Stellar’s Last Days: Letting Go

In some moments, he seems just fine. He ambles through the woods as he always has, led by his nose. I’m grateful that his nose still knows what’s where: I can rely on his nose to indicate something of interest, something that might necessitate my attention. I can no longer rely upon his ears, for his hearing is routinely 180º off: I call him from one side, and his ears perk and he turns the exact opposite direction of where I am, looking. It’s okay. It just means I have to keep him close to me on walks that I can chase him down, and not lose sight of him. I can no longer rely on his eyesight: unless I’m moving, he can lift his nose from the ground and scan for me and not see me, even when I’m directly in front of him. It’s okay. It just means I need to remain always in his sight, and adapt to his new normal.

We all three enjoyed a nice walk this morning, rambling through the south woods and sagebrush; and we took another walk this evening. While Stellar ambled in the woods, Topaz rolled in the dirt closer to me, then threw her ears back, before zipping off ahead of us both. And then, Stellar was no longer fine.

He was sniffing, and turning, and his feet got tangled up, as they do more and more often. Down he went. Usually, he can get himself back up, but not this time. He waited patiently for me to make my way to him. I’ve taken to walking always with a scarf on, so I can sling him up with it if necessary, but this evening, I had just showered, and changed into a loose dress, and it was so mild I forgot to put anything else on. Often, if I can reposition his feet, he can get up on his own, which fortunately was the case this time, though it took a couple of tries and a little extra lift from me.

I love you so much, without attachment.

I have to say it like this, because I see him slipping away more and more clearly. I realize that recently I’ve been resisting something that may not happen. I’ve been fretting about when it might be time to put him down. I’ve been experiencing sorrow, with resistance rather than with acceptance. I keep thinking I’m accepting it, and then there’s another layer. Each time we reach a new level of his infirmity, I resist for awhile before surrendering, and adapting my mind to his increased needs. When I finally do that, I’m still sad, but I suffer less and can enjoy him more. I may never have to make that painful decision for him. He may live comfortably until he just up and dies in his sleep, or in my arms like his sister did. Like my mother did, for that matter.

I’m grateful for a buddhist friend’s words of wisdom this afternoon. She shared advice from a visiting tulku, who essentially gave permission for contemporary buddhists to euthanize a pet when one could be clear that it was the animal who was suffering the most, and not oneself. And she said, “Your whole life right now is about his dying.” It’s true. I’m grateful for that understanding. And I can’t get impatient about it. This is my life right now, and it’s a worthy, meaningful process. One day he’ll be gone, and my life will be about something else. For now, I’m grateful for a daily practice of moment-to-moment letting go.

I’m grateful for sprinklers of many kinds, and for the water they use to make plants grow to provide for insects and birds.

I’m grateful for the friend who gave me the Max sunflowers who grow like a weed when I water them, for the sprinkler that brings the water, for the pipes and tunnels and machines and people involved with delivering the water, for the bees and other creatures that derive sustenance from these fall-blooming sunflowers.

I’m grateful for the tomatoes that grew from tiny seeds planted with care and nurtured into seedlings, watered and trimmed and tended into astonishing huge vines full of luscious fruit: Pizzutello, Brandywine, Maritza Rose, and Amish Paste.

I’m grateful to have had the best UPS driver ever for fifteen years, and since the new guy doesn’t bring cookies, I’m grateful for the inspiration that struck me this afternoon to put a cookie for Stellar on top of any packages left by the gate. He’s very confused as to why there are boxes sometimes but no more cookies, and he looks for them. He struggles up from bed if he hears the UPS truck, but no longer bothers to announce it, or even go see what’s happening; he doesn’t understand why his friend Tom isn’t leaving him a treat. Now, Stellar can still believe til his dying day, because now there’s Santa Tom!

Autumn Equinox

Aspen forests begin to turn gold on the slopes of Mendicant Ridge. I’m grateful to have enjoyed another full day of life today, three full seasons into this gratitude practice. And grateful, as always, to have spent this day in the company of this sweet old dog, and these ancient junipers.

La Luna

The Moon. This was two years ago in spring, March 20, 2019. A year before the world changed with the Covid-19 pandemic. People think it’s over, but it’s not. It’s a new normal, because we as a species have chosen not to change our behaviors. We are attached to having what we want, when we want it, and we’re not going to let go of that no matter what incentives get thrown in our way. Climate chaos? Let’s get what we can from the planet and the future be damned. Pandemic? Fuck limits, I’ll keep living my life the way I want to. Individual responsibility, right? I’m grateful for the steady rhythm of the moon.

