Lisa Brunette is an award-winning novelist, journalist, game designer, and longtime blogger. Originally from the Midwest, she spent 20 years in "outer space," otherwise known as Miami and the Pacific Northwest, but now she's returned to her roots... to dig in the soil and define good living for herself.
Note: This is the first in a series on gardens that have inspired us. First up is Anthony Valterra (the other half here at Dragon Flower Farm, in case you didn't know), giving a lovely snapshot of a garden I've admired ever since we met, as it's in the fam. - Lisa
I don’t have any clear memory of a time when my father wasn’t gardening. Even when we were renting small houses on the outskirts of Walla Walla, Washington, we at least had a vegetable patch. Every year I remember watching my dad buy and plant seeds. Of course, our family also canned fruit, made salsa, and had a root cellar. My father was the son of dairy farmers and my mother the daughter of very poor immigrants. It makes sense that they would continue to see the dangers of the world being mitigated by a small garden and some canned foods on a shelf under the house.
But as time passed, both my mother and father moved from gardens that were purely practical to ones that were a combination of practical and decorative. My parent’s divorced, and although my mother continued gardening, for her it became a hobby. But my father, after he retired from teaching, went pro. He now runs Thompson Landscaping in Walla Walla. And he helps his current wife (my stepmother) Cyndi Thompson with her business, My Grandmother’s Garden. The two businesses are located on their property in Walla Walla, and where one begins and the other ends is probably not terribly clear to someone arriving for the first time. The small cabin that is My Grandmother’s Garden moves seamlessly into the landscape and greenhouses that is Thompson Landscapes. Dear old dad has even had a bit of national recognition with a pictorial of his and Cyndi’s home in Sunset Magazine (about 1989). We're hard-pressed to find a copy, but here's a shot my wife recently took of the entrance to My Grandmother's Garden to make up for it.
After I had gone off to college, Dad’s interest in and skill at gardening and garden art kept developing. His skill with layout and plants was always good, but it quickly become noted enough for him to be contracted to landscape local wineries, the local community college, and private homes (often of the people who owned the wineries – lots of money there). But one of the more ironic twists in my father’s gardening journey was his discovery that dried grapevines make a terrific artistic medium. My father taught junior high and coached. All his life he has been an avid sports fan – both professional and college. Being a teacher, and a sports fan - he would sometimes remark on the academic potential of college athletes who seemed (at least in interviews) to not be terribly bright. My dad’s go-to comment was that they were taking “basket weaving” classes.
As I said, my father grew up poor, and so he has the attitude of, "Well, why should I buy that? I can make it myself?" One of the first businesses he and Cyndi tackled was flowers for weddings. And one of the common elements of those arrangements is a "flower basket." They grew the flowers, but where to get the baskets? Dad convinced himself (and his clients) that he could weave them out of dried grapevines. And he succeeded. Thus my father found that weaving baskets was not something to be taken lightly, and also (when filled with flowers for a wedding) could be very lucrative.
Now in his late 70’s, my father has slowed down. The garden around his home is still immaculate. It is filled with gorgeous flowers, grasses, and trees. He does have some edible plants, but they are mostly planted for their appearance - such as an exquisite dwarf lemon tree - rather than to be eaten. His garden attracts all manner of pollinators and even the occasional wild animal (moose, fox, deer, rabbits have all been seen wandering onto the property). He still has large greenhouses where he grows plants both to sell and for landscaping. But nowadays he spends most of his time designing, and he lets younger hands lift the heavy trees and do the planting.
But if you ever get out to Walla Walla (and trust me, the only reason you would wind up in Walla Walla is if that was your destination) – it is worth a short trip down 3rd street to see My Grandmother’s Garden and Thompson Landscapes.
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Aren't these roses lovely? They're one of the few plants in the Dragon Flower Farmyard that we were able to keep, since they aren't invasive or nuisance plants that steal resources from native plants, pollinators, and animals without giving anything in return. Not that they're GREAT or anything, from an ecological point of view. They're still ornamental and exotic. But at least they're not on the Missouri Conservation Department's list of thug plants, as were the winter creeper (now gone) and Japanese honeysuckle (also gone).
