saga of the water leak, part 1

We’ve got a drought-time water leak saga happening here at Rainshadow Farm. Life was going on as usual around here a week ago, with a lot of my own angsting about whether or not to sell RSF and when and how and yadayada. The usual.

A letter came in the mail informing me that we had a water leak somewhere in our house or on the property. I would need to find it and fix it, said our local water company, or there would be penalties. I called them right away and they told me that it was a major leak, about 10 gallons an hour. Uh, that’s 240 gallons in a day. Don’t you think I’d notice that much leaking, I asked the person on the other end of the phone. Uuuuh, she said. Did you maybe leave the hose on? Holy crap.

I decided to get off the phone and walk my property looking for a big leak in the line before I became ornery with the young woman. She told me that the meter reader was coming by in a week to see if it was fixed.

Before I hung up, I confirmed with her that my water meter was, in fact, about a quarter mile from my house, in front of a neighbor’s property, on the road behind my home, past my neighbor’s property. My neighbor has a very locked-down property with several big, barking dogs. The neighbor warned two of my granddaughters and the next door neighbor’s young boy that the dogs would bite when the three of them were looking at the dogs through the fence. The fence is covered with Beware of Dog signs all across the back of my fence – on my side. He placed them on my side. And my water meter is on his easement. At the front of his house.

So. I’m going to pass on the water company’s suggestion that I turn my water off at the meter and see exactly how much is leaking in a 24-hour period. I mean, I pay them plenty for water service. Isn’t that their job anyway, to confront big scary dogs?

I walked my property with all of the intensity of a semi-retired archaeologist and ethnobotanist in the field. Nothing.

A call Monday informed me that I still have a leak.

Did you maybe leave the hose on? Do you have a toilet that’s running? Do you know what that is and how it sounds? Uh oh. Two for one in a single week. I lost my temper. I may be old but I’m not stupid. I don’t like to lose my temper, but someone should be giving these kids better training. Someone who’s making the big bucks and paying these kids minimum wage should be making it clear that there are real people at the other end of the phone line. Water is important. Water in a drought becomes crucial. And if you live in California, water is always the key to bringing in the big bucks.

Take note: Reisner, Marc. (1986). Cadillac Desert: The American West and its disappearing water. New York: Penguin.

If you haven't read it, please, please do.  Please.

If you haven’t read it, please, please do. Please.

I suppose that it’s too much to expect anyone at the PPHCSD (Phelan Pinon Hills Community Service District) to understand that there are real people at the other end of the line, people who are receiving their threats with real concern and often some trepidation. “Just fix it, ” “Do you have a husband or son who can fix it?” and “Just call a plumber to find and fix it,” may put an end to customer good will. Especially when followed by, “You have ten days or we’ll install a flow regulator on your meter that will cut your water flow by 42%.”

Ah, but there was a reprieve. They are going to send a “technician” out next Friday who will survey my property for leaks. I’ll let them do it while I survey Yelp for a plumber. Sigh. If the technician finds something, then I can call a plumber. If the technician finds nothing, then I can call a plumber.

Apparently their technician will do exactly what I’ve done, except he has been highly trained to find leaks and can identify plants that are growing where they shouldn’t be.

Guess they don’t know about my old but highly trained eyes. Like I said, I lost my temper.

But. Maybe he’ll find something I’ve missed. Maybe he’ll bring one of those fancy water ultrasound detection devices. That would almost make me happy. At the least, it might defuse my irritation at being treated like an idiot.

And maybe, if I’m very lucky, I’ll get to see how the technician deals with the high desert homesteader with all the big dogs when he realizes the water lines may run across this guy’s property.

I’m bound to be disappointed. I bet the tech will defer to the plumber that I’m surely going to have to hire.

One of my sons showed me a possibility. Near the side door of our garage there is some brome grass and filaree growing a bit out of season. It’s a sheltered spot, so the soil might be retaining moisture from the rains last week and those are very opportunistic plants. My sons dump out the cats’ water there which would encourage plant growth.

Still, if there’s a leak under the garage or under the house, spilling out there, that’s the possible site of the trouble. It’s the only place on all of this 2.5 acres that’s close to being a leak-indicator candidate.

So here’s where we’re at. I’ve walked the whole expanse of my 2.5 acres and the entire route where the pipe may be laid down. All desert, no leak. Something is draining away 10 gallons an hour.

A plumber needs to be called and paid. If not, the water company will install that flow regulator and will charge me $100 for it. Then we will have 43% less water pressure in this house that already suffers from fairly low water pressure. And we’ve already decreased our water use by 33%.

When the governor mandated a 25-32% cut in state-wide water use, we complied here at RSF. Willingly. We lost some trees. It’s sad to lose trees and plants but this isn’t a commercial operation. In a sense, the loss plays into my work on drylands growing. My motto has always been, “If I can grow it here, anyone can grow it.”

Here’s the final kicker.

My water district is one of only four (4!) in the state that didn’t cut back the recommended 32% mandate. We did here at RSF. But the district as a whole is a fail. I guess that puts their jobs on the line.

The district’s solution is fines and flow meters. And the state solution is to mandate a 42% cut in water use for us, at least here in our failed district. So says the district. 42% is going to be tough.

I think everyone in California (not just California, but the whole desert West) should read The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi. Really, everyone. Everyone should read it. And he’ll make you want to read Cadillac Desert. Paolo Bacigalupi is a prophet.

Read this book now!

Read this book now!

Posted in agroecology, climate change, community, dryland restoration, ethnobotany, family, Nature, resilience, socioecological intelligence | Tagged , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Shift, Part 2

I’ve been living with an income decrease for almost 6 months now.

I prepared for the “eventful” decrease with the help of one of my sons who has some financial savvy.