Harvest moon through junipers on morning walk

I’m grateful to have woken up alive this morning, and gotten outside with Stellar before the sun was up, before even the moon went down, the Harvest Moon. It’s ‘the solstice,’ as the radio said this evening, though they meant the autumnal equinox. It was a spectacular day here in western Colorado. Bluebird sky, few clouds, very little climate crisis haze, bright sun, cool breeze, the perfect fall day. I heard the first sandhill cranes this evening, heading south along the east flank of Mendicant Ridge, where the highest aspen groves are just now turning golden.

Still grateful for fire, which I lit again this cold, fresh morning…
Grateful for the last strawberries, the ancient plate, the stale croissant enhanced with melted chocolate.

My goal today was to get through it with no regrets. Not sure I managed that, due to my choices, but no lasting harm done I’m sure. It’s such a dance: just navigating a day can be exhausting. I took pretty good care of myself and my dependents, and sometimes that’s the best I can do. The low was 36℉ near the house; half the cantaloupe leaves died back, and a few other tenders took a hit in the garden, but it wasn’t a hard frost and we’ve got another few weeks of mild growing weather. Pesto was on the agenda but won’t happen until tomorrow–that’s a regret but I’m too tired to worry about it now. I’m grateful for authentic connection and shared joy, for friends who know me, for a genuine sense of belonging.

Fire

Tonight I’m grateful for the first fire in the woodstove this fall. It was a cooler day by almost twenty degrees than yesterday; the house never really warmed up. Tonight there’s a frost warning for the mountains. We’ll probably see mid-thirties here, before it warms a bit tomorrow, and nights return to more seasonable high forties. Overnight, it’s autumn. I cut all the basil, which was just about to flower anyway. Tomorrow is pesto making day. I hope everything else survives. I brought Biko inside.

Today I canned six small jars of tomato salsa, using just one Thai dragon pepper for two pounds of tomatoes. I didn’t grow jalapeños, so checked the Scoville chart for equivalents with what I’ve harvested. Chimayos, the larger peppers in the picture, rate 4000-6000, “right in the meaty middle of the jalapeño pepper range; they land on the milder side of medium heat. A Chimayo will always be hotter than the mildest jalapeño, but it also won’t spike in heat as some jalapeño plants can.”

Thai Dragon peppers starting to ripen

The Koszorú Paprika peppers rate 30,000-50,000 Scoville units, and the Thai Dragons rate 50,000-100,000. These two differ subtly in shape and can be hard to tell apart off the plant. On the plants they’re unmistakable: the Thai Dragons grow in straight up clusters, the paprikas hang down singly. I tasted a tiny bit of a Chimayo. It was way too mild. I tasted a tip of paprika. Not nearly hot enough. I sliced a sliver of Thai Dragon. YOW! It was just right. I’m grateful for fire, in the right place at the right time.

Breath

I’m grateful for my own breath, and for the breath of the forest. This morning, after a quarter inch of rain last night, we walked through the woods, and I chanced to turn and see backlit by the rising sun, the respiration of a juniper tree. Or so it seemed to me. With each exhalation the tree released a mist. I’m grateful to live at a pace where I am able to notice such quotidian natural phenomena, and grateful that my old dog makes sure I get out to walk early in the morning.

I’m grateful, too, that he make sure I get out and walk in the evening, when we go search for Mr. Turtell, which is what Stellar calls Biko. Find Turtell, I tell him, and he trots off ahead of me around the yarden perimeter. He almost always finds Biko on the first circuit, and gets rewarded with a handful of treats. Sometimes he’s a bit vague, and I encourage him, Show me! Then he will bounce on his front feet and bark, to make sure I know which sagebrush to look under.

I’m grateful after twenty years to have come to understand a bit of a tortoise mind; grateful to live with a keeper of slow time. Biko is like a sundial, reliably tucking in under a sagebrush or juniper where the last rays of light will fall in a day, and/or where the first will come in the morning. Over the years I’ve learned to look in certain places certain seasons. In a yard full of late afternoon shade, see how he has parked himself where he’ll get the longest, last rays of sun. My knowledge of his habits, and Stellar’s help, will be increasingly important over the next few weeks as temperatures approach Biko’s threshold. Tomorrow, the forecast is a low of 38℉, just below his tolerance of 40º. We’ll go for a turtle hunt around five, and bring him inside until morning. I’m grateful for the arrival of autumn, with its breath of fresh air.

