Monthly Archives: December 2012

Burying My Dog

Living in a rural place was an exercise in accepting death. Speeding cars and trucks killed dozens of wild animals on the county road at the top of our property; I murdered pests to protect our crops; I killed chickens for food. None of this prepared me for burying my nine-year-old dog, Phynn.

A couple days after Christmas in 2006, I had gotten home from work around 5:30. After changing into “on the farm” clothes and boots I commenced to chipping ice from the path between the garage and the house. I’d had a stressful day at work, and driving the ice chipper into the ground over and over felt really good. Phynn was running around, enjoying the snow. Like any farm dog, she didn’t go far from the house, so when she saw I wasn’t going to play and abandoned me, I thought nothing of it.

Phynn was a smart, good dog. She didn’t chew up our shoes; she didn’t steal food; she stayed off the couches. She understood peeing outside the first day she came to live with us, at eight weeks old. You could speak to her in full, conjugated sentences. She left children and chickens alone—not because she didn’t want to bite them but because she understood we didn’t want her to bite them. She was up to any challenge—skiing, hiking, swimming. She was a good friend.

If Phynn was misbehaving, it was usually in the Forbidden Field. This small triangle of land was stranded by circumstance, belonging neither to us nor our neighbors but to a nearby gravel business. A glorified embankment off the highway, it was often the final resting place of deer and other animals that were hit by cars. It’s hard for a dog to ignore perfectly good roadkill just on the other side of the driveway. This wasn’t dangerous for her, just unsanctioned.

Phynn had been visiting the Forbidden Field a lot that fall. At first she was disappearing for twenty minutes or so, and then returning to the house to collapse on a rug with a bloated belly (I talk about this in Get Your Pitchfork On! in the “Country Dog Fun” chapter). One day, she brought home a nice, gory foreleg. Soon after, she had this odd-shaped thing that smelled like she’d extracted it from Satan’s anus—part of the spine. By that point, snow was falling and the deer was probably too decomposed to bury anyway, so we didn’t try to find it; we just scolded her and confiscated the pieces as they appeared. But she continued to visit.

What happened next is anyone’s guess—maybe there were living deer in the Forbidden Field and she started chasing one. Maybe a coyote ran her off the carcass. Maybe she ran a coyote off the carcass. In any case, while I was clearing our walk Phynn took the liberty of climbing up to the highway.

After a while, I called for her. I was ready to go back inside and make some dinner. Mike was still in Portland, visiting friends who’d had a baby.

It was unusual for Phynn to ignore me. I walked up the driveway a bit and called her, figuring she was debauching herself once again with this carcass. Highway 141, being a country road, is pitch-black at night, and we happened to live on a tight curve that elicited jake-braking from all the log trucks that rounded it.

I called for her again and listened. I heard a ka-thunk; the sound of someone throwing a good-sized stick at a car.

That couldn’t have been her, I thought. But, deep down, I knew it was. Shock set in immediately. I checked the other fields and then walked back to the house, intending, I think, to get a flashlight. Not thinking straight, I grabbed a penlight, one that could handle no bigger job than to change a fuse. When I got to the top of the driveway, it didn’t even illuminate the ground at my feet.

It would have been foolhardy to investigate further. Cars whooshed by at 50 miles an hour; their headlights whirled past me on the curve and their tires raised a cloud of dirty spray. I recalled that the wife of my neighbor, Pete, was struck and killed not twenty feet from where I stood, when she went after one of their donkeys that had gotten loose. I was afraid to take another step.

Maybe that wasn’t Phynn after all, I thought. Maybe she’s in the woods, or at our neighbors’. Though she never went into the woods or to our neighbors’ without us, I walked back to the house, made some soup and waited for Mike to return. When he pulled down the driveway and I didn’t hear her barking, dread resurfaced.

“Where’s Phynn?” Mike said when he came in the house. I told him what I knew.

“I saw something on the road,” he said slowly.