I’m on a scary end of this financial learning curve because, as an adjunct professor, every single semester I am considered a new hire and each new semester I have to go an entire month with no pay. That’s two months of the year with no pay. If I don’t get summer and winter classes, that’s more than two months, but unemployment does intervene then. If you’re a divorced older woman whose ex doesn’t refuse to pay court-ordered alimony, count your lucky stars, I guess. When I teach summer and winter intersession classes (accelerated classes and the pay mounts up quickly) I may be able to make up what I’ve put on credit and/or drawn from any savings I have. I don’t know yet. I’ll update at the end of January.

I don’t really know where all of this will go. I don’t know yet whether it will be feasible to keep this house. And I don’t know yet whether I will be able to sell my home if I have to, or whether I will have to walk away from the mortgage and deal with all of that.

I’ve had so many bad experiences with landlords that I know I don’t want to go back to renting. Last landlord I had was a great guy, but he’s the only one in a long time who wasn’t a jerk. But, then, we do what we have to do, don’t we?

At least I have a part time job. In fact, I have two part time jobs, but one only pays me once a semester and it’s only a tiny bit of extra money, that’s all. Not ideal, but the work is pretty rewarding and money is money, for that matter. My health has made freeway flying unacceptable. It’s no longer on the table unless something undeniably great comes along.

So. Yes, I have a part time job.

Over four years of intense job-searching with no full time offers have finally shown me that I’m moving down a path that’s not likely to bear fruit. I had to try. Now I am done; I don’t care anymore. Time to move along.

What I’ve learned is that I can find part time teaching just about anywhere. And I’m currently looking for work outside of the academic madhouse. I’m open to what it takes. I’ve got a mixed bag of proficiencies here; I am looking at non- or less-academic ways to make the most of my skill set. At my age.

For four years I’ve thought about “working more productively.” I’m beginning to wonder whether I need to drop that idea and replace it with “thinking more creatively.”

It’s taken me over four years of scrambling mentally, emotionally, and physically to try to feel as if I can help make my family secure on my own. Do I feel that I’ve succeeded? Feelings aside, we’ve managed. There’s that.

Until recently when I had a turnaround and full-on shift in perspective, I’d been running faster and feeling like I’d been falling further behind. What changed?

First, my offspring, the younger ones, who live here with me are comfortable. They help in a multitude of ways, from work on the farm to work around the house, to contributing to household finances. They refuse to take on the poverty label, even though our household makes less than 138% of the Federal Poverty Level, which pretty much labels us poor. They take a global view of poverty and I’m grateful for that. They refuse to back down in the face of my days of bleakness.


Now I’m changing my approach.

I’ve been talking for years with older women friends who are also single about how we need to cobble work together from our own skill sets to get us through.

I’ve begun making art again. That’s a huge thing for me. This is not a radical change, not yet anyway. It’s tentative and a bit stiff and fearful. But it’s one of the most hopeful things in my life right now. This is not a money-maker but it is something I have never stopped loving, even when I laid it aside. It’s a good thing and it definitely lifts the haze of confusion and depression.

Vinca in December

Vinca in December

Years ago when I first began opening up Rainshadow Farm for community farm days, one of my daughters told me told me I should turn the land into an ecovillage. She didn’t have a clear plan, but a flicker of a vision. I don’t know if the high desert is the best place for something like this to fly, but it happens to be where my land is. I wonder sometimes if this is an idea that could become a thing.

A couple of my friends think it’s more than a potential thing. They both think it’s a real thing that will become necessary to many older women who are poor and in need of some security.

One of my friends thinks I should gather some of my kids, some friends, and build some tiny houses (or Cal-Earth adobes) on the property. She has said she’d love to live in a community of women like that. She describes it as, “tiny houses in a circle, like covered wagons.”

Where the money for something like that would come from, no idea. It’s only a thought.

When I say I’m going to be creative in my approach, I honestly don’t know what I mean. The idea does kindle a tiny flame of hope. Maybe things will be changing. Maybe they’ll even be changing radically. Women my age who feel like they’re getting backed against the wall are capable of some pretty radical changes.

Rainshadow Farm, December night.

Rainshadow Farm, December night.

Posted in Adjuncting, art, community, disability, family, gray divorce, Life changes, resilience | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

somewhere to go


I moved to this desert to make a life with someone who is now long and willingly gone.

I am the sole owner of a property that we once picked out together.

When the modified grant deed was put into my name alone, I saw a 19th century novel in a few of the opening words. “My Name, who acquired title with her former spouse as married woman…hereby grants to My Name With Middle Initial, an unmarried woman”…and then comes the description of the property. Nice.

When I think of this it does make me smile. So antiquated. And so hard-won.

This property, sadly, has the potential to drain me dry since I am effectively very underemployed and may remain so the rest of my life.

I’m getting by, but, to be honest, just barely.

I complain to myself sometimes about the fallout of the ex refusing to pay court-ordered spousal support.

Again, that’s one of those things that is what it is. And I have to make my peace with it.

As much as I enjoy teaching and the other things I may put out there for more or less (or even no) money, there’s really no security in my financial life. When my youngest briefly collected SSI, I felt like I had a safety ledge between us and free-fall. That’s gone now. I’ve had to make my peace with that, too.

I’ve spent the last decade building this micro-farm. It’s draining my meager income.

Summer in the high desert is the most difficult season: for me and for the farm. The plants and trees that aren’t entirely native to this place wilt. I wilt. When summer hits, I have a desire to hit the road.

But now summer’s over. Nights are longer. It is much cooler. And tonight it rained. In fact, the rain in town tonight felt icy.

Whenever summer ends, the urgency to flee dies down a little. Over the last four years, fall, winter, spring, and what might be called “Climate Change Early Mild Summer” have kept me in place.

I have a little list of “reasons to go, reasons to say” in a notebook. I don’t look at it much anymore because I’m pretty sure regardless of the list, I’ll be leaving. I’m just not sure when. It will probably be during a full-on high desert summer.

