Baked Flowers, Poofed Yeast, and Bee Worries

By Elizabeth Speth 

The bees should be here.

I know this because my rosemary plants are blooming in wild profusion, a dusky mass of purple only a few shades lighter than a ripe plum.   They smell heavenly, and usually I cannot get near them because they are swarmed with bees, buzzing around, rifling through the tiny blossoms, swilling pollen, busy as — well, you know.

This, multiplied by one billion bees, is what the rosemary looked like last year on January 26:

bee 1

This is what it looks like this morning, February 26, one year and one month later:

bee 2

Naked and bee-less.  I am very worried.  The bees are missing the purple party, and I’m not sure what this means for the future of my vegetable and flower gardens, but I’ve got a pretty big uh-oh feeling about the whole thing.

I brought up the subject on my community’s Facebook page, looking to stir up some outrage over the situation, maybe galvanize a grass-roots ‘Bring Back the Bees’ campaign. Barring that, I hoped for reassurance.  Maybe all the rain we’ve had has delayed things.  Maybe last year’s drought is the culprit.  Maybe my neighbors will see my post and fess up to crop dusting with bee-killing poisons during the night.  Someone must know something.  The answer is out there, and maybe it’s not scary.

“It’s too early for bees,” someone finally wrote.

“Too cold,” said someone else.  I felt marginally better.

Then this popped up.

“I’ve got yer bees,” (I’m paraphrasing, but, trust me, the words seemed menacing.) “My plants and flowers are filthy with ’em.”  Or something to that effect.  So what was I doing wrong?

Maybe my rosemary flowers aren’t as attractive as everyone else’s.  Maybe it’s because I wear unflattering clothing in the garden.  Sometimes I think uncharitable thoughts when I am weeding and, I admit it, I swear and yell at the dog sometimes for digging.  Once I thinned a whole row of carrots while slightly tipsy.

How do I clean up my act, become a Bee-Pleasing Zone?  How do I call them home?

Maybe put up some ‘Free Pollen’ signs?

Think, Elizabeth, think.  Calm down and ask yourself:  if you were a bee, what would attract you?

Other bees.

Stop it.  That’s not helpful.  What would lure you in, if you just happened to be buzzing by, looking for a place to land and tickle flower petals with your delightful bee feet.

Well, the smell of something baking.

What?  Now you’re being ridiculous.

No.  I mean it.  If the flowers alone aren’t enough to attract these darned hoity-toity, highfalutin bees, then what if we upped the ante, and baked them?  I know!  Put them in cookies!

No, wait.  Bees are dealing with sweet stuff all day.  Something savory.  Bread.  Bingo.   Who can resist the waft of homemade bread?

And I love rosemary bread, with a nice crust of salt on top.

Just to make sure I don’t kill anyone, I did Google it, and according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, rosemary blooms are perfectly edible, not poisonous, but they do have a very strong flavor.

Now, because you have stuck with me so far through this laborious narrative, here is your reward.  My favorite and easy-enough-to-use-every-day bread recipe.

Mark Bittman’s No-Knead Bread, Courtesy of Your Food Processor

3 1/2 cup flour

2 teaspoons salt

1 1/2 teaspoons instant or bread machine yeast

1 cup of water, or more as needed.

Bittman advocates throwing all of this together in your food processor, whirling it around for thirty seconds and calling it rising time.  I’m not kidding.  And it works.

But.  I like to proof the yeast, or, as my daughter used to say, ‘poof’ it, which is not actually a bad description.  I can’t bring myself to skip this step, this puffy, bubbling, frothing grand gesture.  Maybe I just don’t have enough drama in my life.  Well, I didn’t have enough drama in my life.  Now, with the bees and all…

Still, I poof it, mixing the yeast with a little warm water, a tiny bit of honey in honor of all the missing honey-makers all over the world (honey gets yeast very excited), and I let it come to life before adding it to the other ingredients and whirling it around electronically.

The dough is very sticky and ragged.  It doesn’t look bee-worthy at all at this stage, but just wait.  Every great undertaking, every world-saving crusade, has an awkward phase.

It gets plopped into a bowl, covered with plastic wrap or a towel, and it doubles in size in an hour or so.

I go outside and harvest the rosemary and some flowers, and chop them up finely.  I taste a flower, and they are indeed very strong.  They are like, well, like a bee sting in your mouth.  I decide to use them sparingly.

bee 4

By this time, my dough has plastered its face against the window of my plastic wrap.

bee 5

It’s time to knead the dough a second time, incorporating the rosemary and flowers.   It rises quickly a second time while I pre-heat the oven to 400 degrees.

I sprinkle the top with sea salt.

bee 6

bee 9

And in it goes, until the loaf is brown and lovely and sounds hollow when tapped.

bee 7

I let it cool and slice it.  It smells heavenly.  I open all the windows, so the bees can smell it.

bee 8

I put out ‘Free Butter’ signs.

And I wait.

bee 10

Dinner, Because Why Not?


By Elizabeth Speth

Once upon a time, there was a woman.  She toiled a little bit at an office every day.  She was also in the manure management business.  Dogs, cats, horses… lots of manure to manage every day.  She watered a garden, and washed dishes.  She drove a car, and selected things at the grocery store.  She fed the animals, and the people, swept the occasional floor.  She listened some, talked a lot, gave advice and sought it.

