Friday, May 7, 2021

Sarah Stewart Taylor: A Long Island Girl on the Farm

 

LUCY BURDETTE: Recently a friend from early writer days, Sarah Stewart Taylor, has been posting amazing photos of lambing on her Vermont farm. But she's also writing wonderful books--a fascinating combination. I asked her to share that story here, along with news of her forthcoming book! Welcome Sarah, so glad to have you back...


SARAH STEWART TAYLOR: Recently, someone who’s known me since I was a child remarked that she found it amazing that I’d gone from a fairly typical suburban childhood on Long Island to being a sheep farmer in Vermont. I’d been telling her about lambing season at our place, the two or three weeks during which all of our pregnant ewes give birth. It’s a busy, sleepless time as I wake up every few hours during the night to check the barn and help deliver lambs if I need to. Our whole family has to pitch in and at the end of it, we are tired, the house is a mess (well, let’s be honest, the house is always a mess) . . . and there are lots of cute lambs running around. “It’s amazing,” the friend said. “It just seems so far from where you grew up.”

The truth is that my journey from suburban mall rat to rural dwelling sheep farmer was not as long or strange as it might seem. My father grew up in rural New Hampshire, on a sheep and dairy farm, and I have many relatives who make or who have made their lives farming. My mother grew up in Los Angeles but her father grew up on a small farm in rural Iowa. My parents were both teachers and we would rent out our house on Long Island and spend the whole summer vacation in my father’s New Hampshire hometown. I grew up visiting relatives’ farms and hearing lots of stories about farming and animals. As a child and adolescent, some of my favorite books were James Herriot’s tales about his life as a Yorkshire vet in the first half of the twentieth century. (If you haven’t watched the new BBC series based on the books, I highly recommend it!) 


When I met my husband, he was living on his family’s Vermont hobby farm. When he was younger they had overwintered and bred sheep and cows, but by the time I met him they were in the practice of buying a few lambs each spring to pasture over the summer. They had humanely-raised, locally-produced meat for the winter and didn’t have to go out to the barn on frigid winter mornings to break the ice or throw bales of hay to a shivering flock. After we married and moved to the farm and started having babies, we kept up this routine, raising a few lambs for meat each year and adding a flock of chickens to the mix. 

It was a good system. 

Then I decided to mess with it. 

I’d long been interested in breeding sheep, building up our flock for fiber as well as meat, and having new lambs born on the farm. But doing this would mean that we would keep sheep over the winter. As our three children got a little older, I finally felt like I had the bandwidth to learn about shepherding. My husband, who traveled frequently for work, reminded me that it would likely be me who would need to go out to the barn at 2 a.m. to intervene in a troubled birth or to brave below zero temperatures in January to care for the sheep. He had grown up doing that work. He knew what it was like. 

I was undeterred. 


That first year, we borrowed a ram from a neighbor and put him in with our two ewes, Caitlin and Mary. We had him for three weeks, to cover a full sheep reproductive cycle, but I think he earned his keep within the first two minutes. I waited anxiously for the lambs to come, watching Caitlin and Mary’s growing middles and trying to guess how many lambs were in there. They each had a set of twins and I quickly learned that if the births are uncomplicated, sheep can still throw you a curveball by rejecting one or both of their lambs. If the lamb doesn’t nurse from its mother within the first twenty four hours of life, the mother won’t recognize it as her own (through smell, a fascinating process to watch) and won’t feed it. Without human help, the lamb will die. That first year, perhaps because of my anxious helicopter shepherding, we ended up with two rejected lambs that had to be bottle fed. 


It was hard work, but I loved every second of my first lambing season: watching and being involved in the miracle of birth, seeing how the genetics played out, marveling at the exuberance of three-day-old lambs leaping and hopping in the spring sunshine. The next year, we had more lambs, including a hypothermic one who moved into the house with us and wore a diaper and a sweater. (Her name, chosen by a friend, is Ruth Baaahder Ginsburg and she’s now had two sets of twins of her own!) 

I’ve since become much better at knowing when to step in to put the lambs on their mother’s udders to establish that bond immediately; this year, we had seventeen lambs born and not a single one was rejected. 

