ALL THINGS LITERARY. ALL THINGS NATURAL.

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

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Thursday, April 10, 2014

Young Girls with Eagles, When Women Were Birds: Svidensky in Mongolia

Caters News photo of Ashol Pan by Asher Svidensky, used with permission

In the fall of 1998, Taukel Sultan, a member of the Mongolian Parliament, traveled 6,000 miles to visit Wyoming, Mongolia’s Sister Province.  When he arrived in Sundance, my daughter and I went to meet this exotic visitor. "Do you ride horses?” he asked her, his Mongolian interpreter at his side, a few town locals gathered around us.  Her dark eyes lit up.  “Ah,” he smiled, using both his hands to shake hers. “In my country, every year, we hold a horse race for the children!  Six-year-olds race bareback 35 kilometers! You should come see our horse races!” 

He turned his attention back to the small crowd and then suddenly turned back to Sarah.  “Do you drink milk?” he asked.  A little embarrassed, she grinned and nodded.  “Ah,” he smiled again, “our yaks have the fattest milk!  Like your beef cows, our yaks graze the open grasslands and uplands of the mountains.  We have wrestling matches and archery competitions, too!"  

Ashol Pan, cropped from above
Had I seen Asher Svidensky's astounding photos of the Kazakh eagle hunters back then, I surely would have asked him about the young girl Ashol Pan.

After Mr. Taukel left Sundance that day, Sarah and I drove back to the ranch.  Crusted snow covered the hills, lit by a cold blue sky.  A few hundred yards from the house, we saw a bald eagle perched on a small knoll close to the road. A larger, second eagle, probably the female, stood on a half-devoured deer carcass just beyond the knoll.  Crows mulled around, one venturing within a few feet of the carrion but none brave enough to snatch a morsel.  Later, I would hike to the knoll and find downy white breast feathers fluttering between bare ribs.


Sarah Mease photo by Kyla King
Like the women at the Festival of Naadaam in Mongolia, Sarah had learned to handle a bow when she enrolled in the University of Wyoming's 4-H Shooting Sports program.  After she took the Wyoming Hunter Safety Course, she hunted with her father and older brother.  And, like the Mongolian children, she sat a horse like she’d been born to it—which, actually ... she had been.  Years later, she would join a woman's ranch rodeo team in Oklahoma. 

Her brother, a skilled bow hunter, would marry a beautiful young woman who prides herself on clean kill shots and does her share of keeping their freezer stocked with wild game. 

She knows intimately the animals that gave their lives to nourish my soon-to-be-born grandchild.  I am grateful for the relationship that they all share with nature, and especially grateful that my grandchildren will grow up knowing what it is to sleep under the stars in a forest alive in the night - if they're lucky, they might feel the swoop of air from an owl's wing.

When I first saw Asher Svidensky’s photos of Ashol Pan, the young girl eagle hunter of Kazakh, I had just finished reading Terry Tempest William’s book When Women Were Birds.  In the book, Terry creates a mosaic of metaphors about relationships between women and birds, and about the cultural code of silence imposed on females.  Terry’s writing is always striking, but I was particularly struck by this:  "Can you be inside and outside at the same time?" she asks.  "I think this is where I live.  I think this is where most women live." 

Asher Svidensky photo, Caters News
Svidensky’s story about Ashol continues to mesmerize me.  She is the first female to learn this ancient Kazakh tradition.  Traditionally, it is the sons whom the fathers teach.  Svidensky’s photos capture the birth of a new, evolving tradition—and they capture relationship—Ashol’s relationship with the eagle, the relationship they both share with the layers of purple mountains and pink sky, with the jutting rocks and wide open steppes.  It is far more than a thin, leather tether that connects girl to bird. Here, again, is one of his incredible photos.

I hope you will read Svidensky's entire story "Eagle Hunters of Mongolia" and view all his breathtaking pictures. When I sent them to my daughter-in-law, she wrote back, "I have had eagles eat meat from my harvest before and we like to set the heart and liver aside for them."