She was busy.  Sometimes she was tired.  And there was always the problem of dinner.

Dinner clamored to be made.  Every day.  And it always wanted to be delicious, or why bother?  And it always had to be accompanied by wine, or a cocktail, because why not?  What was the point otherwise, if dinner was not marvelous?

One day the woman brought home pizza dough from the deli.  She stretched and pushed and pulled it flat, brushed it with olive oil and sprinkled it with salt and pepper.  She baked it in a high-heat oven until it bubbled and browned.  She spread it with creme fraiche and mascarpone cheese when it came out of the oven (although one or the other would have been just fine, but she was prone to excess), and then she grated lemon zest over that.

She arranged salty prosciutto and smoked salmon in beautiful, mounded shapes over the creamy sauce.  And then thinly-sliced (paper thin) shallots, although red onion would have been good too.  Then herbs.  Chopped.  Chives.  Tarragon.   Dill.  Those seemed to be the herbs that would play nicely with the salty ham and the smoky fish.  And then dinner was done.

Cocktails, she thought.  Cocktails… cocktails…  Her mind and her eyes wandered and came to rest on the fruit bowl.  Which was empty but for some lemons and oranges.  So she went to the freezer, and withdrew frozen cherries, and a bag of mixed frozen fruit — peaches and strawberries and berries.  She listened to the icy plop of them as she piled them into a pitcher.  In went a bottle of fruit juice.  In went a bottle of sparkling wine.  In went most of a bottle of tequila.  She stirred it with the handle of a wooden spoon, mashing the fruit a bit.  She threw in sliced oranges and lemons for good measure, and poured some over ice.

Then she served others in her family glasses of sangria.  And crisp slices of pizza with lemony, creamy, herb-y, onion-y, smokey goodness on top.

And dinner was done.  And she announced that someone else would do the dishes.

And she lived happily ever after.

Shopping List:

Deli — Pizza dough or pizza crust, prosciutto or other smoked meat, smoked salmon, mascarpone or creme fraiche or both.  (If you can’t find those cheeses, mix sour cream with a bit of ricotta or cream cheese.)

Produce — Lemons, herbs (tarragon, parsley, basil, dill, chives — whatever you like, many or few).  Fresh fruit if you don’t want to use frozen in sangria.  Although frozen fruit makes nice ice cubes.

Liquor aisle —  Tequila.  Or gin.  Or vodka.  What’s your favorite hard liquor?  Sparkling wine.  Or rose.  Or white.  (Sangria is one hard alcohol, one soft alcohol, fruit juice and fruit.  That’s it.)

Other:  Frozen Fruit.  Fruit Juice

The Story of No Rain (Or: Blame the Drought on Cake and Newly)

rain 6

By Elizabeth Speth

Once upon a time there were two beautiful horses, Cake and Newly.  They lived in a gentle place, where the sun mostly shone.  Winds seldom blew here.  Harsh cold and snow were strangers.

Warm rain fell in winter.  It filled the rivers, then turned itself into delicious, sweet, tall grass in the spring.  The grass was so tall it tickled the horses’ bellies.  Wildflowers drank the rain too.


They exploded in happy purple blooms, surrounding the horses and making them look even prettier.

rain 5                   rain 3

It was a good life.  Until one year the rain forgot to fall.  And the not falling was so easy, it forgot again the next year.

And the next.

From time to time, the clouds would fill with gray water, and hang low over the horses’ heads.  It seemed the clouds would empty onto the cracked, hard earth.


And the horses would be glad, because they were thirsty, and wanted to eat delicious grass in the spring, and not breathe hot dust in the lengthening summers.

But then the gravid clouds would pass over, and no rain would fall.

rain 2

And the rivers did not fill.  They shrank to tiny ribbons in the landscape, barely flowing, and the horses were thirsty.  They were worried.

rain 4

And the wildflowers were not lush.  Not at all.  Every once in a while, a tiny dot of color would muster itself and push up through dry dirt and rocks.

monday 12

But that wasn’t the same thing at all.  Cake and Newly did not think they looked prettier standing amongst these tiny wildflowers.

And the grass did not grow.  It barely cleared the dying soil before wilting between the horses’ nipping teeth.  Eventually, there was only dust.

The horses were not happy, and so they went to speak to The Woman.

The Woman was the one who brought the hay, and the grain, the carrots and the apples.  She seemed to be in charge of the good things, the horses reasoned, although they did not know or care why.

They did not know or care what she did other than the bringing of the good things.  But, they told each other, she might know about the rain.

“We want the rain back,” they said to her.  “We are not sure what we’ve done to stop it, but we want it back.  We want the flowers that make us look prettier, and the delicious grass, and we are tired of the heat and dust.  We want to bathe our lovely feet again in the river, and drink the cool water.”


The Woman thought, and she said:  “I will go and ask my mother, Nature, and I will see what she says.”

And The Woman did, and came back and gave the horses a carrot, and she kissed them and said:

“Mother Nature says we must go back to a simpler time.  When there were fewer people, and we made more of our own things, and grew our own food and did not care for cities.  We must go back to a simple time when horses worked harder.”

“What?” said Cake.

“The hell you say,” said Newly.

“My mother, Nature, says we must go back to a time when horses worked harder,” The Woman repeated.  “You must pull the plough and the wagon.   The earth will be back in balance, and there will be rain, and rivers, and flowers and grass.