At least, a summer is probably when I’ll try to put the house on the market (if there’s any equity in it at all, which there isn’t yet) or arrange a short sale. Three years ago my attorney said “walk away.” And maybe that’s what I’ll finally do.

Maybe this is the midlife crisis I should have had when I was dealing with someone else’s. Shall I have my own?

Sure, why not?

I’ve been figuring the soonest I’d leave would be in a year or so.

And now there’s more.

Something happened last night that is moving me along the relocation track a little faster.

We had a prowler last night. Someone came up to my youngest daughter’s window, casting a shadow and not being entirely quiet. Today we found that they’d broken off an entire cluster of Opuntia basilaris aka beavertail cactus.

cactus flower3

Maybe the prowler has a leg full of stinging glochids from the downed cactus.

It was unnerving. Hell, it was downright scary.

This was not our first such incident.

The high desert has so much poverty. Poverty and drug abuse abound in this particular part of the high desert. Poverty and theft and troubles of all kind.

As I mentioned in the old post, above, we’ve had pilfering and theft outside – so have many of our neighbors without fences. Sturdy fences cost money. I guess I’m going to have to find a way to spring for it. If we can wait, there’s income tax refund time.

Last night was too much. Someone lurking near my youngest daughter’s window and moving around the cars. Even if we move in the fairly near future, I have to get the front finally fenced.

Meanwhile, shall I procure a shotgun and some birdshot? Now that should be a real piece of cake in rural California. I could probably go to WalMart tomorrow and put it on credit. You should see the articles and blogs and Youtubes discussing the relative merits of birdshot vs buckshot. I’ll leave it to you to see what happened to Dick Cheney’s friend when the former VP shot him in the face with a bunch of birdshot. People have lost their minds.

Posted in family, Life changes | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

not really a soccer mom

We’ve hit the turning of the year here at Rainshadow Farm.

The days are shorter and the shadows are longer. It’s a melancholy time, laced with such sweetness. That’s what autumn always has been for me, no matter where I’ve lived.

This year my youngest child has turned 18. Some of my friends mark that moment with high school ceremony. Graduation, prom, that sort of thing. We’ve homeschooled/unschooled all of these years and I see different landmarks. Learning to drive and then actually driving away from our house, down the bumpy dirt road to hang out with some of his friends moved me in that direction. That’s expected. Our babies grow up.

This fall what hit me from behind was soccer. Today my son finished up his last fall tournament. He’ll play in the spring again and maybe he’ll play in college, but this fall has been the turning point for me.

I’ve raised eight kids and six of them have played soccer, at least for a while. A few of them have played it with passion and intensity. What this season in our lives has looked like from where I stand includes all the sorts of fall days that the high desert and mountains can produce – from baking noonday sun to overcast days with blowing snow or spitting rain. Or 50 mile per hour winds sending up clouds of dust and tumbleweeds across the desert floor. It has looked like a giant red wagon loaded with toddlers and lunch, snacks and water. It has looked like a very pregnant me with a toddler on my hip and a bunch of kids streaming off to different fields, raucous, running through the grass, kicking up the dirt, and gathering in the midst of crowds of teammates. It has looked like brothers and sisters watching each other’s games.

We’re talking 32 years of local soccer here, first with two parents and then with a mom alone. Various levels of involvement. Be sure, my involvement right now is not the boisterous young soccer mom running between games to try to see everyone play, at least for a while. Last year I used a cane to navigate the field I was on today, freely walking. Maybe I’ll be using a cane again in the spring, but I’m not going to dwell on that. Who knows? That’s not the point. The point is that as I sat in the warm November sun in the Antelope Valley watching a bunch of teenage guys be athletic all over the place, I was marking today’s images. A turn of someone’s head. A crazy grin. A tease. Brendan sliding along the sideline, trying to keep that ball in play. All of it punctuated by the feel of the sun on my back and the warm breeze.
Something beautiful is drawing to a close.

For once it’s a closing that holds the promise of an opening in its hands.

That brought me real pleasure.

Lately so many closings have brought a sadness, a bleakness, a lack of clarity. Watching this last game of the season reminded me that some closings carry their own joyful potential right at the moment of turning.

I needed that today. It’s enough.

Co-ed practice by Erin Ward

Co-ed practice by Erin Ward


Pensive moment.

Pensive moment.

Posted in family, gratitude, Life changes | Tagged , | Leave a comment

edge of transformation

Climate change is rearranging our seasons here in the high desert.

Maybe our autumns are lasting longer. Spring and summer are merging into a short spring and a longer summer. I can’t say that summer is hotter, but it’s longer and, due to the California drought, drier. Maybe more of the summer nights are cooler than they used to be.

There’s been less snow in the winter. And the rainfall all year is erratic. I’m curious to see what will happen with this winter’s El Niño.

I’ve lived in this area for almost 35 years. Thirty-five years of the desert and mountains. It’s not long in terms of climate change, but it’s long enough to notice changes that affect contemporary humans in the desert, particularly gardening humans.

What have I learned? What am I changing? Hard to say…all I can say for sure is that it’s all very experimental right now.

Twenty years ago I had a routine that worked and it doesn’t work so well now.

I’ve kept gardening journals on and off. About a year and a half ago I got more serious about it. What I’ve learned is that so many of the things I used to grow I can’t grow in this drought. We don’t have a lawn, but we do have fruit trees to water.

I used to work hard to make sure that water was distributed in a way that allowed all the varieties to survive and bear fruit. It’s so much harder to do that now. We’ve cut back on our water use by one-third, maybe a little more. I’ve been heard saying, “We’re a living experiment in desert sustainability here, I’ll keep using the small amount of water that I’ve been using until the county tells me it’s too much.” That’s kind of arrogant isn’t it? Naturally my kids who live here call me out on it. So we’ve cut back and I’m adjusting my thinking yet again.