The Best Neighbors

It’s been a loooong time since I’ve hosted a dinner here. Pre-Covid, there were dinners almost every week in our neighborhood, sometimes just a few people, often a crowd. Holidays, we took turns hosting potluck feasts for a dozen or more. It was lovely. It was exhausting. It’s been nice to have a break from the social whirl, but I wanted to show my gratitude for my closest neighbors, who contribute to my life in ongoing ways, as well as always being there if I need something: a tree diagnosed or pruned, a few teaspoons of cinnamon, a drain snake… I’ve been trying to make this dinner happen since spring, but between all of our schedules, some of their travels, my hand injuries, and other impediments, it took all summer for us to plan on this one evening.

Of all the Saturdays in this summer of drought for it to rain, it had to be this one! But we did get a break just long enough to sit outside and enjoy hors d’oeuvres and cocktails, wine and dinner. My preparations began shortly after sunup, when I dug some Yukon gold potatoes, picked a couple of peppers and the second (and last) zucchini of the season, and snipped the only cilantro left along with some parsley. The rest of the day I spent in the kitchen.

Not only was there dinner to prepare, but I was a day behind on canning, so made a batch of salsa verde this morning.

I roasted the tomatillos, onions, garlic, and pepper. The recipe called for two Serranos, but I couldn’t find those I’m sure are deep in the freezer, so I looked up heat equivalency, and used a single Thai dragon instead. I’m grateful to have figured out that it’s easier to shuck the tomatillos after they’ve sat in a bowl of water for five or ten minutes because it’s a tedious process anyway.

Then I prepped the Tex Mex pot roast, with onion, tomatillos, tomatoes, garlic, and a couple of chopped Chimayo peppers, all but the onion from the garden. I’m grateful for a beautiful cast-iron Dutch oven, just what was called for to slow cook the meat for the afternoon. While the meat braised, I made dessert.

Whoever heard of black cocoa? These Faux-reos from King Arthur Baking were such fun to make, and a big hit after dinner. The filling called for vegetable shortening, but that also has been disappeared from the pantry by gremlins, or perhaps house elves, so I was forced to use butter. This required extra confectioners’ sugar to make the filling stiff enough not to squish out, so I ended up with a tennis ball size of leftover icing. I’m sure I’ll think of something to do with that!

And then it was time to turn my attention to the Sonoran-style potato, tomato, and cheese soup. Using potatoes, cherry tomatoes and herbs from the garden, Queso Blanco cheese and a couple of other ingredients from Farm Runners, I bubbled up a tasty and unusual soup; adding groups of ingredients at carefully timed intervals, and then ladling the final soup over cheese cubes in the bottom of each bowl.

I’m grateful for a full and meaningful Saturday, grateful for the rain that gave us the perfect window to sup together before coming down again; grateful for the bounty of the garden, and for exciting recipes a few clicks away in any moment. I’m grateful that when I served the Faux-reos, Fred called up the Oz monkey song and the rest of us all joined in–grateful for that harmonious moment of shared culture spontaneously expressed, even though it took some discussion to come to consensus that it was from Oz, and not Snow White or Lord of the Rings. I’m grateful for easy laughter and connection with beloveds. Stellar was beside himself with excitement to have dinner guests, including his little pal Rocky. We’re both grateful for the best neighbors in the world, and the opportunity to show a small measure of our gratitude through preparing and sharing food.

Stellar’s Last Days: a Stroke?

It was a beautiful morning. I’m grateful that Stellar and I got to enjoy a half-hour ramble off our usual trails, just for a change of pace. He’s doing really well considering he suffered some sort of neurological incident last weekend. You can tell by looking at his left eye, how both lids droop. It was just my best guess, until Karen asked Dr. Dave to check out this and a couple other pictures. His response was:

“The issue would appear to be a neurological one. The two most likely causes are stroke and a viral infection of the nerve supplying the eyelid. Other possibilities are a tumor near the nerve, or a traumatic incident to the nerve. Similar lesions in the brain can cause  signs as seen here. In any case palliative care is probably the treatment of choice as there are possibilities of recovery with no treatment.”

I am so grateful for the support and input from these friends, who despite such busy lives of their own took time to consider my concerns for my dear dog. I’m grateful for the bonds of community and friendship, that can lay dormant for a long time and wake when needed at a moment’s notice.

Meanwhile, we’re still contending with the hindquarter weakness, notably in his right leg, which tends to turn out and is often unable to straighten under him. But he’s a stoic, noble animal, and he keeps dragging himself up and out whenever I ask if he wants to go for a walk. Once he’s out the gate his nose takes over, and he joyfully sniffs his way through the woods, intermittently looking back for me and adjusting his course to mine. I’m grateful for his perseverance, his devoted companionship, and his unconditional love and acceptance.