Last time here on the blog, we chronicled the tremendous effort that went into removing those invasives. They took up most of the yard's greenery and had grown into and around a legacy chainlink fence as well.
This time I'm here to share the last chapter of the fence-install story, and it's a shocker.
For financial reasons, we split the fence job, completing the side between us and the apartment building during the summer and opting to finish in November. I wasn't sure they could dig the posts in as late as the week after Thanksgiving, but our friends at Just Wooden Fences said it would be no problem.
In between, we had Horstmann Brothers Landscaping remove the honeysuckle, and what lay in wait underneath kind of horrified us.
You already saw the chainlink fence on the southeast side of the property, and it was eyesore enough, not to mention tough to remove since the winter creeper (which is supposed to be a GROUND COVER) had woven itself up through the chainlink so that the fence and the creeper had essentially become one.
We assumed the fence on the rear and northwest sides would be the same. But we were wrong. It was much, much worse.
Yeah, it looked like the edge of the demilitarized zone. Images of the Gestapo came to mind.
Although the honeysuckle vine was invasive, it had served as a rather attractive green screen. Taking it out left a large swath of bare, ugly fence topped with barbed wire.
But why? Who or what had they kept in? Or out?
We'll never know. But that fence had to GO.
By the way, in the above photo, you can also see the tremendous round mound of ditch lilies, reviled by many but actually pretty harmless, as far as plants go. A big circle of orange ditch lilies doesn't do much for us, aesthetically or self-sufficiency-wise, but I understand they ARE fully edible, so maybe we'll keep some around and experiment.
Again, you can imagine what a relief it was when the fence posts went up.
We felt really exposed after the honeysuckle came down and before Just Wooden Fences began work, but once the fence started to take shape, the farmyard began to feel a lot cozier. And we got a ton of compliments from our neighbors on all sides.
The cedar really is lovely in its natural state, and I wish we could leave it that way, but of course if we didn't stain and seal it, the planks would weather to a dull grey in no time. The fence also wouldn't last as long.
By the way, here above is another view of the french drain installed by Horstmann Bros. The drain is underneath these rocks, between our house and the four-family flat next door. We have had ZERO leaks in the basement since the drain went in, despite torrential downpours, a foot of snowmelt, and generally a ton of moisture all winter long. The farmyard is basically one big mudscape right now. But the basement's dry! Yay!
Here's my handsome husband, Anthony, surveying the job, mid-install. Behind him you can see the empty spot near the corner of the yard where we had Horstmann remove a willow tree that had been badly sited beneath power lines and then aggressively topped off. The tree was ill-grown and damaged, half of it succumbing to disease.
Here's where the new fence joins the section installed in the summer. You can see how the stain gives the wood a golden hue. I still like the look of the raw cedar better, myself, but the golden version is lovely, too, and totally worth it to protect the fence, which is quite an investment!
Next time, I'll share details on our first plantings, which happened all through the late fall and early winter, too. I guess this is surprising to people, since most do all their planting in spring, but it's actually better to plant many trees and plants in the fall and winter, when they are dormant.
Thanks again for your interest in our urban farm project, and please tell us what you think in the comments below. Are you pro-fences? Anti? I know some people think of them as unnecessary barriers, but we wanted the privacy, security, and visual screen only a fence affords.
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As part of a 200-hour yoga teacher training, I'm studying Mark Stephens' book, Yoga Sequencing: Designing Transformative Yoga Classes. Stephens’ background is not far from my own experience with yoga, as he comes from a decidedly West Coast perspective, as someone trained in and teaching in California, and my yoga practice was largely formed by the same influences. He references two Master Yogis I also know of, Erich Schiffman and Shiva Rea. As I've previously mentioned, Schiffman’s video with Ali MacGraw formed the basis of the beginning of my yoga practice in the 90s. I’ve also taken, I think, if memory serves me right, at least one class with Shiva Rea at the studio where I practiced Baptiste-style yoga in Seattle, Shakti. So even though it’s relatively easy for me to connect with this author, I’m still aware of his perspective, and even bias.