I’ve lost some plants. Some trees aren’t going to make it and vegetable gardening is going to be very different. Even my herb gardens are in flux.

A few plants have surprised me by thriving more than I expected.

This is transformation.

We are on the edge of transformation.

My garden, my life.

Both are insecure in so many ways. Past behaviors and patterns don’t work anymore. They don’t help thriving to occur.

What emerges that’s beneficial comes from a place that faces insecurity.

And. Results may not be what we expect on the edge of transformation.

Curiosity and experimentation are always essential.

Courage is necessary to avoid moving backward into command and control mode.

If I’m operating out of out of fear and fear of change, I’m going to end up resisting change the hardest. Gardening and living.

joshua tree clouds in sky

Some people who read here prefer the gardening stuff to the personal stuff. To me it’s all part of the real package, but I wanted to list a few of my garden observations in this season of drought. I’d say drought is the new normal, but it’s not. Drought is The Normal for California. Search this site for “drought” or look for tags like “sustainable agriculture,” “climate change,” and even “wildfire,” for all the reasons many of us say California’s old normal has always been drought. I suppose our new normal is simply facing up to that.

Anyway, I know that I can currently grow my friend Bonnie’s high desert adapted cherry tomatoes. With some shade and windbreak we can grow some squash, especially zucchinis and their relatives. Eggplants are okay. Asparagus beans and snow peas grow and bear as long as I plant the latter very early and rather late. They just will not grow in the heat of summer. Tepary beans of all kinds seem happy here. I used to grow beautiful scarlet runner beans for their incredible red blossoms and passable dried beans I could throw in a stew but they don’t seem to grow as well in the drought as the tepary beans.

Next year I’m giving over the vegetable gardens to herbs, tepary beans, Bonnies’ tomatoes (and my own experiments with desert-adapting small tomatoes using her principles), and sunflowers. I’ll include a few other things; I just haven’t decided what else quite yet. And any household vegetables (water users) will be put into five-gallon pots and brought to the patio area. That serves two purposes: they will be farther away from hungry, raiding desert critters like rabbits and ground squirrels and I will be reminded that growing them is a drain on our water supply.

Herbs. Most herbs can be grown in the desert with just a small surplus of irrigation water. Some (like oregano, yarrow, and mint) will thrive in microclimates where irrigation water may linger (More clay in the soil? Runoff from the trees? More shade and slower evaporation?) I take serious advantage of microclimates here. Yarrow tries to grow wild, so does mint, oregano, chives, rosemary…Rosemary, like the mints, will grow opportunistically given a little bit of a water source. Lavender grows rather easily here although it can require a bit more water to bloom well than herbs with less impressive blooms. Echinacea has grown well at Rainshadow Farm, although not so well this year. Lemon balm thrives and Tulsi (holy basil) does as well. I’m partial to both plants, using them in teas and making tinctures from them. Lemon balm will overwinter here, but Tulsi has to be grown indoors (or brought indoors) in the cold weather. I have heard of a growing technique (basically allowing several large plants to self-sow and mulching the Tulsi patch until spring) that I want to try this winter. The person who grows it this way, helping it to overwinter, lives in Marin County which is definitely not the high desert, but I’m going to try it, allowing a blast of irrigation in warmer weeks and covering with even more mulch during the colder weeks.

Growing herbs at Rainshadow Farm does not look like traditional “herb gardens” from regions with moderate rainfall. The herbs here tend to be grown in patches where they can take advantage of roof, storm, or orchard and vegetable crop runoff.


Trees. Trees are my gardening passion, along with my favorite herbs. Trees can reduce evaporation and erosion of soil, improve soil quality by their root action, and help to regulate the temperature of the soil.

Growing fruit trees with a sense of well informed “abandonment” as described by Fukuoka can increase disease and pest resistance, enhance soil, and produce a yield, over time, equal to an agricultural system that uses chemicals and conventional placement of food crops. It’s not true abandonment – rather a minimization of human intervention while carefully observing the natural processes at work in the agroecosystem. You observe closely enough to develop a sense of how much intervention is too much.

Stone fruit (apricots, peaches, nectarines, plums) are supposed to do well in the high desert, as they don’t use as much water as many other fruit trees. In my experience, in this drought, apricots give a decent yield and nectarines need too much water to produce good fruit with less water. Surprising to me, one of our peach trees shows signs of bearing successfully. The other is too small to tell. I only have two peach trees because they were an unknown to me for high desert growing. Plums have not produced well here but I haven’t given up on them yet. I would like to graft a commercial plum onto a wild California plum. In fact, I’d like to simply grow a wild California plum and a desert wild peach, if only I could find a reliable source for those trees.

Our mulberry tree is doing very well and I would ideally like to add more.

Figs remain a possibility here. All things considered, our figs are doing better as shrubs than trees.

And pomegranates are a new addition.

Shrubs in the orchard include two species of Lycium (wolfberries) which produce a fruit that looks like a tiny, elongated cherry tomato. Both species are doing fairly well and neither is a local species, which is something I’m trying to find and establish.

Lycium fruit

Lycium fruit

I like a polyculture orchard. We have over 30 trees at any given time, doubles and triples of most varieties. In the high desert I wouldn’t want to risk everything on only one kind of tree. Naturally, if I were a commercial orchardist, I’d modify that stand. I’d grow a lot of jujubes and a few other fruit trees for household use.

So, yeah, jujubes. They thrive in drylands in Asia and they do well here. There’s a glut of them though. Within five miles of me, shall I number how many small orchards are jujube orchards? I have two jujube trees in this orchard and think I’ll want to cap it off at four. I enjoy them; no one else who lives here does. I may experiment with drying them, cutting them up, and using them in place of raisins. They do flourish in a dry land.

Asian pears do quite well, but the young trees are susceptible to wind damage. By wind damage I mean that without a windbreak the high winds will blow the young fruit off before it ripens.