“But you must stop lounging all day, and go to work.”


Cake and Newly put their heads together.  They whispered while The Woman waited.  They looked at The Woman, and they whispered some more,  Then they walked over to her, heads high and eyes rolling.

“Tell your mother, Nature,” Cake said, “that we are enjoying the drought very much.”

Newly added, nodding his big head:  “Yes.  Tell her thank you, and to keep up the good work.”

And so the drought continued.

The End

monday 2

Give Me THREE MINUTES Before You Start Your Monday!

By Elizabeth Speth

Well, shoot.  It’s Monday, isn’t it?

Quick!  Come on a three-minute hike with me.  I swear it won’t take longer than that, and I’ll have you in the office on time.  I promise.  C’mon.

Come on!  Hurry up!  But watch your step.

monday 18

We’ll start here. Top of the canyon, among the poppies. They won’t be there much longer, on account of the drought. So we must say a very fond hello to them now. Our destination is that thin trickle of water at the bottom of that canyon. It should be a raging torrent right now. Again, blame the drought. But we’re not going to think about that now. We’re going to start walking.

monday 6

We’re going to look up from time to time on our steep downward trek. See the sky, the wildflowers…

monday 20

Sometimes you will get some uphills, briefly, and your knees will sigh in relief. Mostly it’s down, down, down. These trails are deep grooves carved out by water run-off, horses’ hooves, peoples’ shoes… Remember, though.  You have to climb all of it on the way home.  It’s all right.  You’re up for it.  It’s going to be great.

monday 11

Did I warn you about the butterflies? We’re going to see a lot of them. They are glorious. Thick as a butterfly blizzard.

monday 8

They seem to have a ‘flash blue’ switch they turn on, and blue magically appears on those black wings, flashing and blinking in the sun.

monday 15

More trail. It’s leveled out a bit because we’re nearly to the river. Listen.  Hear it whispering to you? Look…

monday 14

…yes… There it is! The path has widened to a road. The water is rushing by, and you can hear the calls of geese nesting there. It’s getting warm. Almost warm enough to swim.

monday 13

We linger here a bit, watching the water flow by, worried that so much of the riverbed is exposed so early in the year. We gather our strength for the climb to the top of the canyon, and we whisper to Mother Nature. Soft little prayers for rain. And for the will to go strongly to the top.

monday 16

Back up. Steep. We welcome the butterflies. We stop and take pictures of them, which gives us a chance to breathe. Watch out. That’s poison oak. All of it, except for the flower.

monday 17

Globe lilies. My favorite wildflower. They are so unassuming. But at night, the woodland fairies come and detach blooms. They tuck fireflies inside and flit about using the pearly orbs for light. These are also called fairy lanterns.

monday 3

A fragile wild iris. Showing its kind purple dragon face to the sun.

monday 19

We are (puff, puff!) back up. Among our brief friends, the wildflowers. Hey, I know you have to get to work, but…

monday 1

There is a bar in town near here. A simple place. Good whiskies, or we can just order breakfast there and think about how fun it would be to be that naughty on a Monday.

Ok.  We’re done.  Grab a water bottle, and off to work with you.  It was a good hike, my friend.  You were good company.  Be strong this week.  Get through it.

Passing Through the Shadow of the Valley of Mean People


By Elizabeth Speth

I love Sundays.  In my mostly beautiful life, they are a high point.

On Sundays I saddle up my horse Cake, and we ride through beautiful places like this:

mean 5

And this:

mean 6

There is a little scotch in my flask.  I take pictures.  I enjoy the rhythm of Cake’s breathing and Mother Nature’s too.

On a recent Sunday, I hurriedly loaded my horse in the trailer at home, drove for a bit, unloaded him at a trailhead overlooking the American River Canyon and the famous Western States trail network.  I unloaded my saddle and began brushing Cake as he munched grass.  And then I saw blood on his flank.

I looked everywhere to find the source, and finally did.  The underside of his tail, hidden to the casual eye, was a bloody pulp.  It could have starred in its own horror movie. Further frantic examination revealed large swollen spots on his belly, possibly lymph nodes.  Maybe abscesses.  I couldn’t tell, and it was Sunday.  A day my veterinary clinic reserves for emergencies.  I needed help determining whether this was one, so I called the clinic on the spot and got the vet on the phone.

While I was describing Cake’s symptoms,  a man parked his car next to me.  A lean, sinewy, older fellow, dressed for running.  He looked at me and my horse, and asked what was going on, even though I was clearly conversing on the phone.  I held up one finger, and continued to explain my situation to the vet.

Running Man peppered me with a few more questions, which got tangled in my worried mind with the vet’s simultaneous queries.

Running Man:  “Is your horse sick?  Is he lame?  What’s the problem?  It’s a great day for riding.  Are you going to go?  Whatever it is, it can’t be that bad, can it?  Oh, blood on the tail?  That’s not a big deal, can’t your wrap it?  Why don’t you just wrap it?”

I held up my finger again as my vet, a sweet and patient woman on her day off, asked me to snap some photos of the tail and belly, and then text them to her, so she could decide whether he should be seen emergently.  I hung up, trying to figure out how to hold a now-dancing Cake, lift his tail, and snap pictures in enough light so they could be seen.  Also, Running Man was beginning to frustrate me.

He asked again what was wrong, I told him briefly, and added that I was in the process of dealing with it with the vet.