When I analyze a work of writing, I like to first make myself aware of an author's bias. This comes from years of teaching university-level rhetoric and composition; it's an exercise in critical thinking. We often use the word "bias" in a negative sense these days, but I don't mean it that way at all. Everyone has a particular bias, a way of approaching a subject that reveals a perspective or stance in relation to that subject.
Stephens' obvious bias is toward the art of sequencing. As someone who offers sequencing workshops and has written this book, he would definitely be biased toward "free-form," or crafted sequencing, for example, over practices that use set sequences, such as Bikram.
I can't fault him for this bias, as he has obviously wrestled with the question and come to a conclusion that crafted sequencing is better or at least preferred to set sequences, enough to devote his life to guiding others in the art of sequencing. But whether a set sequence or free-form is truly better is a worthwhile question, one I haven't seen tackled much in yoga circles. I'd like to explore it further with you.
First, let's look at what Stephens finds valuable in the set sequences of the Ashtanga and Bikram styles of yoga. Most importantly, in his opinion, is the "perfect mirror" the set sequence provides. While the yoga poses and the order they are done in never changes, the yogi does, he says, "making the experience of doing the sequence somewhat more a reflection of the person doing it than the sequence itself."
In my own practice, I can attest to this. From about 2002-2006, I was a devoted Bikram yogi, and over the course of that time, I witnessed dramatic progress in every single pose in the 26-asana sequence. Not only that, but I felt transformed in many other areas of my life as well. I put a suite of extreme allergic reactions into remission, I drastically lowered my alcohol consumption (not compatible at all with hot yoga!), and I felt a rare clarity of purpose, an energetic ambition to live well in the present and let anger and pain release into the past. A long sufferer of PTSD-related nightmares and insomnia, I finally experienced better sleep. Least importantly, I lost weight, and most importantly, I felt stronger, more flexible, and overall, healthier.
Now let's look at Stephens' argument against set sequences. He acknowledges that because the yogi always knows what the next pose will be, they can provide "a deeper absorption in what is happening right now." But he also points out that sets can make students anticipate the next pose too much, which "detracts from the experience of being fully present in the current moment in connecting breath, body, and mind."
It sounds like this is definitely the case with some yogis. But in my experience, if you get into what I call “yoga head space” and stay in the moment, you don’t think too much about the next pose. Not that knowing the next pose in your body is bad, either. A set sequence can remove the need to “prep” the body for a pose you don’t know is coming until it’s cued. So much also depends on how the sequence is cued. Changing sequences every class can feel really random and lacking in flow, the cues awkward. I’ve been much less likely to injure myself in set sequences.
I also want to say this: Each pose is like a universe. It contains within it millions of micro-adjustments, a vast space of exploration. You don’t really get the sense of this until you practice with set sequences. It’s one of the things I miss about the Bikram style.
Stephens' biggest argument against set sequences is "the potential strain caused by doing repetitive actions." The example he gives is from the primary series in Ashtanga Vinyasa style, which leads yogis through Chaturanga Dandasana more than 50 times. He says:
Even if one is properly aligned and engaging effective energetic actions, this can be a very challenging sequence that, done repetitively, can strain the shoulder and wrist joints as well as the lower back, knees, hips, elbows, and neck.
This is a strong observation, and in my own experience with this particular pose flow, I can say that Mark Stephens is absolutely right. I've seen the toll that Chaturanga takes on me and on other yogis, particularly women. Generally speaking, female biology puts our strength and center of gravity not in the upper body where this pose flow demands emphasis - but lower, in the hips, butt, and legs. When friends of mine try yoga and pronounce it's not for them, it's usually because of discomfort or even pain in this particular flow.
But is this the fault of set sequencing - or of specifically Chaturanga Dandasana (especially done 50 times)?
I argue it's the latter. There is no Chaturanga in the 26-pose Bikram sequence, and after four years of frequent (5-7 days per week for 90 minutes per class) practice, I did not feel the pain that comes from repetitive strain. However, I did feel it years later, after practicing Baptiste-style vinyasa, where no two classes were ever the same. The problem, in my opinion, was that Chaturanga Dandasana was a core element to the style, so most classes drew heavily on it.