Apples have been only passable. It may be that our trees are young. It may be the drought. I grew apples in abundance on another small high desert farm 20 years ago.

Honey mesquite yields is a great food crop if you can borrow a hammermill or buy a Vitamix. I have heard from reliable sources that a Vitamix will grind the pod and seed/bean into a fine flour.

We have the beginning of a mesquite orchard here. I’ll post later about the wonders of mesquite.

mesquite 2015

I have a small lemon tree that gets re-potted yearly and brought in through the cold months. It gives us a few (honestly, less than a handful) of lemons a year but it is worth the care we give it.

And finally grapes. Desert wild grape. It rules. Roger’s Red. Lovely with beautiful red foliage in the fall. It’s a hybrid between California wild grape (Vitis californica) and our everyday grape of commerce (Vitis vinifera). The grapes are small, seeded, and tasty. I purchased a small California Wild Grape plant at Rancho Santa Ana last weekend just to see if we can grow it here. If it flourishes I may be able to hybridize it with what’s left of my own commercial grapes. They have not fared so well as the native varieties through the drought.

rogers red

rogers red sept2015

What needful changes? Finishing off the mini-greenhouse for the winter, building a serious windbreak on the south side of the backyard, installing more garden spaces with strategically placed shaded zones. And none of this addresses the plans for native plants in the works: revegetation, alternative revegetation plans, and use of local native plants for food and medicine. Later on that.

I’ve been trying to set a windbreak of trees in place for five years. It’s not adequate. I need a wall. Adobe? Or maybe all of those used tires that everyone and his brother leave in piles in the desert? I may harvest all of those tires for a monster windbreak.

Posted in agroecology, climate change, dryland restoration, Nature, resilience, sustainability education, sustainable agriculture | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

on the bad days…

I was thinking of my life 10 years ago. Just 10 years ago. Another lifetime.

I was just past 50 years old. Felt very young. Felt like I was on my way.

Life was full. Lots going on.

My kids were (oh!) 8, 10, 12, 15, 16, 19, 22, and 27. Only one was married. My grandkids were so young. Some weren’t even with us yet.

I was moving full-speed toward a future I thought I knew. I had my wagon hitched to two stars, both men, both unreliable toward me, as it turned out.

One was on the homefront saying he loved me. Saying he was sorry. Saying we’d make it through. He was my lover, my husband, the father of all of those kids. I’d been with him 28 years at that time.

One was on the workfront saying he had a plan to get me tenured. Saying we might be business partners. Saying let’s write books and articles. He was my friend and my boss, essentially. His wife was my friend.

What was I thinking? Entangling myself so totally with two devious men?

I was thinking life was pretty sweet. Mostly. All of those “I’m sorry’s” were being said for a reason. That part was not so sweet. But I shoved that part aside, each time.

There were challenges. But I was used to challenges. There was deception. I was good at denial.

What did I really want 10 years ago?

There was a future I thought I could see that I wanted.

Minus the deception. Minus the bullshit. Minus the little clues I might have noticed, and chose to ignore, pushing on. I cushioned myself with my denial.

When did the facade really begin to crack? Not little cracks that I could easily patch, but the big cracks that ended up bringing it all down?

Which indiscretion, which affair was the breaking point at home? None. None, until the very end.

And at work? At work it came in stages too. Deep disapproval of my PhD program. That set me off-kilter. The words, “you’ll never be full-time” began to put an end to my denial at work. What finally pulled the comforting blanket of denial away from me was being summarily let go from the work I’d trained years to do. Oh, and being so easily replaced. My heart failed, literally, and I was shoved out into the cold on my own. No need to keep me around. No need for any of my skills. No need.

My judgments were so skewed.

At home things moved with subtlety. No, that’s wrong. Things were subtle and shocking at the same time. At home the apologies stopped. The current affair accelerated. Wrapped in my useless sense of shame, I thought I was stupid to miss the progress of a covert affair of four or five years duration. Believe me, that sense of shame is dissipating. It’s useless and not productive, not even attached to reality. Women sometimes feel we have to know everything that’s going on in our relationships even when we couldn’t possibly. I’ve been shamed by a few people who think I failed in my marriage because I didn’t see it coming. Let those people try raising eight kids, working from home, working from work. Let them try finishing two graduate degrees and begin a new sort of work direction. Let them try, let them work at sorting it all out, and then let them go fuck themselves.

At home, the coldness leaked out of his words, his attitudes, his eyes.

I was desperate.

Desperate how? To leave and to not leave. To make things right somehow. All at once.

There was the night he stood in a restaurant and insulted every person in my PhD program including my dissertation chair. That’s a story in itself.

Sure, I should have expected it.

And then there was the night he walked away. Away from me. Away from the kids. He let me go to work and he left, refusing to talk to the younger kids who were at home.

Eyes that were icy blue. Ice cube eyes, I thought. Ice cubes surrounding black holes.

I should be glad I escaped a black hole. Only part of my soul was sucked away into that void. Part of me was left here. The hoped-for future of a certain kind of happy family life, work worth doing – all stripped away.

But. I’m still here. Still standing, as we say. Still able to move into some kind of a future.

Some days I feel the shift. The adjustment to this new life. Sure, so much to be thankful for. And some days I feel lost. That’s the kind of day I woke up to. So much water under the bridge.

People say: let it go. I do that.

I don’t think about going back. But on the lost days, I stand here, puzzled.

Sure I have plans. I’m moving along. I’m loving. I’m letting it go.

These days, that’s the worst of it.

What’s the worst of it? Feeling lost. Being financially scared. Being vocationally disillusioned, deeply. Being older. And not much wiser but with a peace I had only rarely known as a married woman.

And when the bad day passes, how does this all shake out? Feeling found, feeling newborn. Knowing I can make it through somehow. Being older is just what it is. Maybe not much wiser but with a peace I had only rarely known as a married woman. Knowing when I’m happy, I’m not being resented.

