Sparks of Romance, Peppered with Love

January 24, 2014

Shaker “Colpo di fulmine.” A bolt of lightning. That’s what the Italians call it when love strikes at first glance.

My friend Joe Dusel, a fine woodworker, recently shared a story that reminded me of this wonderful Italian turn of phrase. It’s the perfect tale to get you in the mood for Valentine’s Day.

A customer from Virginia asked Joe to make a custom pepper grinder from wood that had deep sentimental value. The pepper grinder was to be a first anniversary gift from Katie, a chef, to her husband, Nate, also a chef.

Struck by Lightning

Katie told Joe, “We were married under a tree, which was hit by lightning about a month afterwards! I was able to get several pieces of that tree. It would thrill me to be able to give Jack a pepper mill made from our wedding tree as a first anniversary gift.”

Nate at Katie under the trees at their wedding. Photo by Amie Otto Photography.
Nate and Katie under the trees at their wedding. Photo by Amie Otto Photography.

Joe was the perfect choice for such a project. He’s a bit of a romantic; it’s obvious from a glance at his website that he dotes on his wife and daughters.

Joe’s family is multicultural: His wife, Katsuyo Fukuyama, lived in Okinawa, Japan for around 22 years and speaks fluent Japanese. Their two daughters, Emi and Hana, are from China.

Joe’s Woodworking Background

Joe is a skilled and talented craftsman. He owns a firm called Woodistry, located in Vista, California. He has been designing and making furniture, cabinetry and crafts since about 1989. He studied for almost four years under Ian Kirby at Palomar College in San Marcos, California, where he currently teaches.

Joe creates modern furniture and crafts in the tradition of the Arts and Crafts movement; his work features simple designs, quality materials and solid construction.

A health-conscious vegan, Joe likes to use environmentally friendly materials like bamboo and formaldehyde-free plywood. He also uses water-based finishes, “so we are not spewing volatile organic compounds into the air we breathe.”

Asian Influences

Given his family background, it’s not surprising that Joe’s work shows Asian influences. The ring box below is one example.


Another example: Some years ago, Katsuyo wanted a place near the door to store shoes. In Japan, families own cabinets that are called “getabako”. Over the years, Woodistry had created a variety of shoe benches but not an actual getabako.

Katsuyo’s request led Joe to design pieces similar to “a traditional getabako or kutsubako that can be placed in your own genkan, which is Japanese for the entrance hallway of a home.”  Some of those handsome pieces are shown at the bottom of this blog post.

Good Things Take Time


Despite Joe’s woodworking skill, the pepper grinder turned out to be a small project with a big timeline. It took about a year! He explains, “The wood that Katie sent me was very wet, so we had to wait a while…”

Quite a while!

The handsome pepper shaker turned out to be a second anniversary gift. Joe says that his client, Katie, is very happy with it.

Shaker2However, Joe’s own anniversary is coming up. In the past, he has made “an Art and Crafts style picnic table and benches, coffee tables, shoe benches, cutting boards, pepper mills and a whole bunch of cabinets” for Katsuyo.

“I better get working on something special for our anniversary,” he muses. Here’s to Joe’s creativity setting off some sparks at home!


More Information

Joe’s woodworking and furniture can be found on:


One of Joe’s shoe storage cabinet designs. This is shown in amber bamboo with painted side panels. Dimensions: 33″w x 44″h x 15″d


Nisei Coffee Table Padauk– about 46″ long x 23″ wide x 17″ high.
Joe says, “This is our neo-Arts & Crafts style coffee table with Asian inspiration in natural birch and Paduak. I just love this Paduak! We made a variety of these solid wood coffee tables for some local galleries in various combinations of wood. These coffee tables contain NO particle-board! They are 100% solid wood with natural water-based finishes. We don’t use some cheesy veneer or plastic wrapped manufactured formaldehyde filled panel for these coffee table tops like the cheap junk that is coming in by the boat-load from China. And, we don’t normally use any stains since we want the natural beauty of the wood – not some uniform brown color.”


Old Beams Get New Life

January 19, 2014

America’s history — tons of it — rests in the Distinguished Boards and Beams lumberyard. The timber here comes from old factories and barns all across the United States, a few dating baBarn375ck to before there was a United States.

“Right now we have wood from a 1775 Kentucky chestnut cabin and a barn built in 1890 in Michigan,” DB&B owner Robbie Williams told the Sopris Sun. “We took those buildings down ourselves and numbered all the boards, so they can be put back up again.” The barn was huge: 40-by-70 feet with a roof peak 48 feet high. The trees harvested to build it were at least 100 years old, so they began their lives around the time when Peter the Great was crowned Czar of Russia.

It would be tough today to find lumber this massive; some beams measure as much two feet square by 36 feet long and weigh more than a ton. The wood is denser than modern lumber because it came from slow-to-mature species in first-growth forests: hardwood oak, elm, ash, hickory and maple. The yard also holds softer woods like Douglas fir, redwood and longleaf heart pine.

Because DB&B relies on scouts across the U.S. to find outdated barns and buildings slated for demolition, nearly all of the wood comes from domestic forests. DB&B re-manufactures all of the lumber here in Carbondale.