He offered his opinion that we coddle our horses too much, it didn’t sound that bad to him, maybe I should just try this, or that, or maybe this other thing, which in his experience always worked …”

I was flustered.  I said:  “Sir, thank you, but I’m actually a bit distracted right now.  The vet is waiting for pictures so she can help me determine what to do.”

“What to do is obvious,” he replied, even though he hadn’t actually seen the problem for himself.  “You just blah, blah, blah.…”

“Sir,” I said.  I really need to focus on this.  “I’m getting veterinary help.  Thank you very much.  Enjoy your run.  It’s a beautiful day.”

“Oh,” he said.  “I’m going to run a bit in the canyon, maybe eight miles or so, although I’ve got this sore hamstring, but I think I can make it to that spot at the….blah, blah, blah…”  That went on for a bit.

Meanwhile I”d dropped my phone twice, smeared it with blood, and finally managed to get the tail up to snap the picture by holding Cake’s lead rope in my teeth so his rear end was facing the good light.

“That doesn’t look too bad,” said Running Man.  “Probably been rubbing it.”

(Because horses always rub themselves bloody for fun! Everyone knows this!)

He continued:  “What you want to do is…”

I took a deep, deep breath.

“Listen.  I’m in the process of figuring out to do with a veterinarian.  Who is waiting for pictures.  I’m flustered, and worried about my horse.  I’m just having a little trouble giving you my full attention right now.  I want to devote it to this.”

He drew himself up.   “I finished Tevis (hundred mile equine endurance race), you know.  It’s not like I don’t know what I’m talking about.”

What I wanted to say:  “Good for you.  I had no idea they handed out veterinary degrees upon completion.”

What I said:  “Good for you.  I’m going to call my vet now.  Please excuse me.”

Running Man’s face hardened.  His eyes narrowed meanly, right before he slowly and deliberately swept them over my flushed, sweaty,  addled, disheveled self.  I knew what he was going to say before he even said it.  I both saw and felt it coming.

“Maybe,” said Running Man, “now that your horse is laid up, you can take up running.  You look like you could use some exercise.”

My mouth dropped.  The phone rang — my vet had received the pictures.  Running Man said a few more things I did not hear because I turned my back on him.

My vet said:  “That actually looks pretty awful, Elizabeth.  Let’s get him in.”

I don’t remember when Running Man actually disappeared (hopefully forever).  I loaded my horse and headed to the clinic.

I won’t leave you in suspense about poor Cake.  He had an extreme allergic reaction to something he was grazing on in the pasture.  Many daily scrubbings and ointments and medications later, he is on the mend.

My wounds, however, have been slower to heal, and I am stuck in the shadow of the Valley of the Mean People.

Because I don’t meet many of them, to tell you the truth.  Very few people in my life exert themselves to annoy, irritate, aggravate, provoke, inconvenience, or wound me.  The opposite is in fact the case.  Even at work.

If your life is full of annoyers/irritators/aggravators/wounders, I am so very sorry.  What a horrible, toxic thing.  I wish you strength and  courage.  You can stop reading this now, because you are likely thinking I’ve been a naive idiot, living in a fool’s paradise on a fatty diet of illusions.

I started gnawing on this as soon as I knew Cake would live.  Driving home from the vet clinic, a few dollars lighter, there were voices in my head.

My grandmother’s — I could hear her clearly — repeating one of her favorite phrases: “Well.  He doesn’t have the sense God gave a goose, does he.”  This was never a question for her.  It was a statement.  No question mark.

I thought about my grandfather, a big man with a booming voice who would have cold-cocked the goose senseless had he behaved thusly toward my grandmother.

As I turned into my driveway, my memory replayed one of my dear friend Stefan’s oft-repeated and much-beloved character summations:  “What an ass-hat!”

It made me miss my grandmother, my grandfather, and Stefan, but it marginally comforted me.  Stefan is the only one of the three I can still talk to about these things, grandmother and grandfather being long gone, and so I did.  He is an incredibly articulate fellow, with a surgical precision when it comes to defining social boundaries and reasonable human interaction.  I am a proud graduate of the Stefan Murphy Finishing School of Professional and Personal Excellence, and my diploma is treasured.

I know Stefan would have leveled the man with one polite phrase had he been in my scuffed-up riding boots (but his would be polished to a fine sheen, and manufactured for him personally by Ralph Lauren).  Stefan would never have let the dialogue degenerate to the level of personal insults.  He’d have sent Running Man packing definitively after his second ill-timed question.  I know this about Stefan, but I can’t think fast enough on my feet to replicate what he does.


Stefan is the opposite of mean. If he is your friend, he will write impassioned letters on your behalf to people who wronged you in childhood. He jots down limericks on difficult days to cheer you up. He will devastate your enemy with a graceful insult.

So I decided to ask him instead how he copes with the aftermath of a mean person.  Does he dismiss it?  Let it go?  Namaste his way through it and move on to bigger and better things?  Or does he dwell on it, let the experience form an ulcer of angst in his soul?  Because I was working on one of those.

“Oh I’m a dweller,” he assured me after I told him my sad tale, and we agreed Running Man wore an ass for a hat.  “An Olympic caliber dweller.  I could medal in the Dweller Decathlon.”

All right.  I felt better.   But I still had the spiritual hazardous spill to clean up.  The ulcer to heal.