He paced while I finished my soup, but, really, there was no hurry. We already knew. We put a couple of towels in the truck and crawled up the driveway. I scanned the shoulder. Nothing … nothing …

There she was, lying on her side in the icy gravel. Mike carefully pulled in front of her and put the hazard lights on. We walked behind the truck. In the flashing red lights, I could see that her tongue lolled out of her mouth; yet another country thing I’d seen in cartoons as a kid and hadn’t considered actually happens. She was, mercifully, intact—no car had run over her and she hadn’t been there long enough for scavengers to get at her. Her eye was open and glossy black.

Cars occasionally whizzed by, slowing slightly when they passed us. We put Phynn’s stiff body on a towel and then hoisted her into the bed of the truck.

In the garage, we discussed where to bury her. I put a towel under her mouth to collect the blood that had leaked out, and examined her. Her back legs were bent in a run. I tried to collapse her front legs so it would be easier to bury her; one was broken.

We carried shovels to the top of the field. The soil, which set up like concrete during the summer, was mercifully pliable after all the rain and snow that had fallen. Only the very crust was frozen. The air was cold and clear.

We went back down to the garage and carried Phynn up using the corners of the towel she lay on. We took a couple of breaks on the way up the hill; the load was bulky and the snow slippery. Nothing interrupted the silence but an occasional car swinging around our bend in the road.

We put Phynn down next to her grave. I lay in the snow for a while, sobbing and petting her neck, until my legs became numb with cold, and then we laid her in the ground. We walked down to the quiet house.

The next morning, there was one perfect set of paw prints on the deck in the frost, facing the door, as if she had spent the night waiting for us to let her in.



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A Reason for the Season

Every December, my husband Mike and I go out into a stand of pine or fir trees, cut one down and bring it home. We carefully string lights on it and then, one by one, pull ornaments from a storage box and hang them. Many of them have a story, so we tell it. Some of them we’ve had since childhood. Then, arm in arm, we turn off the rest of the lights and enjoy this special, colorful monument.

But it’s not a Christmas tree—it’s a Solstice tree.

St. Nicholas ornament my mom bought for me when I was in college

St. Nicholas ornament my mom bought for me when I was in college

Mike's brother Luke made this one in 2002

Mike’s brother Luke made this one in 2002

Because I grew up with a lot of Jewish kids, I had some inkling of how overpowering Christmas might be. It was everywhere—in school, in the mall, in the doctor’s office, in the grocery store. Still, I didn’t fully appreciate the pervasiveness of this holiday until I tried to stop celebrating it myself a decade ago.

I had slowly morphed during my 20s and early 30s from a Catholic to an agnostic to an atheist, and decided that I’d rather celebrate the change of the seasons. I am more interested in the arrival of spring than the resurrection of a man, however honorable and wise a man he might be. And I am much more interested in the Earth’s turn back toward the sun than the alleged manger or stealthy fireplace spelunker.

The history of Christian efforts to supplant pagan celebrations with their own further fueled my interest in the original celebrations of December.

No problem, I thought. I will simply let my family know that I am celebrating Solstice instead of Christmas. I didn’t anticipate much pushback: Growing up, my sister and I received our stockings on Dec. 6 to celebrate St. Nicholas Day. My mom’s father was Dutch, and she grew up with this tradition (minus Krampus, thank goodness).

Friends near my old farm did the same. It was easier to make this announcement, as both sets of grandparents were thousands of miles away. The trick was coming up with an alternate mythology so their three children didn’t feel left out. They worked out the kinks of Solstice Magic with their first child, so by the time the other two were on the scene they had it dialed in: The night before Solstice they planted a “Solstice Egg” in a pot on the living room floor. That night, “Solstice Magic” came and turned the egg into a tree and presents!

I did not have children, so it would be even less complicated. I thought. My husband was game to celebrate Solstice, but he was less interested in relinquishing Christmas. My parents were used to me shrugging off mainstream culture, but there was no way Christmas was being discontinued. I only mentioned it peripherally to my in-laws in the Midwest—that would have been an exercise in futility.

For years, I struggled to re-educate myself. “Christmas” naturally came out of my mouth every time I referred to the tree in my house, the ornaments on it, or the presents beneath it. When people asked me what I was doing for Christmas or wished me a Merry Christmas, I had to decide whether to explain that I had jumped the Christmas ship.

This was, of course, magnified when we lived in the country. Portland is full of people with alternative religions and even alternate realities; celebrating Solstice barely makes a ripple in the pond. My rural colleagues were a different story. If someone wished me “Merry Christmas” and I said, “Oh, actually I celebrate Solstice,” I was lucky if I just received a stare of incomprehension. Worst case: I could see them quietly switching the dial in their minds from “Good Person” to “Suspicious Person.” I might as well have said that I worship a serial killer.

Suddenly, the plight of my former Jewish classmates became very real.

The bottom line, ten years later, is that I am just not very good at “worship” in any form. I don’t celebrate Christmas or Solstice in any real way—I simply think of my beautiful evergreen tree and its decorations as a celebration of life and our return to long, sunny days. I exchange gifts with my family—if they want to think of them as Christmas gifts, that’s fine with me. I don’t participate in Solstice labyrinth walks, set up an altar or sacrifice animals. I try to reflect on the passing year and create some intentions for the one approaching. Anything else would feel insincere.

Happy Solstice, and Happy New Year!

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Guest Post: On the Relocation Road

Helen Hiebert is one of my oldest friends in Portland (not that she is old—our friendship is!). We met because we had a friend in common who makes paper, and so does Helen—in fact, she teaches, lectures and exhibits her work internationally, and is the author of the books Playing With Paper, Papermaking with Plants, The Papermaker’s Companion, and Paper Illuminated. Helen is the vice president of the International Association of Hand Papermakers and Paper Artists and a regular contributor to Hand Papermaking Newsletter. Visit her website at

On the Relocation Road

By Helen Hiebert

My family and I moved to a resort town in Colorado (not exactly the country) in August. It isn’t something we really planned on doing, and although I like the idea of living on the land, I was not sure that it is something I would be well suited for. This is due to the fact that I am an artist, and running my own business keeps me busy enough (not to mention the family: two kids, a husband and a puppy).

We’d been living in Portland, Oregon, for the past 14 years and both of our children (and puppy) were born there. My husband Ted got a job offer in Avon, Colorado (where Beaver Creek Ski Vacation Resort is located), late last spring, and after weighing the pros and cons, it seemed like we should try it for two reasons:

  • We’d debated between Colorado and Oregon when we left New York City in the 1990s in search of a place to start our family.
  • It seemed like a good idea for one of us to have a stable income and benefits (Ted has been a freelance writer).

So, after a whirlwind visit in June (when we visited a few towns and saw a few schools) we decided to move.

Many decisions followed: Should we sell or rent our house in Portland? (We sold it.) Which school should we send our kids to? (We chose a charter school with an expeditionary learning philosophy, which has been okay so far, although different states have different learning standards, which has proven a challenge for our kids.) Where should we live? Ted moved out a month before we did and found a nice rental house in Eagle Vail (10 miles west of Vail and 2 miles east of Beaver Creek) that is within walking distance of the kids’ school.

So we’re settled, for now at least. But there is still the dilemma of when and where to buy a home here. That is, if we can afford to. Our rent here is double what our Portland mortgage, and homes in our price range are 10 to 30 miles away, which is another school district! But aside from the high rent, there are many perks to staying here: our rent actually includes most of our utilities (which can be steep in the winter; think “heat”); we don’t have a yard to tend to (no pitchforks in sight!); the kids can walk to school; so far we’ve managed with just one car (though there have been several conflicts); and we live between two of the nation’s premiere ski resorts!