Restaurant interior made using lumber from Distinguished Boards & Beams

DB&B’s reclaimed wood is used for flooring, paneling and ceilings in custom homes, restaurants and office projects. It can be seen in the bar at Hattie Thompson’s restaurant in River Valley Ranch, and at Town restaurant and Fatbelly Burgers on Main Street. Architects and interior designers in the Roaring Fork Valley and beyond prize the lumber because weathering, saw and axe patterns, worm holes and hand-cut mortise and tenon joints give it exceptional character.

Right now, in addition to the Michigan barn, DB&B’s stock includes two complete cabins, redwood salvaged from wine and yeast vats, and white oak reclaimed from a defunct factory — all of it dated before 1910.


Detail of old, hand-hewn beams — lots of character!

“Every now and again, we find dates chiseled and signatures into the lumber,” Williams said. “We see Roman numerals cut in to tell carpenters how to put a building together. The builders would cut all of the wood and then move it and reassemble it in place.”

Although there are environmental benefits to recycling old trees, reclaimed lumber can contain rusty nails and hardware. It can host dirt, mold, bacteria and bugs. In addition, many types of wood shrinks and develops “face checking,” small cracks that parallel the grain, when lumber is moved from moister areas to Colorado’s dry climate.

To stabilize the wood, DB&B dries its lumber for five to 10 days in one of two kilns. Next, they square up the boards, trimming them to the client’s specifications, milling them to consistent depths and adding tongue-and-groove edges that prepare them for second lives as flooring or wall panels.

Met in college

Williams and his wife, Carbondale Board of Trustee member Pam Zentmyer, started Distinguished Boards & Beams about 10 years ago. The two met in Boulder during college. Williams, who grew up in Gunnison, spent a month climbing in Peru, and returned to the U.S. “completely broke.” He offered to housesit for friends in Zentmyer’s hometown and wound up becoming a Carbondale resident.


Flooring made from recycled wood.

The company now keeps 14 full-time staffers busy. Three of them, including Zentmyer, run the office. The rest sort wood for orders; run big, commercial Wood-Mizer saws that can churn out as much 15,000 board feet per run; and create custom millwork for clients.

Williams’s first exposure to reclaimed wood came after a friend who had done a demolition job in Crested Butte suggested, “we should try selling this to people.” Soon after, Williams’s brother Brad invited him to help him pull down a New Hampshire barn that had been built in 1780.

“We brought the barn back to Carbondale and sold it in pieces,” Williams recalls. “We rented some space and stored the barn. That got the inventory started. Then we had a bunch of wood that came out of a big auto factory in the Midwest. Those beams were 17-by-17 inches and 20 feet long. We had five semi loads of them.”

Although the auto factory is long gone, Williams still has a piece of the barn. It’s a chunk of weathered wood that holds an inscribed brass plaque and a photo, a commemorative gift to Williams from brother Brad.


NOTE: This story originally
appeared in the Sopris Sun,
Carbondale’s community newspaper. Images courtesy of
Distinguished Boards & Beams.


Board by Design Furniture – Modern with a Grin

October 4, 2013
The following story originally appeared in the Sopris Sun, Carbondale, Colorado’s community newspaper.
Red Double Rocker 2_640

Windsorrondack rocker in double width

The playfully modern furnishings that Brad Reed Nelson crafts in his Carbondale, Colorado studio are sold nationwide, and it’s easy to see why. Despite the name of his company — Board by Design — he’s clearly not!

“The name has an obvious a double meaning,” Nelson chuckled. “I wanted it to be provocative and contrary. I have a snarky sense of humor.”

Nelson’s humor shows up in his product names, as well as his design. For example, Board By Design (BBD) sells a “Very Holy” lamp; it’s a column of Plexiglas pierced all over in a polka dot pattern.

Elefunction organizer

Elefunction organizer – a heavy duty magnet is holding the keys. The elephant never forgets them.

BBD’s “Elefunction” organizers are rectangular wooden plaques that spout long trunks. A bungee cord crosses the body of the wall-mounted block, functioning to hang wallets and sunglasses. Four “herculean earth magnets” are embedded behind the trunk so that keys will stick to it. You won’t be searching for your keys, Nelson quips, because the Elephant never forgets!

Nelson does use boards in Board by Design furniture. “I love wood for its beauty,” he commented. “It creates a sense of warmth, and you can decide just what parts of the wood you want to use.”

The furniture designer in his shop. (Dig those shoelaces!)

Furniture designer Brad Reed Nelson in his shop. (Dig those shoelaces!)

Nelson uses only environmentally sustainable lumber. His Red House table, a hefty rectangle of Douglas fir cradled in a red steel frame, was crafted from a discarded beam found at a Snowmass construction site. Some of BBD’s organizers are fashioned from beetle-kill pine.

The lines of Nelson’s chairs echo the grace of mid-century modern style, but their wood slats are accented with a playful fillip of color that comes from steel framing. “I love steel for its directness,” said Nelson. “Steel can be very thin and strong. If you want something light, steel works better. And we love color! Color adds fun and humor.”