As the song says, there’s so much in this world to make us bleed.  And, I’m sorry, I have to believe most of us in this world don’t really want that.

Sometimes, when I am stumped in the Compassion Generation Department, it helps to look at the world from the other guy’s perspective.  Cover a mile in his proverbial running shoes, as it were.  I thought of Running Man, and figured it was safe to conclude he is oblivious to social cues.  He is self-involved, attention-demanding, and has a bit of a temper.  He lashes out when he doesn’t get his way.

Overlooking the personal insult, he invaded my life at a time when I was terribly worried about my horse.  He hijacked the situation and demanded an ego stroking.  People rarely only do this now and then, to my way of thinking.  It’s got to be a lifestyle, right?

So, when he interacts with people, they must respond to that fairly uniformly.  When he executes his signature Running Man moves, people are likely often outraged and offended.  So what does Running Man see then?

He sees narrowed eyes.  Hard faces.  Jaws set against him.  He sees a hard, angry world, and it is possible he has no idea that he started all of that.

Of course, I don’t know his struggles.  Maybe they are enormous. Maybe I would weep if I knew his hardships.  There’s so much in this world to make us bleed.

These are the closest things I have to answers.  Unlike my grandmother, some of my observations end in question marks.   At least for a while.

I’m not excusing the ass-hat.  He is going to have to get himself figured out, squared away.  Or not.  I’m just trying to get past him.

But first I want to say something to him.

Running Man:  On the off-chance you read this, and it provokes/irritates/aggravates/wounds you, I want to paraphrase one of my favorite authors by way of explanation.  If you want people to write/think fondly of you, you should have behaved better.

Let’s end on a good note, shall we?  This is Cake.  Feeling better.

mean 2        mean 1

mean 3     mean 4

Do Yourself A Favor — Read This Before Cocktail Hour


By Elizabeth Speth

This won’t take long.

I was at the grocery store today, wandering listlessly through the produce aisle.  I saw masses of dusky purple winter grapes.  On sale.


My first thought:  Make jewelry out of them.  They are that beautiful.

My second, more practical thought:  Cocktails.

I adopted a bunch — the sweetest, darkest, most mysterious and sexy cluster in the whole store — and brought it home. I chilled it within an inch of its life, and I coaxed every gorgeous, ripe, ruby orb off the stem (they did not require much convincing) and plopped them into the blender.

I added a thick, amber rope of local honey.  Made by rosemary- and lavender-obsessed bees in my neighborhood.  Pouring, it flirted shamelessly with the afternoon sun coming through the French doors in the kitchen.  Fair enough, I thought, dazzled by the slow-flowing chemistry between sweet and light.  It’s cocktail hour.  There can be some flirting.

grapes 4

I poured in enough vodka to cover the grapes and the honey.  I am protective that way.


I flicked on the blender and whirled it around.  It made a joyous pink froth with purple flecks of tannic confetti.

At this point, I was confronted with a choice.  I could strain the vodka grape juice and remove the pulverized skins.  It would have made my cocktail clear, pristine — prettier.

I didn’t.  I think those little bits of skin are the cocktail equivalent of caviar.  I poured it into a champagne glass until the glass was half full.   (I’m an optimist!)

I filled the glass the rest of the way with (very) cold champagne.

grapes 2

And then I shared it with you.  Immediately.  This is me, virtually pouring you a drink.  A lovely one.  You’ve likely had a tedious week.  You deserve it.

Happy Friday.


In Which Angus Gets What’s Coming to Him

By Elizabeth Speth

Every morning Angus and I meet at the front door for a standing date to do chores together.

Now, the thing about Jack Russell Terrorists — what endears them to their humans despite all the crazy behavior, shrill barking, general mayhem and destruction — is that they are joyful dogs. Those frantic, furiously busy little bodies house enormous reservoirs of happiness over the simplest of things.  A wide open place to run.  A puddle of water.  A morsel of food to bury.  A daily appointment to scoop manure and terrorize the horses together.  He’s all in.  Every ecstatic, wriggling square inch of him.

So, as I was saying, we meet at the door, and we wish each other good morning with a dignified handshake.

angus 2

I gather my boots, stuff my pockets full of whatever cream, medicine, ointment or pills I’m administering to the horses that day.  I put on my hat.

Sometimes, to shake things up, I pretend to forget my hat, because it is fun to see Angus boy-oy-oing into the air to knock it off the rack with his nose.  Then he looks at me pointedly as if to say:  “Okay, Forgetful.  Pick it up, put it on, let’s get going.”

Angus likes his routine.  All of it.  You can’t skip even one part of the ritual.

Lately, though, our smooth, calm scooping of the morning poop, wheeling of the barrow, filling of the troughs, throwing of the hay etc. has been marred by the presence of a bully.

I’m talking about the neighbor’s enormous, fluffy, blindingly-white cat.  Hereafter I’m going to refer to the cat as (S)he, because there is no way I’m getting close enough to narrow it down any more than that.  This cat is terrifying.

S(he) first strolled out to the middle of the pasture a few weeks ago.  S(he) stood out like an ice floe in a field of dirt, and basically look-dared Angus to come over and mix it up.

And Angus wanted to.  Angus saw S(he), and his jaw dropped.  He snapped to attention as the cat began to grow, arching to twice its size, all that glorious white fur now standing on end, a scattering snow flurry.