So it could be worse, couldn’t it?

That desert moon, was it just last week?

That desert moon, was it just last week?

Posted in disability, family, gratitude, gray divorce, Life changes, resilience | Tagged , , , , , , | 6 Comments

thoughts on gardening in a desert in drought

Today I gathered and spread pine needle mulch for some of my plants that are surviving drought-in-the-desert.

Pine needle mulch helps the soil in some places in my yard retain moisture, protects plants and their roots from the intense sunlight, decomposes slowly releasing nutrients. I’ve heard the needles called pine straw when it’s used for mulch. It makes the soil a bit acidic which is a plus to any plants in this part of the desert. It makes a nice protective mulch in the winter too. I have a moderate supply because stone pines grow pretty well in this part of the high desert. I don’t have enough to spread it over the vegetable gardens, so I earmark the plants that it helps the most. Today that would be the Desert Wild Grapes, Roger’s Red grapes (they are still experimental here), and young elderberry shrubs. Tomorrow I’ll put the mulch around as many strawberry plants as I can manage. The rest of the strawberries will get more as the pine needles accumulate. Later in the season, I’ll give another dose to my woodland violets. Yep, I know they shouldn’t thrive here but along with several lilacs (possibly my favorite flowers, lilacs and violets), I’ve found ways to create microclimates that make them happy. And that makes me happy.

Desert Wild Grape

Desert Wild Grape

Roger's Red Grape, Vitis californica

Roger’s Red Grape, Vitis californica

Asian Pear

Asian Pear

Mission Fig, still surviving and bearing fruit.

Mission Fig, still surviving and bearing fruit.

As for vegetables, I’ve changed my thinking about how I’m going to grow them. Next year (unless I change my mind) I’m putting garden veggies into 5-gallon buckets with holes drilled in the bottom. Those I’ll gather around the patio. I’m devoting my prepared raised beds to herbs, my friend Bonnie’s high desert-adapted cherry tomatoes, and certain experiments. I’m going to continue planting chiltepines under mesquite shrubs/trees. In the small orchard, I’ll replace trees that die off in the cold winters and the hot, dry summers with native shrubs, shrubs or trees from similar semi-arid parts of the world, or only trees that have a proven track record for thriving here.

Elderberry, finally flowering this year.

Elderberry, finally flowering this year.

Manzanita flowers.  Maybe some fruit this year?

Manzanita flowers. Maybe some fruit this year?

The drought, if nothing, else, is pushing me out of my comfort zone with my gardening. I have always felt like an experimental gardener. In fact, that’s what I’ve been since I moved inland to the mountains and desert. But until this point in the drought, I was able to maintain confidence in regular (but water-saving) food gardening. The needle has clicked over into a new zone here. Did someone say hotter, drier, and windier?


garden kitchen window

I’ve got a garden/farm journal that was depressing me a bit over the summer, until today. Today I realized just how many plants are doing quite well in the harsh Mojave conditions. That’s what I need to build on. The drought has forced me beyond my thoughts about “how we can grow food in a semi-arid land” into a place where I am happy to consider a different kind of growing altogether. A different growing paradigm, as we used to say in grad school. And, you know, it isn’t necessarily a different paradigm at all. Most of the time it’s a different paradigm from east-of-the-Mississippi gardening but gardening informed by wiser, more ancient, very local traditions. Indigenous traditions. All the respect for anything that grows well here is due to those farming/gardening traditions.

Finally germinated, better late than never, chiltepine growing well under honey mesquite tree.

Finally germinated, better late than never, chiltepine growing well under honey mesquite tree.

And just because we like zucchini, we’ll do it differently than my friends in the Midwest do it.

Last year, 2014, zucchini in December.

Last year, 2014, zucchini in December.

Posted in agroecology, climate change, dryland restoration, ethnobotany, Nature, resilience, sustainable agriculture | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

emotional violence

Apparently we women aren’t talking about the devastation of being played as much as we could.

We would do well to share this kind of pain more, lest we think we’re alone when we are not.

To this day, I don’t know just how long I was deceived and used. I have a better idea than I did four years ago, but, really, I suppose I’ll never know for sure.

The article above is about as visceral a description of what it can feel like as any I’ve read. It certainly fits my own experience.

Here you go. What one woman said: “He created a fantasy persona for himself: the little boy lost. He uses it to trick women. And he targets the clever ones. He uses his looks to deceive women – not a good look but a hurt, vulnerable look. I used to think there was something more to it with him but now I think he’s just a piece of rubbish.”

I’ve experienced the little boy lost more than once. One man I lived with for some years and another I was married to for decades. I’ve seen this apparition in the workplace as well.

I’ve done my best to sidestep these individuals in the workplace and, honestly, I’m not seeing anyone these days, four years on from the moment my world was shattered into a million pieces. I suppose I’m forever going to hold a piece of my heart and myself close and away from any person I chose to see. I think that’s probably okay.

Think about it.

If someone made unilateral decisions that affected your health, financial security, and children’s well-being, if they deceived you (even in the presence of colleagues, therapists, children, grandchildren), if they physically and emotionally abused you over the course of a long relationship, if they exploited you sexually, if they left you and then began living with another lover, and then they proceeded to claim they were the victim of a divorce “they never wanted,” and they told a very mis-matched set of stories to some other people, including your own children, would you be content to say relationships are complicated and slather on the forgiveness for the gaslighting and other abuse?

I’m up to my eyeballs with people saying “forgive.”

Whatever I’m doing is helping me recover from a long term situation of abuse. If someone wants to call it forgiveness that’s fine. I call it living life. I’m quite done with people telling me that forgiveness is for me, not for him. I don’t need to forgive. I don’t even need to let go.

Fact is, I’m not all that angry anymore.