Nelson’s Windsorrondack line of swings and rockers — handsome, classic chairs that sell for $4200 in the single-seat version — can be crafted from mahogany, ash or North Carolina walnut, and their steel frames are offered in shades of poppy red, Caribbean blue, Bermuda blue or Fruita green.

KrisKrosNelson, who earned a master’s degree in sculpture from Arizona State University, first came to the Roaring Fork Valley to study at Anderson Ranch, eventually becoming its interim director.  He founded Board by Design in 2001, running the firm from the Aspen Business Center for seven years.

But Brad and his wife wanted to live in Carbondale – enough so that they turned down a two-bedroom affordable housing unit in Aspen, Colorado’s Burlingame development after winning it. Nelson and his wife, a jewelry designer, now lives here with their seven-year-old daughter. Brad opened his Carbondale studio in 2007.


Very Holy lamp.

All of BBD’s furniture is made in that studio. Nelson, who says that he would “like to be the inventor and have it made by someone else,” often partners with other Carbondale artisans for manufacturing. Local furniture maker David Rasmussen, for example, assembles BBD’s organizers.

Currently, Nelson is creating benches for Fold, a new Carbondale restaurant located just few doors down from BBD’s studio on Dolores Way. BBD furniture is also sold through the Harvey Meadows gallery in Aspen.

But more BBD products are exported beyond the Roaring Fork Valley than are sold here. Last summer, BBD shipped 41 tables to Shaw Media in Toronto. BBD sells accessories nationwide via the Etsy online website, and BBD furniture is offered by William Sonoma, Crate & Barrel, Urban Outfitter and Y Living stores, among others.

execuglideNelson markets his work at two national furniture fairs, and although he calls himself “an analog boy in a digital world,” the Internet is contributing to Board By Design’s fame. Recently the Design Sponge blog wrote about BBD, and the international Apartment Therapy website named BBD’s hanging Bike All rack one of its favorites.

“I try to make beautiful, functional objects that solve problems and are not being shipped from everywhere,” commented Nelson. “I want to make things that will always be cherished. With good materials. And made in America.”

Made right here in Carbondale, in fact.


Floods and Fires at “Five Minutes to Midnight”: The Spiritual Challenge of Climate Change

October 1, 2013

This is a sweet pea blossom. I didn’t need the climate report to tell me that global warming is real; the sweet peas told me. I grew gardens for years in San Francisco, and my sweet peas usually blossomed in late August or early September when the summer fog finally cleared. The vines died by Thanksgiving. But in 2009, the vines lived through the entire winter. In 2010, I had sweet pea blossoms on the table at Thanksgiving!

A confession: I’m terrified.

I know that climate change is happening now, and the knowledge of what that means for humankind keeps me awake at night. Avoiding depression is a spiritual challenge for me.

This week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report that said that “the earth was set for further warming and more heat waves, floods, droughts, and rising sea levels, as greenhouse gases built up in the atmosphere.”

Rajendra Pachauri, who heads the IPCC,  says that time is fast running out to avoid the catastrophic collapse of the natural systems on which human life depends. His chilling summation: “We have five minutes before midnight.”

The report is most serious scientific warning to date, stating that “It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of observed warming since the mid-20th century.”

That old Pogo quote from the 1970’s seems apt: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

A Helping Hand to Victims on the Front Range

Recently, I volunteered to lend a hand to Boulder Flood Relief (BFR), a volunteer that is helping to clean up homes devastated by Colorado’s recent floods. In less than three weeks, BFR has cleaned up more than 150 homes — a handful in context of the damage done by the recent floods here. Colorado’s Office of Emergency Management reports that 1,882 homes were destroyed and 17,500 damaged. Most homeowners did not have flood insurance, and neither FEMA nor insurance will cover more than a small fraction of their losses.

The people who suffered those losses are victims of global warming.

Early victims.

As Thomas Stocker, a German scientist who served as a leader of the IPCC group that wrote climate change report said, “As a result of our past, present and expected future emissions of [carbon dioxide], we are committed to climate change, and effects will persist for many centuries even if emissions . . . stop.”

Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council has called the report “a warning bell to the world.” She warns that the impacts are fierce wildfires, drought, floods and storms that will get worse with if we delay.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

Our children and our children’s children will reap the whirlwind, the wildfire, the floods, the droughts, the famines. Millions living on coasts will become homeless. The world will see tides of refugees. Wars. Starvation. Disease.

As the social fabric frays, social services and infrastructure will fall apart. Much like the world after the black plague — a downward social spiral like the one that Barbara Tuchman described in her book In a Distant Mirror.


Ruined belongings from the basement of a house on 1200 block of Columbia in Longmont, Colorado. In an epic flood, the St. Vrain River overflowed its banks and swelled to nearly a mile and half wide. Every home on the block, and many adjacent blocks, had piles of ruined furnishings in front of it.

I have had a personal glimpse of what this unraveling of social infrastructure will look like because I have traveled in third-world countries where the phones don’t connect, the planes don’t fly, the railroads don’t run and there is no health care. The government doesn’t work and there is no such thing as public safety.

The social contract doesn’t hold, and it’s every man for himself. (Too true too often; women and children are disproportionately the victims.)