“Angus, heel!” I commanded, because I did not want a gory felineocide on my hands.  That cat was positively suicidal, sitting there like that, a creamy challenge to the poor, whining, blood-lusting little warrior that is Angus.

Since then, chores have become very stressful, because every day that damned cat is out there, big and fat and blinding and insolent in the middle of our field.  I should be working, occasionally looking up to see Angus trotting around happily, exploring and stirring up trouble.

Instead, I am constantly anxious, shouting:  “Angus!  No!  Heel to me, Angus!  Stop it!  Angus! Get back here!”

And he is constantly sneaking off, only to be called back, darting away, only to be sharply reprimanded.  He is a yipping, yelping, squirming misery of longing to get at S(he) and show that interloper what is what.

I’ve tried leaving him inside.  His sharp, high-pitched protest was shattering eardrums in the next county.  Authorities were summoned.  The cat situation was explained.  No sympathy was elicited. Noise ordinance violations were handed out.

I’ve tried varying the times we venture forth, to no avail.  S(he) watches for us, and comes sauntering out of the blackberry bushes, all menace and attitude, at the first rattle of the gate.

I tried scaring the cat off with a wave of my arms and rake, and the cat winked at me.

And then this morning it all got away from me.

I lost focus for a moment, I guess, my mind on manure.  Maybe the tines of my pitchfork got snared in a weed.  Maybe I was dozing.  Maybe I subconsciously wanted it all to end.  Whatever the reason, I looked up and Angus was halfway across the pasture, streaking at the fast-swelling S(he), who spat loud and long, screamed hellishly, and then charged right toward the missile that was Angus.

I was frozen in shock and horror.  Angus’ name died a futile death on my tardy lips.

They collided like two white-hot stars.

The cat went over the top of Angus, slashing at him with an impressive arsenal of claws, which sent the poor dog tumbling once, twice, three times.  He crashed into a post.

He wasn’t down for long, though.  Nosiree.  In less than a second Angus’ feet scrambled and found purchase in the witnessing dust.  And he got the hell out of there, tongue and ears flying behind, just trying to keep up.  He streaked past me with a large-eyed, humiliated stare, and then he flung himself under the fence and thoroughly out of the pasture, unmistakably ceding it to the cat.

Who strolled back into the blackberry bushes and, point made, has not been seen since.

Once the cat was gone, Angus, still on the other side of the fence, began running up and down the line of it, barking ferociously at the section of greenery that had swallowed the cat.

Loosely translated, because I’m leaving out the profanity, what Angus was saying was:

Why, you dirty cat!  If it weren’t for this fence between us, and the fact that you’re not even here anymore, why, I’d tear you limb from limb.”  

He did this until the greenery moved, rustled by a passing breeze.  That’s when he ran inside.

Later, he showed me where he thought he might have hurt his paw in the battle.

angus 3

He’s been sticking close to the house today, keeping an eye out for that damn S(he).

angus 4

I think he will be haunted for some time to come.  When his eyes look out into the horizon, unseeing, he will go back to this terrifying morning.  When a kitten meows softly he will start, and then retreat inward.

There are no support groups for Angus. (I checked.  He asked me to.)  No words of comfort.  It’s his burden to carry.  His and his alone.  Poor fellow.

Angus 1

Confessions of a Tevis Volunteer (Or: Why I Keep Coming Back)

By Elizabeth Speth

tevis 1

Volunteers meet a weary rider at the gate into Francisco’s.

The annual Western States Trail Ride, popularly called the Tevis Cup, is a grueling 24-hour horseback ride over 100 miles of exceptionally beautiful and punishing terrain.  Sanctioned by the American Endurance Ride Conference, it is a horse-centric event, designed around the safety and well-being of the animal.

It’s an amateur race against the clock, no cash prizes, only a coveted buckle.  Started in 1955, it is considered the  founding event in endurance racing, and is still known as the most difficult.  Over the years, it has evolved into something that requires nearly a thousand people to make sure up to 200 riders and their horses make the journey safely.

The psychology of the riders — why would they do such a thing? — is the subject of another blog.  They are a breed apart.  The training of their magnificent steeds for such a trial is also another discussion entirely.

All I’m qualified to address is the volunteerism aspect of this.  For a large handful of years — I’m fuzzy on the exact number out of sheer fatigue — my husband and I have braved miles of rocky, narrow roads to report for duty in the early afternoon at the rugged Francisco’s outpost, at Mile 86.  We remain there until the pre-dawn hours of the morning, sometimes pulling out as the sky begins to lighten.  This is where we put the exhausted horses and riders back together, hydrate, refresh and encourage them, and send them on to the last part of their journey.  This is where we marvel at the freshness of the front-runners, who breeze in and out and look as though they are in the middle of a leisurely ten-mile trail ride. All of them have come from the high peaks near Lake Tahoe, and will end their journey in Auburn, CA, if they make it that far.

A lot has happened in the years I’ve volunteered, and I’ve loved every minute of it.  The following is a list of things I’ve been privileged to do, and so I feel qualified to say I will happily do them again — and again — year after year, until fate and a good horse and the aligned stars finally put me at the starting line.

Here, in no particular order, is my list of proven qualifications and skills:

I will be happy to see you at one a.m. in a remote place, with the moon rising over a tree-fringed canyon, as the air is turning cold.  You have been riding nearly twenty hours, give or take.  In temperatures that exceeded 110 degrees.  You’ve had a long day.  We’ve left the light on for you, because you still have a ways to go.

tevis 6

I will sponge your horse with cool water as his heart rate slows.  I’ll stake out a little spot for him to eat a nourishing bran mash and clean hay, as peacefully as possible.