Shepherds will tell you that sheep are really good at finding ways to die. We’ve been lucky for the most part, though we’ve had a few tragedies, mostly around lambing. This year I had to help deliver a gigantic single lamb stuck in the birth canal of one of our smaller ewes and also deliver a twin lamb that had one front leg back behind its shoulders. Mothers and babies are all doing well. 


I find farming both intensely physical and intensely intellectual. It’s also a great match with novel writing. When I need a break from the computer screen and the convoluted worlds of my characters, going outside to feed the sheep or to shovel actual manure (as opposed to the figurative stuff I shovel on the page!) helps my brain work in a different way and often gives me just the perspective I needed. It also keeps me from spending the day in my desk chair and makes me exercise my creativity in new ways. I don’t have a sheepdog, so how am I going to move these sheep, but not these ones, over to a new field? Or how am I going to set up the temporary fencing in the most efficient way? 

I’ve also loved becoming part of a community of shepherds here in New England and around the world. Shepherds are so generous with their time and knowledge and I’ve learned so much from the sheep people I know, many of them women. I’ve also loved connecting with sheep farmers in Ireland, where my series is set. I’ve made my main character Maggie’s love interest the son of Irish sheep farmers and I even snuck a lambing scene into my new novel, out in June. 


We have been steadily growing the size of our flock over the past five or six years and I think we’re now at a good size. We shear our sheep every spring before lambing and I’m learning about all the different ways to use the fiber. (Here’s a picture of a felted teddy bear my daughter made.) We also sell lambs to other farms and we reserve a few each year for meat. This is the hardest part of farming. Ironically, my family eats far less meat than we did before we raised our own and we now only buy from other small, local farms that meet our very high standards for both treatment of animals and farming practices that take care of the earth. 


We raise chickens for meat and eggs as well and I have come to appreciate my laying hens and even my extremely annoying but magnificent rooster. Fresh eggs are a beautiful thing and I love when our customers remark on the bright orange color of the yolks and how they never knew eggs were supposed to look and taste like that. 

I’m not sure where our farm is going. Pigs might be next. My kids are in their prime years of being both big and strong enough to be helpful and not yet out of the house. Once they’ve all flown the nest my husband and I will have to figure out how much we can – and want to – handle on our own. But this Long Island girl is hooked on farming and I hope that we’ll always have lambs in the spring. 

LUCY: See, what did I tell you? I knew her story would be amazing! Comments and questions anyone?



SARAH STEWART TAYLOR is the author of the Sweeney St. George series and the Maggie D'arcy series. The Mountains Wild was one of Library Journal, Aunt Agatha’s and the South Florida Sun Sentinel’s best of 2020 mystery picks and has been nominated for the Dashiell Hammett Prize. A Distant Grave, the second Maggie D’arcy mystery, will be published in June, 2021. Taylor grew up on Long Island in New York and was educated at Middlebury College in Vermont and Trinity College in Dublin. She lived in Dublin, Ireland in the mid-90s and she now lives with her family on a farm in Vermont where they raise sheep and grow blueberries. You can find her online at www.SarahStewartTaylor.com


In the follow up to the critically acclaimed The Mountains Wild, Detective Maggie D'arcy tackles another intricate case that bridges Long Island and Ireland in A Distant Grave.

Long Island homicide detective Maggie D'arcy and her teenage daughter, Lilly, are still recovering from the events of last fall when a strange new case demands Maggie's attention. The body of an unidentified Irish national turns up in a wealthy Long Island beach community and with little to go on but the scars on his back, Maggie once again teams up with Garda detectives in Ireland to find out who the man was and what he was doing on Long Island. The strands of the mystery take Maggie to a quiet village in rural County Clare that's full of secrets and introduce her to the world of humanitarian aid workers half a world away. And as she gets closer to the truth about the murder, what she learns leads her back to her home turf and into range of a dangerous and determined killer who will do anything to keep the victim's story hidden forever.

With the lyrical prose, deeply drawn characters, and atmospheric setting that put The Mountains Wild on multiple best of the year lists, Sarah Stewart Taylor delivers another gripping mystery novel about family, survival, and the meaning of home.




53 comments:

  1. Oh, I just have to say that those lambs are so cute! And your story is heartwarming . . . .

    “A Distant Grave” sounds quite intriguing, Sarah, and I’m looking forward to reading it . . . .

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  2. I'm not the farming type, but you almost made me want to do it. Almost.

    Looking forward to A Distant Grave.