The water has gone under the bridge and it’s been flowing on downstream for quite a while.

20 Oct 04 013

It feels good to NOT define myself in terms of a partner. Through my entire life, I’ve rarely given myself the space to look at myself outside of some kind of primary relationship, aka “a partner.”

Life as a mother doesn’t define me completely either. Our relationships with our offspring are so dynamic that change in those relationships feels normal.

All of the “shoulds” encapsulated in my marriage became a trap. It may not be that way for you. I’m glad for you.

By the time I was able to end my marriage, I was living on a daily basis with disrespect, deception, and cruelty. I could see power being wielded over me by all kinds of expectations, including sexual expectations.

Coercive sex takes many forms in a woman’s life.

What’s life -affirming can get lost.

That water flowing downstream? I’m there. Plenty of debris has been left behind. I’m still here. I’m flowing on.

Posted in family, gray divorce, Life changes, resilience | Tagged , , | 8 Comments

drought, wildfire, and burning (freeway) bridges

The very dry summer of 2014 turned into the dry fall of 2014, just as the very dry summer of 2013 became the dry winter of 2013.

The very dry winter of 2014 became the dry spring of 2015 and now we’ve hit the very dry summer of 2015.

California’s in a severe drought. That’s news that isn’t news anymore.

Almost a decade ago, The UNIPCC predicted increasing and more severe wildfires for all of the western states. They also predicted unpredictability. What does that mean? The upshot is that climate forcing is going to bring extreme weather situations everywhere. Their most recent report talks about severe climatic events across every ocean and on every continent. Urban, rural, everywhere, all environments seem to be dealing with something horrific. Of course, poor people are going to feel the impact more and more suddenly than anyone. Deaths up; food security down. Coastal flooding is a fact of life in many parts of the world now, even creating “climate refugees” in some parts of the world.

We can already see differences in weather-disaster impacts upon rich and poor, young and old (and very young), healthy and sick, and men and women.

We have seen killer heat waves in Europe, terrible and widespread wildfires in Australia and the United States, severe droughts around the world, with associated drying up of Pleistocene aquifers, Earth’s precious groundwater.

We’ve seen flooding across the globe with parts of Asia and Africa extremely hard-hit. Record-breaking and often unexpected flooding has been occurring in the United States as well.

I think about this stuff a lot…maybe because I’ve studied it most of my adult life. I don’t particularly want to think about it. Maybe I’d rather think about beautiful fields of wildflowers or the sunset or the ocean with tides rolling in.

Even when I was doing lots of field archaeology, I had to consider it. As a paleoethnobotanist, I had to look at human subsistence patterns. How can you do that, write about it, and not extrapolate into what’s going on today? Or what the future may look like?

This weekend wildfire has been on my mind.

At the risk of exaggerating a bit, my town is on fire. The photo below was taken several miles from my place.

My son's friend's backyard, yesterday.

My son’s friend’s backyard, yesterday.

My town isn’t exactly a town, yet to anyone who lives here, well yes, it is. It’s the town we live in. It’s not incorporated; it’s a large tract of semi-rural county land in the southwestern Mojave Desert.

This happened on Interstate 15, less than 20 miles from my home.

Be sure to watch the video of the fire jumping Interstate 15, complete with exploding gas tanks and at least a score of burned out cars and two burned up semis. I couldn’t get it to embed in this post; it’s worth watching, it says a lot about the era of wildfires we’ve entered. Hollywood couldn’t improve on the imagery.

All of that action was less than 20 miles from my little farm. At one point, the fire looked like it was in our backyard. We could periodically see flames until the smoke covered everything. The fire line, I think, was maybe 10 miles away by yesterday evening.

View from Rainshadow Farm by Erin.

View from Rainshadow Farm by Erin.

My property was not in danger, but people near me were packing in case of evacuation. We were on the north side of the evacuation zone.

North fire sun

This was a very, very fast moving fire.

It was in chaparral which is a plant community that is specifically fire-adapted. Chaparral burns by nature. It needs to burn to keep growing. Some of the most beautiful places in southern California are covered with chaparral plants. People want to build houses there. We’re in a severe drought. Stands to reason that this might happen.

Still, it’s horribly fearful and tragic.

Another photo by Erin.

Another photo by Erin.

The UNIPCC continues to say increasing wildfires in the US West and other arid and semi-arid parts of the world are part of our new normal.

Continual wildfire.

I’ve been wondering since this current drought became apparent whether we might not enter a time of continual wildfire. Will fire season spread across the calendar and just become an ever-present risk in parts of California?

The place I’ve been calling home for over 30 years is seriously understudied. I’ve seen that as an archaeologist, as a drylands farmer, and in every way I could possibly see it.

Those of us who have been drawn, for our various reasons, to live here find one another and cluster. We may have nothing in common beyond living in this rather wild place, but we look at each other and already feel like we know something about the other person. It’s probably an illusion, but we entertain it.

We live in the midst of some huge presence. 25,000 square miles of endless sky, blowing dust, continual wind, wildfire in the hills, weird plants, and howling coyotes.

At night the stars spin over us.

The night sky can make me delirious, even after all of this time.

In the daylight sometimes it can feel as though there is nothing but us and that huge bowl of a sky. And the ravens.

Erin's raven.

Erin’s raven.

Sometimes the winds trouble me. I say it. Some of my older kids say it. Other old timers say it. (God, when did I become an old timer?)

The winds have increased. They blow more often and they are stronger. There is a new normal for the winds in the southwestern Mojave. New residents can’t see it. Meteorologists and climatologists don’t often talk about it.

What is this tiny piece of knowledge worth, really? The winds in the Mojave have increased in strength and duration? Not much, unless you deal with them in a hands-on way on a daily basis.

So that’s that.

I’ve spent nearly 35 years living here and I’ve gained nearly 35 years worth of local knowledge.