I’ll pay attention when you explain her little quirks and preferences, how to best get her to eat and drink and relax.

I will check your gelding’s pulse with my stethoscope, count his respirations, tell you when you are clear to see the vet and get on down the road.

tevis 2

I will fill your water bottles with cold water, gatorade, lemonade — whichever you like — and I’ll make sure they are safely tucked into your saddlebags.

I will make you sandwiches.

I’ll go find carrots for your horse, a rump rug so he doesn’t cramp, and watermelon because I remember you from last year, and I know your mare loves it.

tevis 5

I will stay with you while you throw up, wretchedly, exhaustedly, on the ground in front of your chair under the gas lamp.  Riding in the dark for hours gave you motion sickness, and your dehydration didn’t help.  You are too tired to be embarrassed, and I’m glad, because you shouldn’t have to worry about that.

I will hold your horse and look discreetly the other way while you pee on a bush not a foot away from me.

I will share my antacids with you, my Tylenol and my sunscreen.  I’ll rub your bad knee, if you ask me to, or your shoulders or your horse’s muscled rump.

I will run five miles down a trail in my boots, in deep darkness, because your horse stumbled and you both went over a cliff.  My fellow volunteers and I will be overjoyed to find you alive, clinging to a steep hillside, seriously injured but with humor and graciousness intact.  Your horse will have made his way back to camp by then, in better shape than you.  I will sit with you for a few hours while the moon pries the black sky open, and we wait for rescue folks to arrive.

I will follow the rescue crews out as they carry you back over those five miles in a stokes basket, and I will resist the urge to kiss you on the forehead because, for all you have been through, you are still in for the ambulance ride from hell over miles of rough road to get out of this canyon and to help.

I will call your wife as the sun rises, and your helicopter lifts off for the nearest trauma center.  I  will assure her that I’ve seen you with my own eyes, that you were awake and alive.  I will listen to her stoicism and bravery on your behalf, but I will hear her finally break down when I mention that your horse took the best care of you that he could in the accident.  She will say that she loves that darn horse.  What is understood but not said is how much she loves you — enough to let you do this crazy thing.

I will make you brownies.

I will give your horse electrolytes, and trot him/her out for the vet for you because you are tired/throwing up/too lame to do it.  Your horse will, miraculously, be sound at 86 miles because you have spent the day attending to him, monitoring him, reaping the benefits of months or years of careful preparation.

tevis 4

Both riding and crewing Tevis can be a family affair. My daughter helping out a junior rider.

I will check on you several times while you wait three hours to get your horse trailered out after you are pulled for a lameness because some damn rock in the road had your name on it.  I will marvel that you are sleeping on the ground almost between your horses’ feet, and I will admire both you and the horse for that relationship, and your journey together.

I will envy you as you pile your tired body in the saddle for the last fourteen miles, so delirious you have to ask me which way the trail lies.  I will watch you until darkness swallows you up.  I will think you are very brave.  I will think your horse is a miraculous thing of beauty.

My thoughts will follow you to the finish line.  You started out with a 50-50 chance of making it, and you’ve come so far.  I am willing you to get there.

this year

My husband Neil and me. Tevis 2014.

Me, I will  be thinking longingly of bed, and also about clearing my schedule for next year.

And likely you are thinking the same thing.

tevis 3

In Memoriam — Tragedy Strikes on a Friday Morning

By Elizabeth Speth


RIP, little lizard floating in the water trough, your pretty blue belly turned up to the sky.

I’d seen you around the neighborhood, under-supervised.  I feared you might become a statistic.

We’ll never know if it was suicide, an accident, or murder.

Did one of the horses push you in?  You can tell me.

Maybe you had a heart defect.

Is there a history of sudden death by heart attack in your family?

I am deeply sorry that when I tipped the trough and you flowed out, Angus the Jack Russell Terrorist snapped you up and started chewing you.

I was sorely grieved when he spit you out and began hacking disrespectfully.


He is in deep disgrace. Also, he is unrepentant.

I’m sorry I gagged as I dropped your several little pieces into that small hole in the ground, and covered you with hot, impersonal dirt.

I should have held it together better.

It was with acute regret that I saw Angus immediately begin to dig you up again.

I hoe you understand why I just had to walk away at that point.  It was too much tragedy to bear.

A couple more days of these 110-degree temperatures, and the winds will be scattering your ashes.

RIP, little lizard, floating in the water trough.



Hot, Crowded, Hungry…and Old

By Elizabeth Speth


Mid-life crisis? What mid-life crisis?

Recently, I had a birthday during an unseasonable wave of heat, against a backdrop of bad news.

Though it was supposed to be spring — the air soft and cool and green with possibility — Mother Nature had careened right past that season, screeching to a halt on a startlingly hot day,  the anniversary of the day of my birth.

Never mind which anniversary.  Suffice it to say I am getting close to the age of measuring in portions of centuries.  In most cultures, that is not something women feel like celebrating.

We become strangers to ourselves.  We grow speckles and spots.  We soften and spread.  We look like our mothers.  The older versions of our mothers.  Men stop behaving with gallantry toward us.  No one looks up when we enter a room, and what we have to say does not seem as riveting as it did when we uttered it through the rosy lips of youth.


