s you will pay too much, and when they tell you after you’ve paid that you get to keep the souvenir glass, this will not ease your fiscal pain.

ElizElizabeth’s has the best breakfasts in town.  Praline bacon.  Yes please.

Praline is pronounced prah-leen, not pray-leen. I guess I’m a Yankee.

Big Al Carson has a voice that will make you go weak in the knees, and he is the lewdest band frontman I’ve ever seen. I’d definitely go back to the Funky Pirate Bar to watch him grope himself again. Yes, I admitted that.

The Trashy Diva and Fleurty Girl are lovely little boutiques to seek out if you’re a girly girl.

For the perfect night out, a soul food dinner at The Praline Connection and a stroll to the artist’s market on Frenchmen Street cannot be topped.  Especially when you’ve got a 10 piece brass band playing on the streetcorner. Bring lots of cash for the tip boxes.

You can buy a drink at any French Quarter bar and take it with you into the streets in a go-cup.  Which leads to much merriment and alleyway barfing (the former, not the latter, for me).

photoShops and museums celebrating the famous Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau abound in the French Quarter, and I think I visited them all. As can be expected, some are quite commercialized, but I recommend visiting at least one.

I need to thank The Originals for introducing me to the Sazerac, and the bartender at Sylvain for making me my first.

But why am I bringing up booze – I mean poetry – in this post? Well, just before I went to New Orleans, I received some very negative feedback on one of my poems through Sixfold‘s writing workshop. In his comments, my critic defined the art of poetry for me and then pointed out how I had failed at this art. At the same time, I began to observe more closely the reactions of friends, colleagues, and strangers when they’re told that I write poetry. This is a widely varied cross-section of people, and most of them – not all, but most – are either uninterested in poetry, or claim never to understand it.   While in New Orleans – overwhelmed by its glorious and grotesque sights, sounds, tastes, smells, textures – I contemplated why I write poetry – and what exactly is poetry?  Why bother to do this thing, when very few people I know want to read poems – and when a fellow poet wants to pin down the art of it with a simple, standardized, boring definition.  I’m still pondering, but still making poems too.

Did you know that Mardi Gras beads, flung into the air by revelers, dangle from the trees in the French Quarter year round? When the wind blows, they can slip free from the branches to fall on your head, perhaps encouraging you to be little more flamboyant than usual, to look up, to be surprised and delighted – or maybe perturbed, maybe confused.   There’s one way to consider poetry. One of many ways, like beads on thousands of plastic necklaces.

I highly encourage everyone to sign up for a free poem-a-day email service. What do you have to lose? My favorites are and Rattle.  

 All photographs by me!

field notes

Let’s be thankful for the carrion eaters today.  The scavengers, the garbage pickers, the gleaners.  Somebody’s gotta eat the leftovers, right?

Let’s talk turkey vultures.  Those horrifyingly beautiful buzzards who can eat pretty much anything, including leprosy.  Whose guts are full of botulism and power-microbes, capable of digesting the nastiest, deadest meat.  Gross?  Don’t think about it that way.  We’re talking about 65 million years of co-evolution between bacteria and bird.  A bird whose sense of smell is so keen it can detect, in flight, the scent of ethyl mercaptan, a gas produced by decaying flesh.

The five subspecies of turkey vultures are native to North and South America.  They’re a completely separate order from the Old World vultures of Europe, Asia and Africa.  Even though both types of vultures share similar appearance and eating habits, they are descended from different ancestors.  This is convergent evolution – the process by which natural selection influences similarities between unrelated organisms adapting to shared conditions.  In this case, the ecological role of the carrion eater is now fulfilled by a total of 23 different species of vultures now inhabiting planet Earth.

So if you’re taking a walk this holiday weekend in the States, with a belly full of turkey, and you happen to look up in the sky and see these big, bald and lovely birds, soaring on thermals with their characteristic rocking-V flight pattern, say thanks to the Turkey Vulture.

Photo of vultures in flight courtesy of Pixabay.

field notes