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A shovelful of Chatham County

Former Indy contributor Ristin Cooks died peacefully at home

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Back in the late '90s, when I was a junior editor at the Independent, I published an essay by my friend Ristin Cooks. Ristin was working in Costa Rica when she heard that the house she leased in Chatham County had been condemned. She was unable to get back, so a bunch of us went to the house and hauled her books, clothes, journals and sundries to our own places for safekeeping. Ristin faxed me the essay, a handwritten paean to the house and her friends, which concluded with a spare, lyrical insight:

"Renting is a discouraging business for a gardener. I don't own so much as a shovelful of Chatham County—can't afford it. But I love the land, and it saddens me to see the shacks turn to subdivisions, the trees and pastures bulldozed. I wish to God I could buy that old worthless house, sit on the porch and watch the honeysuckle grow."

Turns out that Ristin got her wish. She didn't buy that old house, though—she ended up with something much better. In 2001, Ristin met a guy named Patrick Walsh, and suddenly our hard-nosed, cynical friend was behaving like a 15-year-old schoolgirl who fancies notebooks covered in hearts and unicorns. We had a good time ribbing her, but once we got to know Patrick, we understood what all the fuss was about. And by then, it was obvious that Patrick was as goofy for her as she was for him.

Oh, and Patrick owned a little bit of land in Chatham County. Over time, Ristin and Patrick turned the land into a thriving farm called Castle Rock Gardens. They became fixtures at the Carrboro Farmers' Market and delivered vegetables, meat and eggs to restaurants and markets from here to Asheville. It wasn't a cakewalk, but despite all the adversity that comes with building a farm from the ground up, Ristin was happier during this time than I have ever known her to be. That makes sense, because it's all she ever really wanted.

In 2003, before she and Patrick had really gotten the farm up and running, Ristin was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She endured several stages of remission and treatment over the last six years, but none of it slowed her down. Ristin crammed more life into that short span than seems possible, if you ever pause to think about it.

Ristin died peacefully at her home on May 17, surrounded by her friends. We buried her on the farm the next day, and a week later, gathered a typically raucous party and bonfire in her honor. Ristin might have said that it was as good a death as anyone had a right to expect.

Last week, some of us found ourselves again sorting through Ristin's books, clothes, journals and sundries. We came across a little scrap of paper from one of her high-school notebooks. Scrawled in Ristin's unruly hand was a quote from Robert Penn Warren: "... whatever you live is life." It is something Ristin understood and accepted implicitly, and I think it is something she would like all of us to remember.

Read some of Ristin Cooks' stories for the Indy

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