When we are young, our skin fits snugly and our clothing is loose. Now, of course, the opposite is true.

I know that there are three definite, terrifying signs that you are officially old. One is losing your memory.  I can’t recall the other two.

But that wasn’t the only bad news on my birthday.  Something else was dragging me down as I trudged sizzling sidewalks, wiped sweat from my newly creased forehead, wondered if the whole world was having a hot flash, or just me.

I was sluggishly digesting (that’s one more thing that fails with advancing years) a news story about falling rice production in my beloved home state.

California’s recent dry spell, it seems, is expected to have a dramatic effect on rice production.   That is a big deal, and not only because this state supplies virtually all of the nation’s sushi rice.  The other half of our crops are exported.

Economists say that, of all the food crops, rice is likely to be affected by the drought the most, and the California Rice Commission estimates that rice farmers will leave 100,000 acres, or about 20 percent, of their fields fallow.

This of course nudges prices up worldwide.  Which can be a tragedy, depending upon where you live.  For us, rice is a comfort food, a sticky pillow upon which to rest your sashimi.  Something to round out a meal.  But in other cultures, a bowl of rice can make or break your day.  Perhaps that is most of what you will eat in a 24-hour period, and now you can only afford half a bowl.

To complicate matters, with food stores in the pantry beginning to dwindle, a real crowd has just shown up for dinner.

California’s population grew by roughly 332,000 people in the last fiscal year — its biggest increase in nearly a decade, according to new California Department of Finance estimates.The estimated population rose 0.88%, exceeding 38.2 million as of July.

Most of that growth was “natural increase” — births minus deaths (all those young whippersnappers having babies, which used to be my job, minus old people at the end of their lives, which is what I am now).  The rest is immigration.

So let me put all the layers of the birthday cake together for you, so you can see it clearly.  (Hang on.  I will need to find my reading glasses so I can see it too.)

My world was suddenly hot, crowded, and about to be very hungry.

The sky seemed to narrow, its gaze hostile and unwelcoming.

The message I thought I might be hearing was, ‘Shove off, Grandma.  Move over.  Make room.’

In a time of contracting resources, like space and food and familiar climates, shouldn’t we defer to the talent, beauty and energy of youth?  Can we afford the luxury of a vast, aging population, sucking up sustenance and space, reminding us all that the end is coming, and it is wrinkled and grim?

Have I, at my advanced age, over-stayed my welcome?

My youngest child had become a legal adult the week before.  What would I do with myself now?  How would I contribute?  Here I was, your typical old folk, obsessing about  weather and crops and the fact that my joints, like today’s young people, are so darned disrespectful.

It’s enough to make you want to whack someone with your cane.


As I usually do, I sought refuge and comfort in the gloaming of my horse pasture at evening feeding time.  I took comfort in the fact that I can still, for now, lift a bale of hay, and that I do still serve at least one purpose, even if it is only keeping the herd from starvation.  They need me.

I sat on the edge of a feeder and listed to the rhythmic munching of hay, and watched a feverish, fussy wind harass the tree tops.

I rejoiced as I felt one tiny tendril of cool breeze lift my hair, and then another.

I listened to the birds chirping to each other, telling stories about the day, and it did not sound as though they were complaining.  Small, colorful butterflies ignored the heat as they flirted with each other on the mustard blooms.  They don’t have a lot of time either, in this life, and they were getting on with the business of living.

I became aware of the drone of bees among the blackberry flowers and felt the world — finally, blessedly — expand.  As if drawing a breath.

Without realizing, I exhaled along with it, and the high, hot wind gusts finally quieted as the cooler breezes gathered momentum closer to the ground.

Because I had been thinking about rice all day,  I suddenly remembered something.  I remembered how many things can fit on a single grain of rice.


I thought:  If you can write entire verses — or faithfully detail the unique features of a human face — on such a small surface, how crowded are we really on this earth?  With the proper perspective, and appropriate tools, a grain of rice is enormous.

I looked around my familiar, large pasture, with its groves of trees, its seasonal ponds.

I thought, well, I have a little room.

I reminded myself that the hot weather I was finding so onerous of course meant the advent of the season of longer days.

That’s a few more hours in the day to get things right.  More time, if you will.

And my age has some benefits.  I can serve as a powerful cautionary tale, at the very least.  A walking, talking essay about things that should be done differently.

I am a living, breathing admonishment to:

— Wear sunscreen.

— Refrain from gluttony, because enough is as good as a feast.

— Live more outside of the comfort zone, even if it’s a bit terrifying, or become merely a collection of habits.

— Travel, or risk a mind that is fused shut.

— Accumulate fewer things.

— Glorify busy-ness less.

— Go ahead and get naked, because it’s only ever going to get worse.

Yeah.  That’s stuff young people aren’t born knowing.  Some unfortunate old person always has to demonstrate it.  I can do that.

Later that week, the oldest trainer in Kentucky Derby history, Art Sherman, 77, won that race handily with his horse California Chrome.  This duo — this perfect balance of very young horse and wise old man — also hails from the state of shrinking rice crops and swelling populations.  That made me feel better.

There was time, maybe, I thought.  Perhaps even for something amazing.

So, even though there is less and less room for me in the world, everyone knows people shrink as they age. I will take up less room. Well, vertically, at least.