I’m grateful for the beauty around me, whenever I take time to turn my attention to it. This evening, sun lighting the sprinkler caught my eye. Though the camera couldn’t quite capture the glitter of it.
I’m grateful for this and all the other trees I live among. I’m grateful for trees in general, and for all the new scientific insights and understandings currently arising about just how sentient and interconnected they are. As my heart breaks for all beings in the path of wildfires, I feel especially concerned for and attached to the idea of the giant sequoias now threatened by the Paradise Fire in Sequoia National Park. I’m grateful, though, that this little patch of trees where I live survived another day without burning up.

Sourdough

An unprepossessing substance, but so rich in meaning and purpose. Like a lot of things.

Not only sourdough, but so many other things I’m grateful for today. However, sourdough was a good way to wrap up yesterday and begin today.

I started these sourdough cinnamon buns yesterday afternoon, making the dough from starter that Ruth gave me many years ago. I’m grateful for the gift of this ‘mother’ that has kept on giving for these many years, just as the friendship has. I’m grateful for friends who can go a year without speaking and pick up right where we left off. I’m grateful for this fermenting dough starter that Ruth shared with me, and I’ve kept alive in my refrigerator for… how many years? And grateful that I’ve been able to share it with other kitchens in the valley.

The dough was super sticky, and I added a lot of flour on the board as I pressed it out to the right size rectangle…

I let them rise overnight in the mudroom, which cooled down to around 60 degrees F. Then I brought them into the house and put them in the sun to warm up for a couple of hours before baking. They came out so light and fluffy, and doubled in size before I put them in the oven.

While they were rising, Stellar and I walked to the canyon rim. He was having a good morning. The cottonwoods nourished by the seep are starting to turn yellow, though it’s hard to see in this picture. Soon enough! I’m grateful that the Best Boy Ever has made it to another autumn!

The sourdough cinnamon buns came out perfectly! And then frosted, with coffee… a morning to be grateful for being alive.

I’m grateful for the work, the reading, and the correspondence that filled my day between breakfast and homesteading in the afternoon. I’m grateful even in receipt of unfortunate news from a dear friend, because he chose to deliver it to me himself, in a heart-touching phone call, rather than let it catch me by surprise on social media. I’m grateful for our adventures together through the years, our lasting connection, our special photographic bond; grateful that our friendship transcends the mundane challenges of space and time.

I’m grateful to have harvested the last large cucumbers, and put them in pickling brine this afternoon. The secret ingredient is a horseradish leaf in each jar. There were a couple of leaves leftover, and a couple of cucumbers just a day too old to pickle. Something different for them, tomorrow…

And then it was time to can a round of tomato sauce. Using a mix of Amish Paste and Pizzutello fruits, I roasted them just enough to loosen the skins so I could pinch them off, then mashed the tomatoes into sauce in the Dutch oven, with dried herbs and garlic granules.

Finally, at ten p.m., I hung up my apron and sat down to rest, listening to those gratifying pops, one lid… two… three, four… five… … … and finally six. Six sealed jars of garden fresh tomato sauce put up. The tip of the iceberg, with so much more to ripen in the next several weeks. I’m grateful, as always, for the rare and precious opportunity to experience joyful adventures in food: garden to table, fridge to oven, stovetop to pantry.

Peppers

I’m grateful for the peppers ripening on their stalks. I planted four types this year, of which three are doing well. The Sirenevyi sweet peppers were overrun by butternut squash, and just didn’t get enough light. The Chimayo peppers above are doing well amongst some tomato vines. Thai Dragon peppers are ripening one by one, with dozens of green fruits standing straight up on their stems; and Koszoru paprikas, a slightly different shape, are turning red hanging down from their stems. The ripening is just beginning. I’ve started drying the paprikas as they come on, and have already put a mix into brine to ferment a couple of days ago, and feel confident that I’ll get enough to make some wonderful fermented hot sauce this year. I never much liked hot sauce until I made my own, in that way that working closely with a food invests oneself in the outcome in a different way than simply buying it.

I whipped up a quick little tomato sauce with two red Amish paste and two Pomodoro Pizzutello Di Paceco orange tomatoes, diced, and three cloves of minced garlic, cooked down in the bacon pan, with a bit of salt and pepper, and a handful of chopped basil tossed in at the end. I needed to cook the Boboli pizza crusts I bought last week. Topped with olive oil, shredded mozzarella and parmesan, leftover dog-pill ham that he wouldn’t eat anymore, some red onion, and the simple red sauce, I cooked a simple, rich dinner, with one leftover for tomorrow. I’m more grateful for food, every single day.