Therefore, the problem isn't with "set sequence," but with the way sequences are designed, whether set or crafted.
And that brings me back to the phenomenal value of Stephens' book. Despite my disagreement with his argument in favor of free-form sequencing, an argument I don't think he needed to make, I'm absolutely jazzed to learn how to sequence yoga poses. It seems like the Holy Grail of yoga. I've always either attended yoga classes, where a teacher is there to guide me, or when at home, used a book or DVD or my memory of the Bikram sequence, for example, to provide a structure. I've never felt really comfortable designing my own flows. But this book is already changing that. If you're a yoga teacher, you should definitely get a copy, and it's helpful for anyone with a home practice, too. It's also on sale right now through Amazon.
So far, Yoga Sequencing has provided me with some techniques for initiating the yogic process, which is the centering step at the beginning of every yoga class, and I've gained a good introduction to the idea of warming and awakening the body. A lot of this is also building on and giving specific explanation to what I've intuitively picked up through thousands and thousands of hours in yoga classes over 25 years. For example, I've long understood that there are types of poses grouped by major aspect, such as standing poses, back bends, hip openers, and inversions, just to give three. I did not know that "standing asanas are the safest family for warming and opening the entire body in preparation for more complex asanas," but on an intuitive level, it makes sense to me.
Beyond that, though, there is MUCH more to learn. Take the issue of externally- versus internally-rotated hip movements as just one variable of caution within the standing asanas alone. Stephens says not to move back and forth between these types of asanas and to instead separate them, always placing the externally-rotated poses before the internally-rotated ones. Whew, there are a lot of rules for me to master here!
For the teacher, there is plenty to consider both in teaching a set sequence and in designing one anew. For the student, it comes down to what feels right in your body. While I had no pain with the Bikram sequence, someone else might. And while I did have chronic pain from years of Chaturanga, and it is a common complaint especially among female yogis, there will always be those who embrace and love that flow.
My advice? Listen to your body, not your ego. After I'd been practicing Bikram for four years, I decided to try vinyasa flow, and this "dancing on your mat" captivated me enough to keep me for a decade. As I aged into my forties, however, the practice no longer served me as well, so I tried something else. And something else... AND something else.
There's a lot out there for you to explore in the yoga realm, so don't give up if a sequence or class or teacher doesn't seem right for your body. Something else will.
Now tell me your thoughts. Are you pro-set sequence? Or do they bore you to tears? What yoga style do you love?
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My yoga practice began 25 years ago - with a yoga video tape I played on a VCR at home.
Imagine what St. Louis, Missouri, was like in 1994. There were no yoga studios to speak of back then. The only yoga I had ever encountered was on PBS, in the form of a super-slender woman in leotard, with a long braid running down her back, who led you through a series of bendy, twisting poses. She was like the Bob Ross of the yoga world. Yoga was something that people who followed gurus did.
But then I read a glowing review - printed in the back of a women's magazine - of a yoga video. I'm not sure what it was that convinced me, maybe the white sand dune setting in the marketing image, or the fact that the yoga guide in the video was actor Ali MacGraw. But I went right out and bought it, back when you could go to an actual store, look for a video on a shelf, buy it, take it home, and pop it into the black box under your TV.
I'm convinced that purchase changed my life.
It's a beautifully done video, now a classic in the yoga world. The setting is gorgeous, and the soundtrack - by the band Dead Can Dance - became the rhythm of my breath and movement, weaving itself into my muscle fiber and psyche. While Ali MacGraw acts as your guide, Master Yogi Erich Schiffmann is the teacher here, and his calm, meditative voice is still with me at times when I practice:
Ujjayi breathing is the most important single element of our practice.
If you start to sway, don't give up. Trees sway, get more grounded.
As first yoga teachers go, you can't get much better than Erich Schiffmann, and although I've never met him in person, he narrates so well in Yoga Mind and Body that I feel like I've taken his class, in real life.
The video holds up really well after all this time, with its cast of yogis - diverse both in terms of age and ethnicity - and the distilled elements of what is yoga at its heart. MacGraw's opening profession of wanting something more than a workout, something to "still the chatter" in her mind, captures what makes yoga so transformative. It was for me then and continues to be.