Start Where You Are

When I joined the Boulder Flood Relief volunteers cleaning up Glenn Wright’s slimy, muddy Longmont basement, it was still stinking from the sewage carried by the flood waters. The job of stripping out the ruined carpeting and wallboard was  as dirty and disgusting as cleaning up a toilet overflow. But, like Wright, I often found myself moved to tears by the efforts of those pitching in free of charge to help their neighbors.

Crisis brings out best in the human spirit, as exemplified by the volunteers and first responders, but it also highlights human folly. On the radio news during my drive to Longmont, I heard a lot about the lack of flood insurance, very little about building in flood plains and almost nothing about climate change! But looking up and down Wright’s street at the heaps of ruined belongings accumulating in front of every house, I knew that I was seeing its toll.

Somehow, the time I spent slogging through the mud and volunteering in the Boulder Flood Relief office gave me some respite from the anxiety I feel in the wee hours — the fear I feel about living at “five minutes to midnight”.

My lifespan will probably cover another 20 to 30 years — not long enough to see the worst of the coming crisis. But long enough to challenge my spiritual resources. And long enough to give me time to try and help those who are suffering now. Maybe even time enough to avert some of the suffering in the years to come.

I wish I knew how to do that.

A Prayer: Let Me Be of Use

I have made a lot of changes in my own lifestyle: making my home more energy efficient, limiting my use of air travel and sharing my automobile. I have also been removing big chunks of my fuel-intensive lawn in favor of a xeriscape.


The center stone in my xeriscape meditation garden. The words painted on the stone read, “The earth does not belong to us
We belong to the earth.
All things are connected.
Whatever befalls the earth
Befalls the sons and daughters of the earth.
We did not weave the web of life.
We are merely a strand within it.”

To deal with the spiritual challenge, I make a daily spiritual practice of walking in my garden, meditating on the stones that pay homage to all the creatures that lived and died there over the eons — many of them perished due to changes in climate. As I walk, I’m saying a mantra that goes something like this:

So much I cannot fix, so much I cannot save. And so I walk the red flagstone path that spirals into the center of my garden. I breathe the scent of lavender and artemisia. I meditate and breathe. Live. And breathe.

The changes that I have made in my home and travel habits are a drop in the bucket, compared to what I would need to do to truly live sustainably. So I will continue to make more changes. (Solar panels on top of the house are probably at the top of my list.)

My personal conviction as to what we need to do to save ourselves is to leave all the remaining fossil fuels in the ground. No one is asking my opinion about that, and I’m pretty sure that political and economic inertia ensures that humans will keep on mainlining fossil fuels until they are gone. (Economics – that big lever that prompts individual and social change – makes it very tough just to change one’s driving habits, much less to alter the myriad other ways we all use fossil fuel.)

Climate-Change Related Depression?

As challenging as the change of fuel habits is for me, I find the spiritual fight against depression and paralysis is even more daunting.

I haven’t solved that; I doubt that anyone has.

While writing this post, I did Google my term “climate-change related depression” and found that I didn’t coin the term.  Psychologists for Social Responsibility have written about this problem already. Here’s an excerpt from what they have to say about it:

While it’s impossible at this juncture to predict how climate change will show itself and how people will respond to it, already the planet is experiencing historic levels of heat waves, droughts, storms, floods, rising sea levels, and the melting of vital ice resources that have contributed to higher rates of anxiety, depression, conflict, and other behavioral symptoms in Earth’s citizens.

Psychologists for Social Responsibility also include a checklist of “symptoms in response to climate change’s stressors.” I am battling  several of them: anxiety, depression, persistent grief and “avoidance from the awareness of climate change.”

That last one – avoidance – stops with this post.

A Prayer and My Best Prescription

I have learned a few hard-won spiritual and emotional lessons during my decades on this planet. Many of them are related to dealing with crisis, change and managing depression. Here are the anti-depressive prescriptions that have worked best for me:

  • Whatever topic prompts a knot of anxiety in your stomach, that’s the one you must talk about
  • Among best cures for depression and its attendant paralysis are social engagement and helping other people
  • Life’s meaning and purpose is found in putting one’s gifts to use, and people who feel purpose in their lives are happier and at less risk for depression

As I said before, I don’t know quite how to put all this into practice. In times of stressful change, I often remember the words of Arthur Ashe: “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”

I’m right here — near Aspen, Colorado and on the internet — and here’s what I have to offer: My gifts include writing, a background in social change, a knowledge of sustainable building practices and the ability to re-design houses in ways that anticipate changes in the human lifespan.

I’m not sure how to bundle all these in a way that is useful, but I am putting out this post as a prayer to the universe, and to all who read these words.

If you know of ways that I may be of use, please let me know.


To Be of Use

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

- Marge Piercy


Related Links


What To Do If You’re Flooded: Advice from the School of Hard Knocks

September 25, 2013

Daniel Russ, a retired fire Nevada chief, owns a house near the coast of Southwest Louisiana. boulder flood reliefThe place has been flooded not once, but twice! First it was inundated by hurricane Rita, and then by hurricane Ike. Each time, more than four feet of water invaded the house.

