Wintertime, with its lack of light, turns me inward. While my farm sleeps (it’s more like napping) I can reconnect with my writing practice. The first week of 2021 I retreated with my dearest friend, Karla, who I met while working on Grand Canyon trail crew in 1997. Since then, we have been seeking the truth of our lives through writing, wilderness and our vocations. For almost a decade, our annual retreat has been a ritual to renew our friendship and our practice as writers. We write, read to one another, walk, drink wine and work through the obstacles (both real and perceived) to sharing our stories with larger audiences. We have both embraced a seasonal life cycle that grants us time away from the pressure and distractions of our day-to-day lives to write. Karla is a travel nurse who divides her year between hospitals in Montana and Arizona, at times living from a camper van.
This year, we stayed at Arcosanti, an urban planning project conceived by Paolo Soleri in 1970 as a response to rampant urban sprawl and consumerism. The place is an experiment in imagination and design where humans and environment interact in relation to one another. It was fitting to visit this living laboratory at a time in our current human history when we are in need of new ways of thinking and being. As we sought refuge from the outside world, reports reached us of a siege on the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob protesting the ratification of President-elect Joe Biden. In our rooftop Sky Suite with sweeping views, we stayed focused. The living room had a giant circular window that felt like the entrance to a portal. We gazed through it, transfixed, as if a new way of being in the world awaited us. The pandemic has ruptured the world as we know it, but there is no going back—we must reimagine our way forward. Karla and I have burned up the old habits that no longer serve us and are packing lightly for the journey to the other side.
Karla is a writer, live storyteller and NPR commentator who just finished a memoir about her six seasons on a wilderness fire lookout. Her current stories shed light on our broken health care system, and find humanity in the midst of the pandemic wreckage. During the retreat, Karla began a website for her writing, which in itself is a portal; an invitation to her experience. I too have struggled to overcome this internal battle of feeling worthy of being found on the World Wide Web. Yet, I know that people are looking for her! Karla has traveled a great distance in her van, leaving behind her husband and dog, and family health struggles to take this time before she begins a COVID nursing assignment in Tucson.
I granted myself precious time away from farm responsibilities while the natural world is dormant. I sorted through writing files from the past 20 years to revisit, rethink and reorganize my work. I scrutinized each file and organized them by subject. To cross through this portal, I wanted to get clear. What stories might I offer? I had to rid myself of the unnecessary clutter; the old versions and the little scraps that have no place. Themes began emerging, like topographic lines on a map from above. I could see the carving and shaping of my self. The stories meander, like river ways flowing downstream guided from unseen forces. I sensed the fear and shame hidden in the earlier works, obscuring certain details to avoid discomfort. I wanted to make sense of things, but I navigated away from the difficult parts. Those details are still in the pages of my journals that I am working up the courage to share. Now I have a map to chart the route forward.
This process took the whole retreat, and I celebrated by singing my handful of original songs to test the acoustics throughout Arcosanti. It felt like a rite of passage, a moment of reflection before stepping through this portal into a new era; and to afford the time and space to be without judgement or internal pressure. A younger self would resist ease and try to produce something from an impossible standard of internal measure. Now I have faith because I realize—from what both Karla and have experienced—the creative process is a process. There are no rules and the timeline is expansive. Sometimes the creative bank account gets replenished by watching sunrises and sunsets, examining the dark, starry sky and listening to a friend weave stories.
Situated on the rim of a rugged canyon, the sun-baked concrete of Arcosanti radiated with a strangely earthly essence. I appreciated the human design conscious with nature, filing images in my mind for creating space on the farm. The succulents arranged in borders along paths; the Mind Trail meandering through olive trees to the canyon edge; the colors and textures in the concrete impressed from river, sand and stone. You could sense the living, breathing and creating by other past and present beings all around you.
We watched the light travel throughout the day; playing off walls and streaming through windows. The portal framed the waning moon and constellations. The elements of metal, wood and concrete against earth and sky was pleasing and grounding—a perfect balance of alchemy. Our food was simple and nourishing; the sleep was deep and satisfying; the company comforting and uplifting. With much earthly work ahead for both of us, we created the necessary energy reserves and momentum.
Karla’s friendship is a home; a familiar place I can keep returning to, and like a maple tree growing in the yard, I can measure my own growth against its spreading canopy. I am lucky to have a friend to share the creative journey. If one of us is winning, we both win. We can celebrate when one of us breaks through and shines the light on something no one else could see.
Kate Watters is a farmer, floral designer, writer and musician. She has led a colorful plant-centered life from various angles and now makes her livelihood from a farm oasis in Rimrock, next to Beaver Creek. She grows flowers, medicinal herbs, pollinator and fairy habitat and hosts plant gatherings. To follow her entrepreneurial and artistic adventures arising from the soil visit: www.agavemariabotanicals.com and www.katewattersart.com