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Wednesday, 8 June 2011

I think I’m at a turning-point. In fact, I’m sure I am. I’ve been here two full months, and have four to go. And there’s a job to do be done.

The funds that have enabled me to put my paying work to one side and come out here  come from a body called the Harold Hyam Wingate Foundation. I believe their wealth originated in a chain of London cinemas.

I applied for a scholarship in order that I might make sense of my twenty-year interest in the work of Mari Sandoz and attempt to write something about her life, the environment that shaped her. I also made the bold, the reckless claim, that I would attempt to introduce her to a British readership. Already I’m beginning to wish I’d never said that.

I feel as if, so far, I’ve been doing all the easy stuff: getting to know a bit about these Sandhills, settling into a ranching community, familiarising myself with the plants, wildlife and weather, establishing routines. Then, the other day, I looked at my new screen-door, my tidy garden, and realised that I’d more or less run out of what writers call displacement activity. It was time, as they say, to shit or get off the pot.

So I am about to start on something. Some of it may appear on the blog. It depends on how productive I am and how brave I feel.

Meanwhile, let’s tiptoe back onto safer ground and talk about plants. Things are happening fast out there. A couple of days ago Matt looked out at the hills and said that the oldtimers always reckoned if they turned green like that you knew things were good. Many years they don’t fully lose their winter colours.

Everywhere I look as I walk around – and since the snake incidents I’m looking very closely – I see new, vigorous growth. Some of the grasses are coming into flower already:



At the same time the prickly pear are putting out new leaves.


I’ll be interested to see how well they flower, and whether they bear fruit. Last year I was down in New Mexico in September and the red tunas, as they call them, were abundant. Sweet, fleshy, and full of seeds. I liked them. Fingers crossed.

A few days ago I put up a picture of a yucca in bud. Here’s another I came across last night, much more advanced and almost ready to flower.



Every year, it seems, springtime happens more quickly. Just like out parents said. It’s taken me decades to work out what’s going on, to recognise and remember the different phases of plant growth. And still each year things happen behind my back, as it were. One moment you’re waiting for a particular plant to flower, the next moment you’re coming across its seed-head. Last night when I was out I started to worry, not for the first time, about the names of all the different grasses. Will I learn them? Will I even find them in these picture books? And then I relaxed, reminded myself of something I decided some years ago. It’s more useful to know what a plant or animal looks like, or smells like, how it behaves, when it appears – to experience and enjoy it - than to fret over what it’s called. Either you get to know that or you don’t. You can even give a plant your own name, as the ancients did.

Despite the rain, Matt is irrigating. Has to, he tells me, because the water disappears through the sand so quickly. I’m seeing the same on my little garden plot, and am watering regularly. I stopped to watch the CPI yesterday.


I was still curious as to how it could take three or four days to complete its cycle. Now I have an idea. Every minute or so the electric motors kick into life, the wheels turn – and stop, after a few seconds, during which they’ve moved a few feet, as little as one third of a revolution.

I mentioned my paid work just now. Yesterday I had a message from Mike Pannett, the retired country copper for whom I write. The city of York’s tourist information office are toying with the idea of a Mike Pannett Trail. Have I got any ideas? My answer was brief and to the point. If we’re looking for freebies, I said, we need to stick in a few of my favourite pubs, then a couple of caf├ęs, and of course York City’s  football ground. Oh, and some cultural and historical sites. If you want to know more about the books – my day job, as it were - the easiest route would be to look for Mike Pannett on Facebook and find your way to our publisher, Hodder U.K.

Well, that’s about it for today. By tomorrow I should have started on the long piece of writing that will, ultimately, justify my being here at someone else’s expense. It’s a cool and breezy day, I have plenty of grub in the fridge. I don’t think I can come up with any more excuses. Wish me luck.