My yoga practice has changed and evolved as I have over the years since that initial connection. By 2002, I had migrated out to the West Coast, where you can't throw a rock down the street without hitting a yogi. (Not that you should throw rocks at yogis!) My first in-studio yoga experience was Bikram's now-infamous hot yoga - the same 26 poses done each time in a room heated to 104 degrees. Bikram is a powerful, disciplined practice, and I recommend every yogi try it at least once in their lives. My teacher was a gentleman I knew only as Scott, who taught nearly every class I took, sometimes seven days a week, at Bikram Yoga Tacoma. The studio closed a while back, but the lessons Scott imparted are still with me. He taught me to focus on my own mat and ignore what's happening on my neighbor's, and he taught me to take Child's Pose when needed, but not for too long.
When I moved to Seattle proper, I continued to practice that style at Bikram Yoga Seattle (which has now morphed into Sealevel Hot Yoga). I'll never forget yoga teacher and owner Kevin Cooke calling out in his characteristic accent, "Ahms back, ahms back," to cue a standing backward bend. A line in a poem in my book Broom of Anger is inspired by moments in class when another teacher there told students to "look back with your eyes."
In 2005, I discovered Baptiste-style vinyasa flow, and that was it for me for the next decade.
Vinyasa style is free-flowing, like dancing on your mat, and the funky, cool studio where I practiced in Seattle often had music. Sometimes live music - more than once, we practiced with Steve Gold performing in the same room. Shakti was a lively, energetic, fun place to practice, and it was there that my practice reached its peak, at least in terms of the range of more difficult, challenging poses I could do. I was very lucky to get to practice with teachers Lisa Black (the studio's owner), Scott Simon, Eric Elven, and Jodi Boone - all very good guides.
From there, I tried acrobatic yoga, Pilates, a dance style called Nia, and even trapeze.
My husband was a brave partner for acroyoga, with my stepson joining us occasionally as well. We took classes taught by two fabulous sisters, Angela DiMario and Jill Baumgardner, both owners, for a couple of years at Kula Movement. Through acroyoga, I learned to fly, and finally I could practice inversions confidently. Kula is right in the heart of Ballard, and we would practice on market days in front of a big window of onlookers. For the first time, I didn't mind.
Trapeze is another story: It put me in touch with my intense fear of heights, and I came to quickly accept the limitation. I have a newfound respect for trapeze artists, who make something look so easy that is actually quite demanding on the body.
Pilates is great for your body, but it's very expensive and rare to find the one-on-one Reformer classes that have the biggest impact. Mat Pilates didn't quite do it, not when I can do yoga instead.
I practiced a somatic dance style called Nia for two solid years at Embody, a studio that became a sort of second home to me. Owner Christina Wolf is a fantastic teacher with true-blue leadership skills, and it was an honor to learn from her and her crew of fellow teachers, especially Rachael Prince (Nia, barre) and Greg Bowles (yoga). There I earned a white belt and a Moving to Heal certificate, which meant I could teach the dance style in both its more energetic form or its slower, more healing-focused pace. But life had other plans...
Now I find myself back in a transformed St. Louis, where there are three yoga studios within walking distance of my house, let alone in the city as a whole. And at the closest one, I've found the perfect place to take my first teacher training.
I feel really self-conscious telling people I've been practicing yoga for 25 years. Inevitably, it raises the expectation that after all these years of practice, I should be able to flip around in handstands with ease, twist my body into a pretzel shape, or even levitate.
But I can't do any of those things. I realize we're conditioned - especially by inexperienced yoga teachers - to believe that over time, any depth or achievement in a pose is possible, as if yoga can be represented as a line graph, the arrow soaring upward and to the right over time. Truth be told, my yoga trajectory looks more like a bell curve.