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    1. Mark, you're welcome to come do an "internship" on the farm . . . : )

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    2. That would definitely make for a great blog post Mark and Sarah:)

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  3. I'm so not the farming type, but I give you credit and kudos. I don't think I could eat any animal, especially if I named them, if I farmed.

    But your lambs are cute.

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  4. What a wonderful story Sarah. Of course you're a writer so you tell the tale of being a sheep farmer so beautifully.

    I have a secondary character in one of my series who has sheep and I realize now that I never had her talking about the lambing or the getting up in the night. I think I'll work that into the next book. Thank you! I might have to call on you for a few tips.

    I had a small vegetable and fruit farm for some years when my children were young. It's very hard work, and I didn't even have animals. I always get my eggs and meat from local farms. You can't beat a real egg!

    Also, I'm not sure how I've missed your books. I'm off to remedy that!

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    1. Edith! How have you never read Sarah's books? They're fabulous!

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    2. Edith, please reach out if you ever need any sheepy details! Happy to provide some!

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    3. And thank you so much, Annette!

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  5. I grew up in a farming family, but we never had sheep. Reading this makes me wish we had. Lambs are so incredibly CUTE! And you're absolutely right about true farm-fresh eggs. There's nothing like them!

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    1. They have ruined me for all other eggs, Annette. We also recently donated a couple dozen to the local elementary school for their science class egg incubation project and they all hatched (we had wondered if our annoying rooster could actually walk the walk!) Now I'm excited to try hatching some eggs here too.

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  6. There is no farming in my family, but we now eat meat and eggs from a local farming couple who work so very hard to produce the food on our table. I appreciate their labour for the taste it delivers.

    I am delighted to learn of the second book in your series, Sarah. I loved everything about the first one. Thanks for writing!

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    1. Thank you so much, Amanda! And thank you for supporting your local farmers. It is so important. The small farms I know are doing amazing work figuring out how to lower our footprint on the earth and shift to methods that keep carbon in the soil, etc. But it's time consuming and expensive and they need our support.

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  7. Another new to me author, soon to become a favorite. While I do live in the heart of Tampa, we still have visiting live stock. I don't use pesticides on my lawn, ergo a visiting flock of chickens complete with a rooster visits us to feast on the insects and do a bit of scratching of turf. Prior to Hurricane Irma we also had ducks who waddled up from the Hillsborough river. We tried raising vegetables one year, and discovered we raised grasshopper chow. Sadly the chickens were not part of the mix at that time. Enjoy the life, hard work does bring such rewards, both in lambing and writing, no?

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    1. Thank you, Coralee! Chickens are great at insect control. Actually, we have a flock of guinea hens that eats the ticks around our place. Chickens will also eat your garden, but guineas are very targeted and only eat the pests. They are also good watch animals, but they are so loud that when I was doing Zoom book events last summer I had to lock them up so they wouldn't drown me out!

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    2. I used to live out in the country, and my neighbor kept guineas to keep the tick population down. Maybe they did, but they also all seemed bent on suicide. They would wait by the side of the road and rush out to meet oncoming cars. One by one, they all went down. How do you keep your guineas alive?

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    3. Gigi, ours are pretty bad at staying alive too. Cars, passing dogs, coyotes, foxes . . . they're not the brightest creatures around. We have one UPS driver who is terrified of them too. We have four right now who have stuck around longer than any of their predecessors. Not sure what their secret is.

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  8. I will only buy lamb from locally-sourced, humane farmers - but if I raised them myself, I don't think I could eat them. They are just too cute! We had a backyard vegetable garden for a while and it was enough to teach me that I don't have the grit to be a farmer.

    The book sounds fascinating.

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    1. Thank you, Liz. Yes, I love having a big vegetable garden, but I absolutely hate the weeding that comes along with it. I have friends with tidy, perfect gardens and ours is . . . not that.

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    2. We've always had a big garden and that's the part I hate--weeding. Whereas my sister finds it to be Zen...

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    3. Lucy, yes, luckily my husband and my middle kid seem to enjoy it in that way.

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    4. The weeding was awful. Unfortunately, that task always seemed to fall to me.

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  9. Farming is so rewarding, but it can also include heartbreak worse than any lover's breakup. I've only had gardens no bigger than 300 sq ft, but that's enough to know that if something can go wrong it will. I'm impressed at your lambing success, Sarah.

    I'm trying to grow lavender, both for the bees, and for the local beekeeper/honey supplier, who will buy as much as I can supply this season (I can get two harvests from the plants). Hoping to double my crop this summer.

    At our Kentucky farm (which is managed for wildlife, not for farming), our renters have tried for years to establish a flock of chickens. This past year they finally figured it out, and now we get the best eggs every week. There is nothing like a true free-range egg, where the chickens eat bugs as well as all the wild things they find. All others literally pale in comparison.

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    1. Oooh, I have always wanted to grow lavender, Karen. I haven't had good luck in our climate. But it is a dream of mine. We visited the Croatian island of Hvar on our honeymoon and I still remember the lavender fields there and how the air over the entire island smelled of lavender . . .

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  10. About the guineas, do they need to be fed, in addition to the insects they eat? We have so many deer, and I worry about ticks here.

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    1. We feed them a slightly higher protein grain than reg. chicken grain. We also give them food scraps, but in the summer they get most of their nutrition from insects. They are fantastic for tick control, but they are pretty free-ranging and, as a result, are easy prey for foxes, etc. We've had quite a few cycle through, though our current batch seem to be better at staying alive. I also cannot emphasize enough how loud they are!

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    2. Hmm, that might not work for us, then. We live a half mile from the Cincinnati city limits, but have coyotes, red and grey foxes, and raccoons, skunks, and 'possums. All of whom would either love a guinea dinner, or their eggs.

      Friends in Kentucky have a big flock of both chickens and guineas. They're hilarious to watch.

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  11. What a wonderful story. Farming is a unique way of life, and extremely rewarding. I spent my early childhood summers and holidays on my great grandparents upstate New York farm - no mod cons included. Chickens and eggs were my specialty in those days. Farming gets in your blood and your heart. These days if I can't get fresh eggs, there is only one commercial brand I'll buy. If the yoke ain't orange, I ain't eating it! The taste difference is remarkable.

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    1. It really is amazing how differently fresh eggs taste, and react in baking recipes too.

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  12. Welcome to Jungle Reds, Sarah. I love the name Ruth Baaaaher Ginsburg and these photos of lambs are beyond adorable. And congratulations on your new novel.

    My 2x great grandfather had a farm in Indiana. I have no idea what he grew on his farm. The census said he was a farmer.

    There are farms in California. I think people have to drive some distance to the farms like strawberry farms or pumpkin farms. I remember there was a place where kids could visit an animal farm with lots of baby animals. It was wonderful. I hope it is still there.

    Diana

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  13. Sarah, I've read The Mountains Wild and can't wait for A Distant Grave. I love the connections you make between Ireland and America--it's not all just genealogical ties from the distant past.

    Kudos to your success on the farm! I've never eaten lamb--just can't get past the image of lambs--which is inconsistent because I'm not vegan. Growing up, if it got named, we never ate it. Arnold the pig and Peanut the little bull, for example, went for breeding. Unlike our Grandma Thompson, none of our chickens never got named. She loved her chickens and her flock always included some Bantams for their beauty and some guineas. I'd like some guineas for tick patrol, but the red fox who occasionally visits would probably enjoy them also--not to mention the coyotes.

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    1. 'ever got named'. Sheesh, where's that shot of caffeine when you need it?? :-)

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    2. Thank you, Flora! I hope you enjoy A Distant Grave.

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  14. Loved hearing about your farming life although this might not have been such a good idea! Now I want a few sheep of my own and/or maybe a few goats. They are just so cute. But I must rein myself in. I'm curious about why you do not a dog to help with the sheep; seems a dog would be needed. I have a Shetland sheepdog and I have often wondered if she would want to herd some sheep, if it's a natural instinct. A previous dog I owned wanted to herd our family when we were out - he wanted us all together.

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    1. I am actually dying for a sheepdog, Judi, but I know from experience that puppies are all-consuming, and training a sheepdog is really intense. I want to do it right -- also looking into some rescue possibilities. But, someday. I bet your dog would kick into action if it saw some sheep. The instinct is strong.

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    2. Judi and Sarah, we had a lovely English Shepherd as strictly a pet. But after a disastrous storm flooded the pasture and left the milk cows high and dry on a hillock, my mom pointed her arm at the cattle and told Frisky to bring them in. And boy did she!

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  15. Sarah, welcome to JRW and thank you for sharing your story. I LOVE the idea of farming, but so far, even the gardening is my husband's job and since I have success raising African violets inside in pots...why mess with a good thing? As for fresh eggs and milk, there is a consortium of farms in Connecticut that sells locally and I can taste the difference in the products.

    Before I came over to write my say, I went to look for the first book in the series because it sounds like my favorite type of "read" and it has generated loads of buzz. Well, I just needed to have it. The soon to be released paperback is a very good deal on Amazon and my public library and all of the surrounding libraries had several copies, too.

    Good-luck with your upcoming release. I am sure the pre-orders must be off the charts since book 1 was so well received.

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  16. What a glorious post to wake up to on this beautiful spring morning, Sarah. When they were young, my Hooligans wanted to acquire lambs at the farmer’s market here. They were selling them for $50/each and they were ridiculously cute. Our postage stamp yard would never work but - oh, those little faces! I can see how lambing season would burrow itself deep inside your soul.
    I set a bit of my first women’s fiction book on an Irish sheep farm - they are a generous lot. I love how you’ve woven Ireland into the plot of A Distant Grave. I can’t wait to read it!
    Do you find writing the Irish dialect a challenge? I remember trying to have enough but not too much.

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    1. Thank you, Jenn! Yes, I actually consult an Irish editor to help me make sure I'm not butchering the dialogue. There are so many examples of non-Irish writers getting it wrong. Less is definitely more and it's also so important to capture the wide range in the vernacular. Characters from Boston and Alabama are going to display very different dialects/usage and Ireland is no different. I'm so curious about your sheep farm book now . .. Will go search it out.

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  17. Congratulations, Sarah, on finding a perfect balance in your life between farming and writing. I have The Mountains Wild on my TBR stack, and look forward to reading it.

    And I would like to give a hearty endorsement to the idea of getting a sheepdog. I've had border collies for most of my life, and worked in border collie rescue for many years. I don't have sheep, and my pack mostly herds each other, but there is nothing like having a truly intelligent dog at your side. One magnificent dog I got after he'd been retired from active herding duties was fascinating to watch in action. He would come into any new situation, spend a few moments assessing all the moving parts, and then relax as if to say, "Yep. I've got this." One of his projects was getting me through the first stages of widowhood, and I don't know if I could have done it without him.

    Get the dog. You don't have to get a puppy. A lot of wonderful adolescent dogs come into rescue because they're too energetic for apartments, and they eat shoes the way human teenagers eat pizzas. But they are smart, hungry to form a partnership with a human, and eager to be pointed at a problem like moving sheep. If you talk to them, they develop a huge vocabulary, and they are also excellent at sleeping by your side while you write. It's the sort of human/canine partnership experience that you shouldn't miss out on.

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    1. Gigi, I am very happy to hear this. I've been looking into border collie rescue and may get in touch with you for some more advice . . .

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    2. I'm happy to advise. You can get my email address from Deb, who will also attest that I'm not too much of a weirdo.

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  18. Sarah, so happy to hear about your farm and your books this morning! I loved visiting my grandparents' farm when I was a kid. Many adventures! At one point they raised goats for their mohair. Grandma always had chickens but I couldn't tell you now if I noticed any difference between those eggs and the ones we bought at the store. More likely I wanted to eat and run. Out to the pasture!

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  19. Oh Sarah, you had me until "pigs might be next." Yikes!! Has farming made its way into your books? I still remember your wonderful early book about Victorian mourning jewelry...

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    1. Thanks, Hallie. Yes, the love interest in my new series grew up on an Irish sheep farm, so I snuck some farm scenes into Book #2 and there will be more to come in future installments.

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  20. Hi Sarah!! What a lovely post to wake up to this morning. I've been following your lambing adventures all spring, so it was great fun to get some background. (I'm your fellow major James Herriot fan!) I'm seconding the border collie recommendations, and Gigi is definitely the border collie rescue expert--just ask her four dogs:-)

    But nowhere in today's post does it say that A DISTANT GRAVE comes out June 22nd!! And is available for pre-order!!

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    1. Thanks for the promotional assist! Yes, June 22nd! And the paperback of The Mountains Wild (with an essay and some other fun additional material) is out June 15th! Thanks, Debs, and all the Reds, for such a warm welcome.

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