Having graduated from the school of hard knocks, Dan has seasoned advice to offer.

I met Dan on Boulder Flood Relief’s website, and then corresponded with him personally. He told me, “I found that, after returning to my flooded home, I didn’t quite know what to do. Here is a list that I made up and followed. If you have a friend who was flooded please, please print this out and give it to them.”

It’s a great list, and I’m sure lots of folks here in Colorado can use it. Share it with everyone!

 What to do if your home is flooded

  1. Turn off the power at the breaker box.
  2. Make sure the house is stable and safe to enter.


    Ruined furnishings pulled out of a house in Longmont.

  3. If you can locate a camera, take lots of pictures. Be sure to take pictures of the outside of the house as well.
  4. Wear rubber boots, Playtex-type gloves, cheap filter masks (N95) and eye protection, if needed.
  5. Clean out the fridge right away! Get that stinky food out of the house.
  6. Get all of the ruined furniture out to the road or in the front yard.
  7. Store good stuff elsewhere. Remove valuables!
  8. Find a squeegy and/or wide shovel, and a box of large heavy duty black trash bags.
  9. Cut the drywall above the high water mark. Remove any drywall or paneling at least a foot above the high water mark.

    Drywall cut above the line of flooding.

    Drywall cut above the line of flooding.

  10. Remove any wet insulation.
  11. Get all of the wet stuff (insulation, drywall, and carpet) out of the house.
  12. If you can find a propane or butane heater, open the windows and fire it up. You should be able to drive a lot of moisture out of the windows before mold takes over.
  13. Go to Sam’s Club or Walmart and buy something called Odo-Ban (a little of it goes a long way). It will kill the smell. Use only as directed! The sooner you do it the better!
  14. If you have or can borrow a travel trailer, move it to your yard and have someone stay there. This will ensure that your belongings will remain yours.

Ross writes, “These are all immediate repairs you can make. Most people can do it themselves  — and with a few friends.” Currently, Boulder Food Relief, the  organization I wrote about in my previous post, is organizing lots of new friends to help flood victims in Boulder and Longmont, Colorado to take the above 14 steps.

What happened to Russ’ home

“In my case,” Russ told me, “the house was considered a ‘total loss’ by the FEMA inspector who came several months after the storm. (Then a year later I was hit by another hurricane and flood.) I got a modest amount of money to start my rebuild.“

Russ notes that most Colorado flood victims were unlikely to have flood insurance, and adds that “only rising waters covered by flood insurance. So everything you can do to save your house will be a major savings to you and your family.”

More flood recovery tips

  • Saving photos. If your photos are all wet, keep them wet (for now). Store them in water until you can dry them properly. Drying photos — by placing them behind glass or plastic photo album covers — will not work. They will stick as they dry, which will ruin them. They must be spread out on a table or hung (like photographers do) to dry properly.


    Renata Hill and her husband, Steve, helped move tons of mud and sand in the hard-hit area of north Boulder near Jay Road.

  • Generator and Heater Safety Tips. Please remember that if you are running a generator or a butane or propane heater, these devices are dangerous.  To dry your house, you need to follow these precautions:
    • Operate any generator, butane or propane heater outside, in a well-ventilated area. Well-ventilated does not mean in the garage. Both devices give off poisonous carbon monoxide gas, which can kill you if breathed in over a period of time. You cannot smell carbon monoxide gas. It will put you to sleep, and then you will die.
    • If you are drying your house out with a butane or propane heater, get it working and then get out of the house.
    • Keep electrical cords out of the water.
    • ]If your house is serviced by gas or propane and it smells of rotten eggs when you enter. Leave the house right away, leaving the door open. Find the gas valve on the tank or on the gas meter and turn it off. Enter only after the smell clears.”


    The entire CU-Boulder men’s lacrosse team pitched in to help Boulder flood victims.

Watch out for the sharks

While volunteering with Boulder Flood Relief, I saw both extremes of human nature on view at the flood site. As I followed the volunteers into a house, a man stopped me on the street and asked, “Do you need help?”

Boulder Flood Relief Volunteers rally for another day of mudslinging.

Boulder Flood Relief Volunteers rally for another day of mudslinging.

I laughed and replied, “No, I’m here to give help.”

He grinned slyly and said, “Are you makin’ money?”

Shocked, I replied, “No, not at all. I drove a couple hundred miles to be here, at my own expense. I’m with a team of volunteers, all of whom are giving their time.”

At that, he just walked off.

Interior of Boulder grocery store during the flood.

Interior of Boulder grocery store during the flood.

Although I was taken aback, Russ would not be surprised at this exchange. He said, “There will be a lot of fly-by-night contractors fleeing to your area. They will show up at your door offering help and talk a good line of B.S. It’s important to remember that it’s all an act and they are only there to take your money and enrich themselves. Tell them you’ll “have to think about it” and get rid of them.”

Unfortunately, disasters bring out all sorts of unscrupulous characters, and Russ sends this piece of advice about working with contractors.

  • Only deal with contractors who are licensed, reputable, established and from your area. Many will overbook themselves and then string you along.
  • Ask for their license and get everything in writing!
  • Do not pay anything up front.

Russ says, “I learned this the hard way.  I lost tens of thousands trying to deal with these types. Use extreme caution. Only use established local contractors or do it yourself.”


Re: Occupy – Volunteers Lift Spirits as Boulder’s Floods Recede

September 19, 2013
Volunteers from Boulder Flood Relief bring buckets of mud out of Wright's basement.

Volunteers from Boulder Flood Relief bring buckets of mud out of Wright’s basement.

Looking at the line of volunteers who are slogging out to the junk heap at the curb, Longmont homeowner Glenn Wright says, “This is overwhelming. This makes me start to cry. It’s way more than my tenants and I could do.”

Wright has been visited by several groups of volunteers. Today’s are from Boulder Flood Relief, an impromptu organization that sprung to life less than a week ago in the wake of Colorado’s devastating floods. County officials estimate that more than 7,200 homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed in Larimer and Boulder counties, the hardest-hit areas.


Glenn Wright points out the high water line at the top of the basement stairs. It’s that horizonal black line on the wall board to the left of him, above the studs that are now shorn of wallboard.

Standing on the stairs to the basement, Wright points to a line about two inches below his kitchen floor. “This is where the water came to. About an inch below the basement ceiling.” He looks around the basement, now stripped of its wallboard and furnishings and quickly losing its smelly, squishy carpeting at the volunteers’ hands.“This is pristine compared to what it was,” he says. “This empty space was a storage room. We don’t need a storage room anymore. There’s nothing to store.”

Wright, 57, a CPA who occupies the house at 1208 Columbia with two tenants, is surprisingly cheerful for a man watching his belongings accumulate in the gutter, piled more than five feet high.

Volunteer Linda Angiono pulling down ruined ceiling material.

Volunteer Linda Angiono pulling down ruined ceiling material.

“I was a little depressed this morning,” he admits. “Kids from the high school came and helped yesterday, but the volunteers who were going to come this morning didn’t show. I was so glad when you showed up.”

I’m tagging along with the Boulder Flood Volunteers today. I drove down from my home in Carbondale, near Aspen, a three-a-half hour drive. My car is filled with tools, “muck boots” and my ugliest clothes.

Like me, volunteer Linda Angiono showed up after responding to a message that Boulder Flood Relief posted on Facebook.  While pulling ruined gypsum board off the ceiling, she says, “I got tired of reading all these messages on official websites saying that volunteers weren’t needed. I went to Craigslist and found plenty of people who needed help, and that’s how I found Boulder Flood Relief. This is my second day volunteering for them.”

Boulder Flood Relief was started by veterans of the Occupy movement. It’s organized in ways vetted by the Occupy group that helped victims of Hurricane Sandy. The core group is working out of donated headquarters on Walnut Street in Boulder and has gathered more than 400 volunteers. As of September 19th, they have begun reaching out to nearby communities, including washed-out Lyons, Colorado.


Volunteer Courtnee McIlwee pulls out nasty, wet carpeting.

The tech-savvy group is directly linking helpers to victims largely by using Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus and other internet tools.

Courtnee McIlwee, who is pulling up ruined carpet, just moved to Boulder from Kansas City, Missouri, to enroll in an environmental studies program. She says, “I put out the intention to volunteer yesterday. Then Upworthy posted a link about a guy playing piano in a flooded house. Under that was a link for Boulder Flood Relief. I saw it and thought, ‘I’m supposed to do this’.”

The room that the two women are emptying belongs to Anthony, a tenant who moved into Wright’s home on September 1. When the swollen St. Vrain River began to pour into his room, he had to flee, taking just enough time to grab his cat and his clothes.


Volunteer Chris Beliveau. Those shorts were white at the beginning of the day!

“That was on September 12,” says Wright. “The country had 9/11, and now in Colorado, we have 9/12. We won’t forget this.” On 9/12, Wright had to rescue his own cat by wading through waist-deep water with the animal on his shoulder.

Even though the household never got an evacuation order, Wright recalls, “It was pretty obvious when we had to leave.” The City of Longmont did issue an evacuation phone call – akin to a reverse 911 call – but Wright’s phone service had gone dead. The phone never rang.

The flood waters were so swift that they overturned a refrigerator, swept it out of Wright’s garage and marooned it by the side of the house.

When the waters began to recede, Wright’s tenants joined volunteers working to bail muddy water out of the house. “There’s got to be a special place in heaven for those two guys. They have jobs, and they are helping as much as they can,” says Wright.

“Yesterday was Anthony’s 21st birthday,” he adds. “He spent it carrying buckets of mud. “

The two tenants are currently staying nearby with Wright’s son, while other friends cat-sit.

Currently, Wright’s house has no phone or internet service. The gas is off and


Boulder Flood Relief volunteers gather to go into Longmont neighborhoods.

electricity works in only spots. Wright’s cell phone won’t work either, possibly because the flood destroyed local relay towers.

That lack of communication services complicates the recovery process. To apply to FEMA, homeowners need show their vital records and insurance policies – a process made doubly difficult when communications have been severed and the necessary papers have been swept away or destroyed by the flood. Many of Wright’s business papers are sitting in his garage, glued together with mud.


Every house on the block has a pile of ruined belongings in front of it. This is one of dozens.

Now that the sun is out, they are rapidly hardening into bricks.

“This is going to go on for days and days,” says Wright. “I’m grateful for all the volunteers, because cleaning out this house was an overwhelming amount of work. They got everything ready so I can get the professionals in to pressure wash the place, replace the furnace and rebuild the walls.”

James Maxwell, a spokesman for Boulder Flood Relief, comments, “We have to act now, when they’re not inundated with mold. We can go in, remove the damage before it has a chance to start. That’s very important.”

Those needing assistance or wanting to volunteer may visit the organization’s website – http://boulderfloodrelief.org.


Roots in the Red Earth

September 4, 2013

When I was 17 and impatient for my life to begin, I dropped out of college and ran away. To Aspen.

Red cliffs near Maroon Lake, above Aspen.

Red cliffs near Maroon Lake, above Aspen.

My freshman semester at CU in Boulder had been rough. I couldn’t understand what Beowulf, Grendel, and his monstrous mother had to do with my life. I was desperately lonely. At Christmas, mourning the loss of a boyfriend, who dumped me, and parents who wouldn’t let me move back home, I bought a bus ticket and ran away.

I wanted to run far, far away. I craved a place that was exciting, exotic — safe, and familiar.

So, Aspen it was. In those days before cell phones, RFTA and the internet, it was indeed, far, far away.

But I knew this valley. I had gone to Outward Bound in Marble. I came here to ski, hike and climb. On family trips across the continental divide, I would gaze out the window, and as the gray eastern rock gave way to the red strata of the western slope, I began to unwind. It started around Vail, where the soil changes color and the aspens begin to crowd out the pines. By the time I got to Glenwood Springs, I felt at home.

When I ran away, I was, to paraphrase John Denver, “coming home to a place I never lived before.”


Below Snowmass Village, Colorado, fall of 2010. All photos by Nicolette Toussaint.

It was a wonderful winter. I lived in Snowmass Village with a tribe of other young ski bums, and in the spring, when our jobs melted away along with the snow, I hated to leave. A nice older gentleman – he was probably about 30 – gave me a ride to the bus station in Aspen so that I wouldn’t have to hitchhike. I sat there looking at the red hills with tears streaming down my face.

“You’ll be back,” he said. “You will be back.”

I didn’t believe him.


Author skiing at Snowmass, fall of 2012.

I had worked three jobs here, and I found out what it was like to wait tables and clean up other people’s bathrooms. I had learned that Grendel’s mother was, in fact, a famous red-haired actress who owned a condo in Snowmass Village. We hotel maids would draw straws to see who had to face that particular monster.

I wanted better, and to find it, I knew had to go back to school. And forward into the unknown.

My prospects were not bright. When I looked in the paper, all of the jobs I wanted were listed under “Help Wanted Male.” Help Wanted Female held jobs for secretaries and teachers, and didn’t offer much in the way of making money: I was too short to be a stewardess, too shy to be a Playboy bunny.

So I uprooted myself, got on with my life, and forgot that nice man’s prophecy.

Fast forward forty years, give or take a few.


Author’s xeriscape garden, summer of 2013.

I have just come home, and I am rooting in the red soil of my garden. It’s a xeriscape, filled with scent and color: columbines, lupines, salvia, sage, silvermounds, roses and rock cress. I do this every evening during the summer, taking time to unwind when I come home from my job.

I work as an online writer and website designer – work I could not have imagined 40 years ago, when I left Snowmass with the tears running down my face.

That nice man’s prophecy has come true. After many years, and losses far greater than those I knew at 17, I did come back.

Bee on a bachelor's button. The garden is filled with native plants, in part an effort to combat monoculture and provide food for these cultivators. I have counted four kinds of bees in the garden -- I think. (It's hard to count bees and I'm no expert.)

Bee on a bachelor’s button. The garden is filled with native plants, in part an effort to combat monoculture and provide food for these cultivators. I have counted four kinds of bees in the garden — I think. (It’s hard to count bees and I’m no expert.)

Between here and there, there was so much I could not have imagined at the 17: Kent State. The war in Vietnam. The falling of the Berlin wall. Divorce. Friends lost to AIDS, The suicide of Mason’s daughter. September 11th. The first black man in the white house. Columbine.  The death of my favorite cat. The melting of the glaciers. The drowning of island nations. Nine billion people on our beloved planet.

So much I cannot fix, so much I cannot save. And so I walk the red flagstone path that spirals into the center of my garden. I breathe the scent of lavender and artemisia. I meditate and breathe. Live. And breathe.

As I bend down to dig up a volunteer, and replant it in a better spot, the roots that sink down into this red, red soil are not just green ones; they are my own roots.

I’m not the first to live here, of course. Urban gardeners everywhere get the chance to become archeologists. My first garden in San Francisco yielded broken rice bowls, blue and white china shards. In my second, I found pesos and Saint Joseph, buried upside down. Here, I dig up rusted horseshoes and bits of barbed wire.

The stone commemorating Snowy the Mammoth, found near Ziegler Reservoir in Snowmass.