And that's OK. Because of a lifetime of car accidents and a 22-degree scoliosis S-curve, I have pain in my left shoulder and right hip that has signaled to me it's time to recalibrate. Here in my late 40s, my body craves a slower, more contemplate practice. Fortunately, the teacher training I've enrolled in fits with that recognition exceptionally well. You can tell by the fact that my fellow students range in age from their 20s to age 70, encompassing a wide variety of yoga expressions. Our teacher espouses the snowflake principle - no two yoga poses are ever alike.
The teacher training also includes private lessons. During my first one, the instructor expressed delight with what she could see in my practice as evidence of a long history of good training. That's part of why I decided to honor my past teachers in this post. I thank them deeply for sharing their lessons, helping to calm and center my mind and make my body stronger and healthier. They have been amazing guides, and I will endeavor to continue their examples.
Wish me luck as I begin my yoga journey anew, and tell me about your experiences in the comments below. How long have you practiced? How has your yoga changed with you?
Last year was an epic one for me personally, with the launch and steady ramp up for Brunette Games. I like judicious, nimble startups, testing and tweaking as I go, which is why I didn't opt to spend a lot of resources on flashy things like a new web site and branding last year. Since I found myself knee-deep in inquiries without those things, I thought it best to focus on what makes a business successful: its people. And I'm glad I did. I'm smack dab in the Midwest quietly building the best narrative team in the casual game business ;).
But now we're at that flex point where the original blog, Cat in the Flock, can no longer contain Brunette Games. So it's time to split the sites.
As you can see from last week's countdown of the top 10 blog posts of 2018, our game content is popular--but so are our lifestyle stories, such as the ongoing saga of Dragon Flower Farm. We can see the quirky connections between these two topic areas, as I tried to articulate last week:
...the real-world design play we engage in with the farm mirrors the virtual farms and gardens of the games we love to play and design, such as Gardenscapes, Matchington Mansion, My Beauty Spa, FarmVille 2, and more. One inspires the other.
This cross-inspiration is really me. I'm a total generalist with a lot of varying interests and an abiding curiosity about SO MANY THINGS. I tend to resist compartmentalizations.
HOWEVER, we admit it's a bit of a leap to put the two disparate worlds of gaming and lifestyle together (unless you've practiced D&D-themed yoga?). Some readers might just want advice on how to craft better game storylines, without the updates on how the farm is doing. Other readers have been with me since the Dreamslippers days and are only mildly curious about my game work--bless you for your loyalty and ongoing support--but I don't want to inflict you with a lot of game industry stuff if that's not really your jam.
So... On to the nitty-gritty.
We have a new site for Brunette Games. It's a work-in-progress for now, but the aim is to showcase the studio's activity as a whole and give insight into the team's background, projects, obsessions... anything that has to do with our game writing and design. A new company logo is in the works, designed by Monika Younger, the same brilliant artist who created the covers for every book in the Dreamslippers Series. (Speaking of that book series, it may reappear on Brunette Games if we adapt it to the interactive novel format.)
Supporting the site are a new Instagram account (@brunettegames) and Facebook page. We will also send out an email digest for readers who prefer to get their blog content in one monthly wrap-up. Here's the really important part:
We will migrate all Brunette Games clients past and present to this list, along with anyone else who looks to us like obvi gamer types. If you don't think you fall into those categories and would like to sign up for the Brunette Games list anyway, please do so here.
So, what happens to Cat in the Flock? I'm rebranding her as the lifestyle blog she always dreamed of being. If you click back through the content, you'll see lifestyle has been a constant theme throughout, whether that's pointing out the virtues of native plants or giving wellness advice based on a longtime yoga practice. The seeds of this go back REALLY far, as I once handled all the lifestyle content for the Northwest news site Crosscut, and I have always really loved gardening, yoga, and interior design. "Cat in the Flock: Lifestyle with Teeth" will cover these topics, with a few other lifestyle themes woven in as well. My author Insta account will continue to serve Cat in the Flock, as will the Facebook page. The newsletter will continue to go out as it has, minus the game content. So if you're on the list and want to stay on the list, don't do a thing! We'll take care of you.
OK, to recap! If you want to keep reading about games, sign up for the Brunette Games email list here. That's it!
Thanks for sticking with us through this exciting time of growth and change for me personally and for Brunette Games. We can't wait to share more!