I continue to wonder whether I might want to leave.

I’ve said it before. A lot.

I tend to say it a lot during the hot months. During fire season.

It’s not an easy choice. So much of my life has been here. This indecision reminds me of my marriage. In this case, there’s a big difference. I doubt the desert will make the decision for me. I’m going to have to decide.

The desert is honest with me, that part is different, too.

I’m not very good at voluntary endings. I’m not inclined to be a bridge burner.

But the desert isn’t asking me to burn any bridges.

I finally know what a burned bridge looks like. I’m beginning to understand what it feels like. Well, more or less. And maybe I’m ready to leave.

I can’t really say right now.

Talk to me when the fire’s out. Better, talk to me when summer is finally over.

Posted in climate change, community, fire season, Nature, resilience | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

farming the desert?

No. Not really.

Yesterday I received a couple of messages on Facebook about “farming the desert.” I think it may have been because I have been posting internet links concerning California’s current and long-lasting drought. More than one inquiry that is suspicious of my activities out here in the wilds of the southern Mojave was enough to get me writing.

I am not any kind of typical farmer. I do not “plow up the desert.” I do not have an income stream from this place. I do not waste precious resources, knowingly or wantonly. Some nights I may be in the shower too long, but, hey, am I the only one? 😉

When it comes to the land I’m living on, I take as much care as I can. What I do is experimental agroecology.

We use the least amount of water that we can. We make changes regularly. I often think about leaving this land because it’s not easy. Maybe some day I will, but for now I’m here and this is what I do.

I’ve lived in this region for 34 years, in the high desert for 25 of those years. Before that I lived in a small southern California mountain town and before that the South Bay stretch of southern California. Before that, I was embedded in various landscapes east of the Mississippi. I’ve been a gardener nearly all of my life. I’ve been an extreme gardener for 25 years.

The Mojave Desert cannot sustain farming in any sense that most Americans think about it. In my part of the desert there is one operation that uses sound ecological approaches to grow organic meat commercially. Those folks do more with less than anyone I know and they produce a phenomenally healthy, ecologically friendly, and healthful product.

What I do is experiment, along with provide small amounts of food for myself and my family. I don’t raise any meat, but I do raise chickens for eggs. I have open-house farm days to discuss and sometimes experiment with ultra-small-scale food production. And we do other things at rainshadow Farm that are detailed on the Rainshadow Farm Facebook pages.

You could call what we do small-scale (or micro-scale) household gardening with some extras…in an arid place.

Like many of my friends, I have created and nurtured land spaces that do not invade the desert. In fact, we seek to maintain as much of the high desert ecology as we can. Here, at my place, I’m engaged with exploring the small scale use of desert native plant foods. I also do native plant restoration.

Vitis girdiana, desert wild grape: these used to grow along the Mojave River bed, probably do still in some places.

Vitis girdiana, desert wild grape: these used to grow along the Mojave River bed, probably do still in some places.

Elderberry:  grows wild all around us. Asian pear and apple in the background. In the far background, a cactus food garden.

Elderberry: grows wild all around us. Asian pear and apple in the background. In the far background, a cactus food garden.

Arctostaphylos glauca, Bigberry Manzanita:  a chaparral shrub we grow here.

Arctostaphylos glauca, Bigberry Manzanita: a chaparral shrub we grow here.

Honey Mesquite: part of our mesquite cluster. Planning a mesquite grove and hoping for a Vitamix blender to process the pods and seeds into flour.

Honey Mesquite: part of our mesquite cluster. Planning a mesquite grove and hoping for a Vitamix blender to process the pods and seeds into flour.

I have a few garden plots for seasonal vegetables, medicinal herbs, and flowers I love, including flowers that can also provide food (sunflowers of all kinds, nasturtiums, and in a microclimate woodland violets).





I keep a micro-scale orchard, experimenting with low-water fruit trees from arid parts of the world. I plan to do some tree grafting with native California fruit tree rootstocks. I use very little water in these endeavors. This is a problem for some plants and when it is I replace those plants with something else until I find varieties that thrive in the high desert with very little water.

Asian Pear: grows well in semi arid regions with some altitude in parts of Asia and happy here.  I've been growing Asian Pears for 25 years in this part of the high desert.

Asian Pear: grows well in semi arid regions with some altitude in parts of Asia and happy here. I’ve been growing Asian Pears for 25 years in this part of the high desert.

Mission Fig: best fig I've found for  our hot, dry summers and cold winters.

Mission Fig: best fig I’ve found for our hot, dry summers and cold winters.

Vitis californica "Roger's Red": not as study at our altitude as Vitis girdiana, but it still can do well.

Vitis californica “Roger’s Red”: not as study at our altitude as Vitis girdiana, but it still can do well.

Many of my friends do the same thing. We collaborate because it’s the best way to learn about growing a bit of food in a harsh landscape. I can understand why I might be suspect because I live in one of the most arid parts of drought-stricken California and some people want to find “who’s to blame.”

My friend Bonnie's high desert adapted cherry tomatoes.  Grow these using Bonnie's technique and you may have tiny, delicious cherry tomatoes that grow almost like perennials.

My friend Bonnie’s high desert adapted cherry tomatoes. Grow these using Bonnie’s technique and you may have tiny, delicious cherry tomatoes that grow almost like perennials.

So that’s our story.

Those of us who do this are searching for what works and what is the most ecologically sound way to do these things. Many of us began farming/gardening searching for ways to enhance our food budgets and to eat home-grown in ways that don’t damage our environment. If I lived in the Midwest or Mid-south for that matter, no one would bother to question me about my potentially wasteful water use. I’m not offended, really. It’s more like — if you trip my switch I’ll talk about this forever. So, please, trip my switch.

Posted in agroecology, climate change, dryland restoration, Nature, resilience, socioecological intelligence, sustainability education, sustainable agriculture | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments