A blog for those who desire a more creative relationship with the natural world.


"Your recent blog about the tender return of your loved ones to the earth was moving, graceful in words and inspiration. Your words always come from the heart and intellect. A rare and insightful combination." Rolland Smith, former news anchor for WCBS-TV in New York, recipient of 11 Emmy Awards

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Thursday, June 30, 2016

Dan Flores and Coyotes in America: Half a Million Years of Survival

I was writing this morning about a day several years ago when I watched a massive bull elk with his harem in the Bighorn Mountains near Wyoming's Cloud Peak Wilderness area.  Deeply immersed in describing the bull's tawny coat and dark, ragged mane, I took a break to go outside and stretch when this handsome fellow appeared in our backyard, as if the writing itself had manifested him in the tall grass.  I love it when that happens.  

Animal encounters happen to my friend, historian Dan Flores, too.  His new book Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History, opens with a story about the time he was visiting his parents in Louisiana and a coyote passed by mere feet away, shooting him a sideways glance with its "hot yellow eyes."  This photo was taken by Dan when a coyote appeared in the early morning light outside his back door.

Coyote encounters are now happening everywhere - thousands of them. In our cities, our countrysides, our suburbs, even our coffee shops. My poem "Reclamation" was written a few years ago and featured a coyote that sought shelter in a Chicago Starbucks, the closest thing to a den he could find.

In Coyote America, Dan poses this question: Why, when wolves nearly died out from human predation, have coyotes flourished despite even more intense efforts to wipe them out? This question drives Dan deeply into the history of North America's indigenous coyote. Once confused with Old World jackals of Africa and Asia, coyotes were called prairie wolves by relative newcomers to this continent as recently as the early 20th century. This English painting depicts a wolf defending its kill from a coyote. Side by side, the differences between wolf and coyote seem obvious. Not so much from a distance.

Native Americans had no such confusion, however. "Stories about Coyote or sometimes Old Man Coyote ... are the oldest preserved human stories from North America," writes Flores (p24). Coyote America includes a few of these stories and, like most trickster stories, they can be ribald, full of lust. In one such tale, Coyote tempts the daughter of a chief, wanting to trade a glass bead choker for a kiss, an iron kettle for the chance to fondle her breasts. And so the bartering continues and the stakes are raised.

A few years ago, I joined a Coyote Watch Citizens Science Program team. Members attended training sessions on coyote behavior and reported any coyote encounter or observations. Here's how one of my reports read:

First encounter, coyote immediately moved away from horseback rider in pasture at a trot, over the hill and out of site toward den. Second encounter, 20 minutes later, 30 lb. domestic dog spied coyote and began to pursue. Coyote ran uphill 100 yards. Domestic dog called back. Coyote pursued dog downhill, toward rider, back arched in defensive threat position. Dog returned to horse and was leashed. Coyote continued to advance. Human advanced toward coyote, hazing with arm gestures and loud voice. Coyote immediately turned, ran back uphill, stayed on ridge, then disappeared. Did not reappear.  

The coyote responded positively to hazing, exhibiting no signs of extreme habituation. Yet urban coyotes are becoming so acclimated that the majority in Los Angeles have learned to navigate busy highways. At a recent book signing at Denver's Tattered Cover Bookstore (with his beautiful wife Sara Dant beside him), Dan told the audience, "Coyotes emulate what we do - evolutionary adaptations that make them, and us, successful. These animals have agency. They are masters of their domain."

Dan also talked about an interesting zoological term: fission/fusion. Coyotes can be solitary (fission, splitting off), or gregarious (fusion, merging). This enables them to be remarkably adaptable, as are human beings. Yet for thousands of years, mankind has attempted to "master" his domain - and it isn't working. Perhaps it isn't mastery for which we should be striving - but symbiosis. At some point, we must be willing to learn from the creatures who have been living on this earth for more than half a million years, whether we write about them in our books, or cross paths with them in the early morning light outside our back door.

P.S:  Ask your local bookstore if they carry Coyote America (resist the temptation to feed the mega-bookstore predator one more meal). And look for Sara Dant's new book, Losing Eden: An Environmental History of the American West.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Craving the Wholesome

Dozens of horse books are packed and ready to haul to Wyoming for the 9th annual Literature & Landscape of the Horse Retreat - from Joe Camp’s The Soul of a Horse, to Marguerite Henry’s Misty of Chincoteague, to Laura Hillenbrand’s Sea Biscuit.  New handouts are printed and stuffed in the registration packets - from information on 15,000-year-old cave paintings of horses in France, to information on the few remaining Cherokee and Choctaw horses descended from those that walked the Trail of Tears.  With so many guests returning year after year, Sheri and I work hard to bring something new to our retreat at the Vee Bar Guest Ranch.

Why do so many of us return?  Is it the call of Wyoming's high mountains and spacious grasslands?  Is it our mutual love of horse stories, or our love of the Vee Bar's willing horses and their untamed brethren at the Deerwood Wild Horse EcoSanctuary? Maybe it's the cute young women wranglers and the old hands like Tommy who have tall tales to tell with every turn in the trail.

Surely, it's all these things, but to talk about any of these things without talking about the wholesome Wyoming family who welcomes us back each year would be like talking about The Man from Snowy River without mentioning Down Under.

No doubt one of the paramount reasons so many of us return is because we hunger for wholesomeness. Our souls are weary of sordid news and hopeless forecasts. Our shoulders are not broad enough for the world's worries, yet we would eagerly embrace the chores of a single day if given a chance. And here, with this Wyoming family, we can drop off the grid and back into the heart of what matters. Family. Animals. Land. Hard work. Laughter. Song. Friendship. Fresh air. Each day enough unto itself. Each crisp night starlit and shining bright.

Sound too idyllic? Not to worry - our battered lives could use a bit of the idyllic. We've all but forgotten what Merriam-Webster calls "the well being of mind and spirit, and the "vigor of normal domesticity."

This is what I am most grateful for - the chance, for one week, to share what I learned to love about life lived on a piece of land that is cherished and cherishing, land that raises animals and children in equal measure - both running half wild, half the time, trying to catch the joy that's born into each day. Lasso a bit of that hope. Build a big loop and swing your lariat for all it's worth.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Embodiment: Samurais and Literary Giants

A few weeks ago, John and I went to see the SAMURAI exhibit at the Denver Art Museum.  140 artifacts brought to life over 700 years of elegant Japanese pageantry (from the 1100s through the 1800s) - suits of armor, helmets, weapons, horse regalia, battle gear, even ornate swords used by Japanese women to protect their homes when their samurai husbands were away at war.

I wandered among the iconic objects, remembering my time in Japan in 1965, imagining the samurai men who wore the helmets, the horses whose lungs bellowed beneath gold-gilt and tooled saddles, haunches muscled up beneath brass-meshed armor. The only thing missing was the pulsing blood, flesh and bones that held up these enduring legacies. I stood in awe, thinking of the men and women who crafted and wore each artifact. Legacies, I realized, stand on the shoulders of actual embodied human beings, and they rise up from the landscapes in which they are rooted.

Our finest writers know this. Their characters stand upon the page as if manifested by the gods themselves. In Chapter One of Shusaku Endo's 1998 novel The Samurai, the samurai and his men are chopping firewood with their hatchets in the woods. They wear rustic clothing. Snow pelts their foreheads as they walk along the riverbed back to the marshland. The samurai who leads them knows every detail of the three villages that lay deep within these marshlands, the straw-thatched houses “foul smelling and dark, like cattle sheds.” The samurai’s dwelling is slightly more impressive, containing a stable and several thatched buildings clustered together. 
The reader knows these things, smells these things, for they have been embodied on the first few pages by the masterful hand of Shusaku Endo (winner of the prestigious Tanizaki Prize). We read on. The samurai is the eldest son, and he is dismayed by the news that his uncle is waiting for him at his house. His uncle’s face is often flushed crimson with liquor. He has battle scars on his thighs. We learn all these things before the eye of the novel’s narrator turns directly to the samurai and then suddenly, he is there, too - manifested on the page. “Like the peasants who worked this land, the samurai’s eyes were sunken, his cheekbones protruded, and he smelled of the earth. Like the peasants, he was a man of few words who seldom let his emotions rise to the surface, but his heart sank at this news.” 

There you have it - flesh and blood, heart and soul. Literary embodiment (at least that's how I use the term). Characters vividly brought to life on the page.  

One of my father's favorite photos from my family's time in Japan was of he and Mom reclining on futons in our small hotel room. Rice paper walls separated their sleeping area from where my sister and I slept. They both wear cotton kimonos. Mom flirts with her fan, flashing Dad a seductive knee. When our family returned from Japan in 1965, my mother brought with her a beautiful silk kimono. 

I pause writing this and retrieve the kimono from the back of my closet, hanging it on my bookshelf before I continue.  

The soft silk hangs in flat folds from the hanger and I am overcome with melancholy. Where is the flesh and blood now? The heart and soul of our mother and father? Perhaps, were Shusaku Endo still alive, he could re-embody them on the page, recreate the sounds of their voices, the sunlight filtering softly through the rice paper walls, Mother's fan stirring the memories

This is our challenge as writers, yes? To live deeply inside these moments so that our readers might inhabit them too?  

A few weeks ago, the Pulitzer Prize Board announced that the recipient of the 2016 Prize in Fiction would be Viet Thanh Nguyen for his debut novel The Sympathizer (Grove Press, New York). "A layered immigrant tale told in the wry, confessional voice of a 'man of two minds' - and two countries, Vietnam and the United States." How would Nguyen manifest this confessional voice on the page, I wondered. It would not be disembodied - that much I knew. I began reading the digital version online.

The novel opens in Saigon, April, 1975. The narrator (a captain in the South Vietnamese army) is describing his day with the General (who trusts him completely). 

“In the mornings, before I chauffeured him the short distance to his office, we would breakfast together, parsing dispatches at one end of the teak dining table while his wife oversaw a well-disciplined quartet of children ages eighteen, sixteen, fourteen, and twelve, with one seat empty for the daughter studying in America. Not everyone may have feared the end, but the General sensibly did. A thin man of excellent posture, he was a veteran campaigner whose many medals have been, in his case, genuinely earned. Although he possessed but nine fingers and eight toes, having lost three digits to bullets and shrapnel, only his family and confidants knew about the condition of his left foot…."

You only need one small, unforgettable detail, a writing maestro once told me. I read on.

"At the end of our discussions and meals, I lit the General’s cigarette and he stared into space, forgetting to smoke the Lucky Strike as it slowly consumed itself in his fingers... Madame silenced the tittering children and said, If you wait much longer, we won’t be able to get out. You should ask Claude for a plane now. The General pretended not to hear Madame. She had a mind like an abacus, the spine of a drill instructor, and the body of a virgin even after five children.... She was, in short, the ideal Vietnamese woman...." 

 I searched online for images of Vietnamese women, but most were tragic photos of war-torn mothers clutching babies.

Then I found this image taken in Saigon in 1968. I imagined the General's wife among these women. I searched for copyright information but found none.

The photo was taken three years after my family was in Japan. I was a sophomore in high school, my sister a senior. Already the bodies of young men we knew from school were being shipped quietly from Vietnam back home to grieving families. 

Embodiment. The word takes on new meaning as I reflect.

I think of Endo’s novel and the samurai’s wife Riku. I remember how, on his way back from the woods, the samurai passed by his stables and the stench of straw mingled with horse dung assaulted his nose, how his horses pawed the ground when they heard him coming. I can almost taste the hot sake and the salty cups of miso soup that Riku placed before the samurai and his uncle. Did she have a sword too, I try to recall, a ko-naginata? 

This is how human beings rise up from the page. One carefully chosen detail, and then another, and then another - each like the stone in a hand-built wall, each resting on the one laid before it. This is how the masterful writers move from the visions in their hearts to the world on the page. This is how we come to know the samurai and Riku, the General with nine fingers and eight toes, the wife with a body like a virgin and a mind like an abacus. This is how we move between worlds. This is how we cross the borders - real and imaginary.