In order to thrive here (while socking away a bit of money to help the kids go to college, pay for our retirement, etc.), I need to pull my weight in income. Thankfully, I’ve had a few projects lined up this year, including my newest book, Playing With Paper, which will be in stores January 1, 2013. I also travel to teach and lecture, which worked out pretty well when Ted was freelancing. Now that he has a full-time job, this has proven more difficult to coordinate with the kid’s schedules, especially since the Denver airport is two hours away.

A woman who was entering my information into the kids’ school database sent me a fan email after looking me up online. We got together, and she ended up offering to share her studio space with me in an old schoolhouse in Red Cliff (elevation 8,600 ft.; population 266). Talk about serendipity! We’ve split the space down the middle, literally. I cut out the carpet on my side so that I can get the floor wet. It is a bit awkward adjusting to a new space (I really liked my detached garage space in Portland), but I trust that things will continue to work out. I just have to be patient and let them unfold as they will.

Helen's studio in Portland

Helen’s studio in Portland

The schoolhouse in Red Cliff!

The schoolhouse in Red Cliff!

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¡Fire in the Barn!

Our barn was beautiful. It had a good shape; it was nicely weathered. It perched on the edge of the level building site and loomed over the lower third of our land, which dropped quickly toward the White Salmon River. People took their pictures in front of it when they visited. A woman my spouse knew, named Alicia, even wanted to shoot a music video there in the summer of 2009 for a band called The Builders and the Butchers.

Picturesque barn in the morning sun!

Picturesque in the morning sun!

The sticky part was that we’d already accepted an offer on our place—we were moving out in just a couple of weeks. But we liked the band, so we agreed. Mike told them, “You can do anything you want; just don’t burn down the barn.” This was no idle proviso: summer’s crispy-dry conditions and strong winds necessitated an annual burn-ban in our county. This meant no open flame of any kind.

The shoot was a serious affair—costuming, props, food services and the whole shebang! Our urban guests were considerate but did not appreciate the gravity of the fire situation. One spark from those leaky, antique kerosene lanterns would have leveled the barn, the fields and possibly the entire valley in minutes. I liked the band’s music but had never met them personally. They were all dressed up like gothic gangsters and looked pretty formidable.

On a post-shoot walkabout on Saturday, Mike and I found cigarette butts in the field. I didn’t sleep very well that night, racked with anxiety. The next morning, there was a stern all-staff meeting before shooting could resume.

In the end, nothing burned down. During the scene in the barn in which they’re starting to fight and the lantern wobbles a bit on the table, I shudder, but it all worked out. Some behind-the-scenes side notes:

  • When the fellas are entering the barn, there are ten chickens roosting just off camera.
  • I have to hand it to the Vivian Girls (in the yellow dresses) for sprinting up the hill toward the barn—it was really steep!
  • The duckweed-encrusted pond near which that troll lives is the one I talk about a few times in Get Your Pitchfork On!—the one that once held trout and that was threatening to flood during our springtime “water events.”

I’m glad we invited them out, because it gave us a chance to get to know the members of the band and of the production crew, many of whom are still friends! I hope it doesn’t ruin The Builders’ reputation as badasses to say that they are super-nice guys. Here’s the video; enjoy a peek at our old barn!

“Golden and Green”

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Celebrating 40 Years of The Encyclopedia of Country Living

Long before ever stepping foot on the seven acres my husband and I ended up buying in the Columbia River Gorge, we were armchair back-to-the-landers. While improving my gardening skills in backyard beds in the city, my primary go-to books were Barbara Damrosch’s The Garden Primer and Carla Emery’s The Encyclopedia of Country Living. Carla’s book was particularly loved—not only was it chock-full of information, but her writing style and personality were infectious. Dozens of times, I would go to look up a specific thing and end up reading for a half-hour.

The Encyclopedia of Country Living was a major influence when I decided to write Get Your Pitchfork On!. At first, I had no intention of trying to compete with it, or the dozens of other back-to-the-land books. But once my husband and I actually moved to the country, I realized that there were 21st-century gaps in Carla’s book. There were also swaths that were quaint but unnecessary, unless one were really signing up for primitive living. Which we were not.

None of this diminished my respect and love for The Encyclopedia of Country Living. And I’m not alone. The Internet is home to hundreds of tributes to Carla, from both before and after her death in 2005. It pains me that I never got to meet her.

However, I have the good fortune of knowing someone who did—Roberta Dyer, co-owner of Broadway Books in Portland, Oregon.

Carla began her publishing legacy in the early 1970s with a notice in the back of country-life magazines, advertising An Old-Fashioned Recipe Book. She immediately received responses and was a little taken aback because, well, she hadn’t written the book yet. She sent her investors the part she had written with a promise that she would continue to send chapters as she finished them. And so The Encyclopedia of Country Living (its eventual title) began—as a serial publication.

Carla typed out the manuscript and mimeographed the pages at her dining room table. Each chapter was printed on a different color of paper. She bound it with plastic-coated copper wire. Her friends would come over and help her hand-collate the monstrous editions.

Roberta met Carla because Carla had filled her family’s station wagon with thousands of mimeographed, hand-collated and -bound copies of An Old-Fashioned Recipe Book and started driving around the country, trying to sell them and get on television. At the time, Roberta was a book buyer for the popular retail chain, J.K. Gill. When Carla arrived her office, Roberta wasn’t sure what to make of her.

“She was all country,” Roberta recalls. “She practically had a calico dress on.”

While it wasn’t an act, Carla was media-savvy. She had gone to graduate school in New York before meeting her first husband, Mike, and moving to Idaho with him to start a homestead and a family. She brought her kids to promote her book. She once drove a goat (pygmy, I can only assume) to New York and, Roberta heard, sat in front of Gene Shalit’s office at The Today Show and refused to leave until he would talk to her. He did.

“I was impressed with [the book] because it was this thick!” Roberta holds her finger and thumb far apart. “It contained every tiny little bit of country-living advice that she had experienced; she just wrote everything down. She did her laundry in a washtub in the back yard! She was so tenacious.”

J.K. Gill carried the handmade copies, with their purple ink and mimeograph smell and copper-wire bindings. Roberta referred to her copy when she was canning and, like I have, found herself reading the stories.

Because the book was written in so many stages, it covers a vast swath of her adult life. In some sections she has two children, in some seven. In some she and Mike are working together on a project. In some, she has divorced him.

On our land, I referred to Carla’s book every time I turned around. How do I build a gate? How do I grow rutabagas? When a quail flew into our patio door and died, I whipped open The Encyclopedia of Country Living to figure out how to dress it.


There are still quail feathers in our copy!

I wrote myself notes so I would remember specifics in addition to her advice.

Notes for canning tomatoes

Notes for canning tomatoes

“[Carla] made me think differently about things,” Roberta says, “like she didn’t believe in washing clothes very much, and she sort of welcomed hard work.”

Every once in a while, Carla would return to J.K. Gill with her long hair and her outdated dresses to sell more books. This was a time when hippies were prevalent, so having long hair was not that outlandish. But Carla was not a hippie; she was a pioneer.

“I think [the book] was picked up by Bantam because it was the popular thing, the back-to-the-land movement, but she was not after that herself,” says Roberta. “They sort of turned her into a goddess of that movement, but it wasn’t her interest. She was very practical.”

After three years of entrepreneurship, Carla had a proper publisher; now she could go back to Idaho and live her life instead of marketing it. But there was no denying its momentum. Bantam printed 200,000 copies from 1977 to 1981 in six print runs.

Even a published book has a life of its own; Carla was constantly negotiating with first Bantam, and then Sasquatch Books, about rewrites, indexing and illustrations. She welcomed feedback from her readers, and even included much of their input in subsequent editions.

As time went on and Carla’s audience grew, she never lost sight of what made her happy—self-sufficiency on the land.

“I was born and raised in a small town,” says Roberta. “[Carla] was the genuine article.”

Kristy, Roberta and Carla at Broadway Books

Kristy, Roberta and Carla at Broadway Books

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