The stone commemorating Snowy the Mammoth, found near Ziegler Reservoir in Snowmass.

But the soil tells far older tales too. When we dug out the lawn, we found hard clay, and under that, river rocks. Hundreds of them! They come in a wildly improbable palette: red, green, white, gold, gray. Those rounded stones tell of the passing of glaciers, of rivers and peaks washed down over the eons to create the wide sunny spot we call Carbondale.

We filled the xeriscape with soil that our gardener Shara called “dino dirt”. It’s peat that came from a pit near the Ziegler reservoir in Snowmass Village – near the spot where Snowy the Mammoth and 26 other extinct animals were found. Our garden soil is filled with creatures that, in the words of Mary Oliver, were “wild and perfect for a moment” and are “now nothing – forever”.

Because this soil is full of the organic matter that our yard lacks, it makes plants reach for the sky with mad green abandon.

The othniella stone.

The othniella stone.

Along the garden’s spiraling path, I have placed river rocks that pay homage to those who have lived here over time. On the stones, I have painted pictographs of animals and references to when they lived: 225 million years ago, an othnielia, something like a velociraptor, walked by here. 200 million years ago, a plesiosaur swam by in an inland sea.

I wanted my stones to be spaced out to indicate the time between prehistoric eras. But I soon learned that I couldn’t come close to scaling that vast passage of time. I would have needed to place the ammonite out along I-70 near Grand Junction! The first fish would need to be located out near Yellowcat, Utah!

The mountain goat stone.

The mountain goat stone.

As it is, the terminator pig – a favorite of the neighborhood kids who come to visit my rocks – is much too close to the critters that lived in Snowmass. Terminator pig lived 35 million years ago, and he’s just a couple feet from the ice-age camel from 100,000 years ago. Snowy the Mammoth is only a foot from Smiley, the sabre tooth tiger, who was in our neighborhood 15,000 years ago.

Of course, the creature that — in a geologic twinkling of an eye — has so altered the earth, the climate, and the futures of all earthlings, is where he has always imagined himself to be — at the center of everything!  Here he is, the featherless biped, along with his domesticated dog. They crossed the Siberian land bridge together about 10,000 years ago. And here’s his friend the horse, re-introduced by the Conquistadors just 500 years ago.

The large oval stone at the center of the spiral is painted with a human figure that resembles petrogylphs in the Grand Canyon. It also bears a quote from a great native American, Chief Seattle. It reads:


The earth does not belong to us
We belong to the earth.
All things are connected.
Whatever befalls the earth
Befalls the sons and daughters of the earth.
We did not weave the web of life.
We are merely a strand within it.

Although this garden is my getaway, I understand that there is no escaping our interconnectedness. It was the biologist Barry Commoner who first made the statement, “There is no away.” One of his four laws of ecology states that “Everything Must Go Somewhere. There is no “waste” in nature and there is no “away” to which things made by humans can be thrown.”

I know that our garbage dumps are just product graves, and if our kind is not terminated like the terminator pig, perhaps in time, some archeologist will be digging up I-Phones along with our thigh bones.

About a month ago, Mark Kloster and I joined Barbara Palmer to plan TRUU’s summer services. As we sat on Barbara’s deck, alongside the Colorado River, the air filled with tiny wheeling insects. Their wings glittered as the sun sank in the western sky. They were mayflies, insects that live for just one day. There was something poignant in seeing that flash of life against cliffs 5 million years in the making.

In the grand evolutionary scheme of things, I am like the mayflies, as are we all.

In time, my own bones will be part of this red earth. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Seed to stem. Bud to blossom. That’s the way my body will be reincarnated. In the meantime, I walk a sacred spiral path, cherishing my humble and silky life and seeking an angle of repose.

Spirit of Life, Let me heal and not hinder. Help me to accept my place in this fragile and miraculous web of life.

May it be so.


This post was originally a sermon delivered to the Two Rivers Unitarian Universalist congregation in Carbondale, Colorado, on July 7, 2013.
Peonies  By Mary Oliver
This morning the green fists of the peonies are getting ready
   to break my heart
     as the sun rises,
        as the sun strokes them with his old, buttery fingers and they open–
   pools of lace,
      white and pink–
       and all day the black ants climb over them,

boring their deep and mysterious holes
    into the curls,
      craving the sweet sap,
        taking it away

to their dark, underground cities–
   and all day
      under the shifty wind,
       as in a dance to the great wedding,

the flowers bend their bright bodies,
   and tip their fragrance to the air,
     and rise,
       their red stems holding

all that dampness and recklessness
    gladly and lightly,
      and there it is again–
        beauty the brave, the exemplary,

blazing open.
    Do you love this world?
      Do you cherish your humble and silky life?
       Do you adore the green grass, with its terror beneath?

Do you also hurry, half-dressed and barefoot, into the garden,
   and softly,
      and exclaiming of their dearness,
       fill your arms with the white and pink flowers,

with their honeyed heaviness, their lush trembling,
    their eagerness
      to be wild and perfect for a moment, before they are
        nothing, forever?



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 73 other followers

%d bloggers like this: