The bear lived in this singed grove, about 30 feet from the cabin


The muddy print on our porch measured 6.5 inches. Smaller than our neighbor, so it was a different bear.

We hear a shuffling, then see a movement in front of us, a shape on the boulder less than five feet from us. A furry foot is reaching from the rock to the deck. A big furry foot. Attached to a bear. Seems he’s planning on coming onto the deck.

“Shoo!” I shout. Seriously, this works on black bears. He probably weighs three times as much as me, even though he is fairly small—he looks like he is only a year or two old. Plus he has some pretty serious claws going on. Still, he runs away when I yell at him. He trundles up the hill toward the shed then stops, turns, and looks at me, wondering if I am serious. “Shoo!” I shout again, clapping my hands. This time he lumbers all the way to the road. He stays there and watches us. I yell at him again. He stays put.

He’s the mangy fellow who has invited himself to be our neighbor, moving in within throwing distance of the cabin, in a cove of trees that dips into the creek. His coat is dirty beige and looks like the stuffing from a 100-year-old mattress. But he usually leaves us alone. When we work outside, he calmly grazes in the grass just yards away from us, barely paying attention to us. Until now, we’ve not appeared to be worth his time.

I shout at him again. “Get out of here!” He looks at me. Shrugs. “Shoo! Get!” He finally bumbles down the road, muttering to himself, his ratty butt swaying with each step.

The next morning, we find a muddy paw print right next to our door, facing the cabin. The other print is about five feet up the wall.  We measure them: 6.5 inches. Smaller than the bear we saw, so it was probably a different one. After that, we lock the door at night.

NOTE: This is an excerpt from a book I am writing about the East Peak Fire, tentatively titled Burn Scars. Read more about it on my Books page.


IMG_3144Our cabin is roughly the size of a two-car garage—20X24-feet—with a deck across most of the front. The giant hollyhock took us about a decade to grow, using seeds from my sister Phyllis’s yard in Pueblo.  It seems happy in it nest next to the rock our neighbor Harold hauled out of the meadow for us; the rock is about 8 feet long and is excellent for little boys to climb on and snakes to live under. My husband, Joe, made the pergola at the far right out of boards from the original deck or son, Josh, and I built more than 20 years ago. Joe also made the swing and the wooden Adirondack chair.  We got the awning four years ago, right after the fire. Because we are remote and our road is unimproved, we had to meet the UPS driver at our mailbox about three miles away and transfer the awning into Mr. Green Jeans, our Toyota 4Runner and schlep it up to the mountain ourselves. We have four small solar panels on the roof that provide 360 watts of power, enough for not much. The cabin and the trees immediately surrounding it were saved by firefighters, angels with picks and hoses.



Our neighbor Dave called to warn us about the fire at about 6 p.m. June 19, 2013. It began at the Spanish Peaks Scout Ranch, about a mile from our little handmade cabin south of Walsenburg, in the foothills of the East Spanish Peak. We had evacuated by 6:20.

The fire was ultimately named the East Peak Fire and it burned more than 13,000 acres of nearby forest. Ten homes and four outbuildings were lost, including our closest neighbors’ log home.

Thanks to the firefighters, our cabin was fine. Our mountain was not. Wildfire Today has details, photos, and maps of the fire here.




Our mountain valley, in the shadow of the East Spanish Peak in southern Colorado

The Japanese have a concept called shinrin-yoku, roughly translated as forest bathing. It originated in 1982 when the country’s forest agency began to encourage wellbeing to combat the threat of suicide in Japan, which at that time was the highest in the world. The idea is to walk deliberately and slowly in the woods, observing, breathing, and appreciating. The result is a drop in blood pressure and in cortisol, a stress hormone.

Our walks in this land are pure shinrin-yoku. We bathe in the light, the air, the calm of nature.

The views are everything as we hike: vast stretches of mountain grass, thick forests, rock outcroppings. And, always, the mountain. We sometimes run into elk and bears along the way. They always dash off when they see us, elegant and silent.

The silence of the land is one of the things I treasure most here. It’s so quiet we can hear the grass rustle in the wind on the other side of the meadow. No cars, no cellphone conversations, no bass sounds from some kid’s stereo, no blasted leaf blowers. Conservationists are fighting to preserve America’s wild spaces to quiet the country’s jittery nerves. The quality of what they call our “soundscape” is a measure of our stress. Quiet places in nature, with their soothing background sounds of bird chirping and water trickling and wind rushing through the trees, are calming. Cities are perpetually tense. Our land, I believe, is one of the quietest places on earth.

NOTE: This is an excerpt from a book I am writing about the East Peak Fire, tentatively titled Burn Scars. Read more about it on my Books page.

It’s 2 a.m. and I am working at a hotel desk in Postojna, Slovenia. I am a college professor from Iowa and I know only halting Slovene, but should anybody need help at this hour, I have all the vocabulary I might need: ne vem and ne razumem—I don’t know and I don’t understand.

Jure, the regular desk clerk is at the train station picking up two of my students who misunderstood the schedule and ended up getting here in the middle of the night instead of yesterday afternoon with the rest of us.

Outside the plate glass window I can see buses that have brought tourists here from Germany and The Netherlands. I pray all those people stay asleep in their rooms above me.

The town’s one taxi driver doesn’t work the graveyard shift, so I convinced Jure to pick up my tardy students.

“But who will take care of the hotel?” he asked.

“I will,” I answered.

“What if somebody needs help?” he asks.

“You will be gone only a few minutes,” I answer.

He finally agrees.

We talk at about 10 p.m., after which he tells me to go up to my room and sleep. He will call me when it is time for the train to arrive and for me to take over the desk. I cannot sleep for worry. What if Kate and Jennifer aren’t on the train after all?  What if they’ve been robbed or attacked? What if, what if? Read the rest of the story here, on my Psychology Today blog.

PHOTO: Southern Colorado’s East Spanish Peak four years after the East Peak Fire

I had just come back from a discouraging walk, full of reminders of the beauty we lost in a forest fire four years ago, and I sat down with my tea to browse Facebook. The photo of the clear ocean off Key West’s coast caught my eye. “The azure waters are returning,” wrote the person who posted the shot, a week after Hurricane Irma. That image has stuck with me, an image of hope and revival. I know from personal experience that such hope in the face of a natural disaster is essential, a bit of blue sky popping out of black clouds.

But I now believe we sometimes go too far and send the message that things are healing nicely when they simply aren’t. In so doing we normalize tragedy and allow those not affected to shrug it off and get back to their coffee or wine or orange juice, or whatever crop hasn’t yet been decimated.

Telling only the good news can create an incomplete and misleading story: that this was just a little aberration, nothing to worry about here. Just move on. The people in California will rebuild. Elon Musk will create a new electric grid for Puerto Rico. It will be better than new.

I don’t think so, but I do think it’s much easier for us to believe that than to face the fact that huge swaths of the American landscape have been destroyed and the land and its people are hurting and will be for years, perhaps forever.

I have juggled this good-news-versus-real-news world since the fire in 2013 that devastated our beautiful mountain valley in southern Colorado. Nearly 70 percent of the trees on our 200 family-owned acres burned, and the fire was so hot the soil itself turned waxy and water-repellant. Foresters call this hydrophobic soil, literally meaning “afraid of water.” Before the fire, we’d had a drought; after, we had floods. The blackened earth was a magnet for torrential rains that saturated our phobic soil and, with no trees and bushes to slow down the water, our tiny creek became a wild river full of burned husks of trees, clumps of grass, mud, even rocks. Read the full article here, on my Psychology Today blog.