That reminded me of something I learned from Svidensky's story.   After an eagle hunter has hunted with an eagle for eight years, in the spring time, "the hunter will take his eagle to the mountains, will lay a butchered sheep on one of the cliffs as a farewell present, and he will send his eagle away for the last time. That’s how the Kazakh eagle hunters make sure that the eagles go back to nature and have their own strong newborns, for the sake of future generations. That is the Kazakh tradition’s way of living in harmony with nature."

When Svidensky asked Ashol's father if he would continue teaching his daughter the ancient tradition of hunting with eagles, he said, "I wouldn't dare do it unless she asks me to do it, and if she will? Next year, you will come to the eagle festival and see her riding with the eagle in my place."

Can we be both inside and outside at the same time?  I have no doubt that Ashol's interior life will be rich in ways that perhaps her mother, and grandmother could not have known.  I hope that someday, Ashol will write her story.  "I know this is where writers live," Terry tell us in When Women Were Birds. "Inside to write. Outside to glean."

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

RIDING THE MEMOIR WAVE: Drinking the Rain, Between Urban and Wild, Circling Back Home, Yellowstone Has Teeth, A Bushel's Worth, and More

Nine years ago my New York agent circulated to four different publishing houses a 20-page memoir proposal for Sweetwater: A Mountain Cabin, a Life Unfolding, still a work-in-progress.  Despite accolades for my first memoir, three of the houses passed on the project with cordial letters that addressed its strengths and shortcomings.  The fourth pass came from the executive editor at Viking Penguin. 

“This reminded me of a book I published..." wrote the editor, "Drinking the Rain by Alix Kates Shulman, the story of a summer she spent alone at a cabin in Maine as she turned fifty and was experiencing midlife and marriage crises.  I love that book… Shulman is an amazing writer, and I’m afraid for me Lambert’s writing did not hold up in comparison…”  Photo of Shulman by Marion Ettlinger.

I was devastated.  Once I picked myself up off the floor (which took days), I ordered a copy of Drinking the Rain, flipped through the pages when it arrived, thought of the rain-parched landscape of the West, promptly closed the book and shelved it—stuffed it, actually, wedging it between two other volumes.

During the next nine years, I rewrote the proposal—moving blocks of text around, pulling different passages from the pages of my journals, replacing and reorganizing.  But the actual writing that hadn’t “held up” to Shulman’s?  The lofty lines that I’d strung together like a ladder, hoping to fool the reader into thinking I’d climbed to the top of some wise vantage point?  Those lines stayed.  I was still fooling myself.  I was rearranging the project, but not re-envisioning it.

I floundered, like the old man in John Steinbeck’s story Pastures of Heaven looking down at the valley where he’d lived his life, beating his hands helplessly against his hips.  “If I could go down there and live down there for a little while—why, I’d think over all the things that ever happened to me, and maybe I could make something out of them, something all in one piece that had a meaning, instead of all these trailing ends.”

Tangled in hundreds of pages of trailing ends, lost in the emotional valley where I’d buried my marriage, I was unable to sift those experiences, filter out the dredge, and pour what remained into a new, streamlined vessel.

Two weeks ago, I pulled Drinking the Rain from its tightly wedged place on the bookshelf and once again opened the cover, stepping away from my bruised ego and into the beauty of Shulman’s prose.  I drank it all in.  Read.  Savored.  Studied.  Made notes in the margins and on the endpapers.  Analyzed her graceful shifts from front story to back story, from long walks along seaweed-strewn shores where she harvested each night’s meal, to brief reflective passages with shining epiphanies small enough to stuff in my pocket and take home.  "A new world," she writes, "close as my body and old as the sea, has opened up to me ... I soon discover I can no longer eat without grace on my lips."

I studied the memoir’s three-section structure: The Island. The Mainland. The World.  How exquisitely, deceptively simple!  Elegant and craft-driven.  All the carefully selected, trailing ends neatly braided into one strong rope—a lifeline for the reader.

Drinking the Rain (published in 1995) now sits on my desk next to four, much newer memoirs, all published in 2013, all written by women, all “slice of life” stories rising from some cataclysmic shift in each of their lives.  

In the memoir Between Urban and Wild: Reflections from Colorado, Andrea Jones writes about when she and her husband left the foothills outside of Boulder “to build a new home on a grassy wrinkle in central Colorado, just north of a butte named Cap Rock Ridge.”  More remote than the cabin in Maine where Shulman retreated, Jones hones her vision and finds, like Shulman did, the entire world mirrored in the microcosm just outside her door.

In Circling Back Home: A Plainswoman’s Journey, Darcy Lipp-Acord delves deeply into the daily tasks of rural living, looking at her life through the generational lens of family history, examining it under the harsh light of modern values, weighing each motherly and wifely act on a scale that balances loss and blessing.  Lying in the hospital about to give birth to a son seven weeks prematurely, she thinks of the miscarriage she suffered five years earlier, of the five babies her own mother lost.  Her plainswoman lifestyle seems anachronistic, yet the threads of her life tie her to an ageless tapestry.

In Yellowstone Has Teeth (a memoir of living year-round in the world’s first national park), Marjane Ambler takes the reader inside a nine-year slice-of-life, from 1984 to 1993, when she and her husband lived in the middle of 2.2 million acres, along with a handful of other brave souls who thought nothing of snowmobiling for two days to retrieve their mail.  When the devastating fire of 1988 hit Yellowstone, huge cumulus clouds boiled over Two Ocean Plateau, “the clouds stained red from the fires far below, like cauliflower boiled in blood.”  Ambler's is a book about community, painted with brush strokes wide enough to cover the immense landscape she called home, yet dotted with detail so painstakingly rendered you can almost hear the snorts of the 2000-pound bison that travel the same winter trails.

In some ways, Kayann Short’s book, A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography, synthesizes many of these same themes—ancestral stories, living off the land, recasting old agricultural patterns into new, more sustainable grooves.  A Bushel’s Worth tells the story of Stonebridge, an organic community-supported farm in the Rocky Mountain foothills.  “A farm may be as close to wilderness as some people ever get, but it’s not wild.  Rather, it’s a place where the natural and human worlds must live as harmoniously as we can manage, or perhaps as we can imagine…”

Which is exactly what Alix Kates Shulman did during those secluded months living in her seaside cabin in Maine—she discovered, and rediscovered each time she returned to the cabin, the joy of a simple, harmonious life.   

Ah, if only writing about such a life were as easy as living it. If only we could find the bare bones of our stories as readily as we gather the bare bones of the animals we find along the trail.  If only we could return to that cabin in the woods, sip the sweet water that pools beneath the aspen trees, and drink in the rain, knowing what we know now.   

Photos to the right are of cabin where Page spent a month alone in the Big Horn Mountains, the setting for her next memoir.

NOTE: The deadline for 1200-word submissions to the Stories On Stage Memoir Contest is March 12, 2014. 

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Living and Dying on the Ragged Edge of the West: A Year with Bryce Andrews


Bryce leaned toward us, pausing mid-sentence, a crispy fried green bean dangling from his chopstick.  “There was something about the silence that was different,” he said, “ranch work, well…it gives you time to think in long arcs.”   

Seated in a corner booth at PF Chang’s, we had an hour before Bryce’s book signing at Denver’s Tattered Cover Bookstore.  I dipped a green bean in spicy sauce and watched Bryce devour two or three more before gusting his way through a crab wanton. Here was a man who liked to eat. In his early 30s now, Bryce Andrews was only 22 when he loaded up his pickup truck, left Seattle, and headed “west” to work as a hired hand on a 20,000-acre conservation ranch in Montana’s Madison River Valley.  

Giving him time to chew before asking another question, I thought about my childhood vacations near Ennis, Montana, just outside of Yellowstone, summer after summer fishing the Madison River with my father, wading through knee-high summer grasses and fields of wild mustard, tangling fishing net and fly rod in thick willows as I watched my father ahead of me work his way to the river. That same timbered corner of Montana which Bryce learned to love was in my bones too.

“What struck me when I first got to Sun Ranch,” Bryce went on, spooning glazed sesame chicken onto his plate, “were all the elk, thousands, spilling like water across the landscape.  On the ranch, with the wolves and the cattle, well, it forces you to realize that you’re a participant in the animal world.  I was existing within and not beyond the animal world.”

Bryce does not romanticize the cowboy lifestyle in his memoir Badluck Way: A Year on the Ragged Edge of the West.  “One of our great failures,” he told us at dinner, referring to agriculturalists, “is that we do not allow animals to be individuals.”  Nor does he romanticize the wolves that run “endless, inscrutable loops across the ridges and valleys,” pulling yearling elk from the flanks of massive wild herds, leaving rib cages strewn in the dark shadows of Bad Luck Canyon, "leg bones snapped in half."

“Jeremy said the canyon belonged to the wolves,” Bryce writes in his memoir, “narrow and full of bones, the sides so steep a man couldn’t climb them without using his hands…predator alley, he said. It’ll make your hair stand on end.” Yet with thousands of elk to hunt, the Wedge Pack that howled from the ridges could still not resist stalking the cattle, ripping open the milk bags of heifers and leaving them wandering wild-eyed with blood pouring from their haunches.

Not exactly dinner conversation—except that it was. Nine adult wolves made up the Wedge Pack, and uncounted pups—elegant, soulful, communal, and highly efficient at turning cud-chewing ungulates—wild and domestic—into dinner. And the more in awe Bryce became of the pack’s ability to kill, the more protective he became of the cattle, something he had not expected.

Finishing his last bite of sesame chicken, Bryce rose, thanked us profusely for dinner, and left the restaurant to walk the few short blocks to the Tattered Cover—just enough distance for him to gather his thoughts before the reading.

Twenty minutes later, standing at the podium with a slide show of photos taken at the ranch playing on the large screen behind him, he confessed to the small but appreciate audience, “When I left Seattle for Montana, I expected my sympathies to remain firmly with the wolves.  A year later, when I left the ranch, I left with two  convictions: a profound respect for ranchers, and a deeper understanding of the urgency of the wolf/land situation.” 

Bryce’s Year on the Ragged Edge of the West covers a lot more terrain than just the wolf/stockman controversy, and his unflinching honesty encourages us to drop our own biases, to experience the natural ecosystem the way the animals do, prey and predator alike. “It’s easy for us,” he warns, “to get lost in the woods of cattle and wolves, of how our thoughts about these two animals shape our lives. But I see a positive trajectory for the balance between cattle and wolves if the land stays open.”

This, I think, is where Bryce's deepest passions lie.  He paused, turning to look behind him at a photo of a broad expanse of windswept and snow covered terrain, dark pine trees whiskering the foothills.  He turned back toward us.  “But if you’ve been around the wolves and the cows, you understand that there is no perfect solution. There will be blood, and there will be violence.”

This truth might be the hardest for people unfamiliar with nature to accept, yet one does not have to look far to see that nature spills blood - not only in death, but also when spilling new life onto the frozen earth. “It’s messy and complicated and bloody," Bryce told us, "but what happened there on the ranch was co-existence, and co-existence is not always peaceful.” 

"How many ranchers try to co-exist?" a man from the audience asked.  Bryce's answer came fast and easy: "More every day."

"Do conservation easements work?" came the next question.  "They're a great tool," Bryce answered, "but our end goal should be to create whole functioning ecosystems, and people making their living from the land...and if we're going to have constructive conversations in the West, we need to start with young people."

Which, I expect, is exactly what Bryce intends to do - find a way to teach young people the same lessons he learned during that year on Sun Ranch, and in the subsequent eight years that he's been managing ranches, becoming what the Quivira Coalition calls one of the West's new agrarians.  Not all of them are as eloquent as Bryce, but its encouraging to know that they're a hopefully, visionary breed.

NOTE: Many of you know, I've been a big fan of Courtney White's, co-founder of the Quivira Coalition, for a long time.  Read more about Courtney (a former archaeologist and Sierra Club activist), and A West That Works.