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


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Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The Light Shines from the West: Lifting the Veil of History

When Bob Baron, who founded Fulcrum Publishing more than thirty years ago, asked me to write a chapter on the rural American West for Fulcrum’s new book, The Light Shines from the West, I knew that I wanted to start with the New Madrid Earthquakes.

In the winter of 1811, a series of terrifying quakes struck the low-lying country between Missouri and Arkansas. The Mississippi River thrust her waters upward, left her banks, rose twenty feet into the air, hung suspended, then plunged to the earth. For a few terrifying moments, her roaring waters flowed backwards.

“The earth was horribly torn to pieces,” wrote eyewitness Eliza Bryan. “The inhabitants fled in every direction to the country… the earth was in continual agitation, visibly waving as a gentle sea.”

I felt an intimate connection with the New Madrid Earthquakes not just because of family history, but because of novel-writing history. What cultural upheaval, I had wondered, would cause my protagonist’s Cherokee ancestors to leave their village near the canebrake swampland of the Mississippi River? What made them head west into the setting sun, and into the heartland of the novel I was writing? 

The New Madrid quake that struck on December 16, 1811, was the answer. This cataclysmic disaster seemed to fulfill an apocalyptic prophecy, solidifying the Cherokee alliance with the great Shawnee leader Tecumseh, and thrusting them (and the characters in my novel) toward an ever-changing destiny. The earthquake would soon be known as Tecumseh’s Great Sign, a vision of the future.

Tecumseh, Indian Country Today
When Bob Baron shared his vision for Fulcrum’s new book with me, he said, “The American story could be told in two sections: 1607 to 1829, and 1820 to 2018. The first part is eastern centered. We all know that story. The western story we don’t know as well. I want you to write a chapter about the rural land, and the rural people. Tell the story of how that affects the character of the West.”

This is what I love about writing, and research. For a novelist, the chasm between what really happened and what we imagine could have happened narrows until the chasm is no wider than a rivulet, and we jump our characters across it without a backward glance. For the memoirist, like piecing a quilt, we patch together what we know to be true, using conjecture as our needle and thread.

I know that I will return to this book often when researching both fiction and family history. I will refer to Daniel Wildcat’s chapter on Native Americans, and Elizabeth Darby’s chapter on the women of the West. I will look to Bob and others for overviews on wars and transportation, art and photography, movies and politics.

“I’m not a historian,” I told Bob when he asked me if I would write the chapter on the rural West.

“I know,” he said, “but you will bring the people to life.”

For me, the joy IS about bringing to life, through our writing, the people and the land that sustains us. It is about the intertwining of our histories, and the way in which our destinies are interwoven. It is lifting the veil between the past and the future, and peering into each other's hearts. *** 
NOTES: To purchase The Light Shines from the West from Fulcrum, click here. To purchase Page Lambert's memoir In Search of Kinship, click here. To read "The Day Tecumseh's Prophecy Rocked the World" in Indian Country Today, click here.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Trading Tree Houses for Silos

Author Hugh Howey
“In the wake of losing my beloved dog,” author Hugh Howey wrote in his New Year’s blog post, “in one of my darkest of places, I began a novel that would eventually be about the redeeming power of hope. When I sign copies of WOOL for readers, I almost always write inside, “Dare to hope."

Really? A mega bestselling apocalypse novel about life on earth reduced to a few thousand survivors living stifled existences inside a gargantuan buried silo, is about hope? Yes, it really is.

The novel propels us into a future where the earth is devoid of nature, and the only trees that grow are hot-house fruit trees living hundreds of feet below the earth. Paper is coveted. Books that tell the way life used to be are secreted away from the masses.

Yet the people of the silo climb the spiraling central staircase, as if climbing a tree from its roots to its canopied upper branches, for the rare chance to peer out the silo’s grimy windows to a barren wind-swept horizon.

The people yearn to be outdoors, where their ancestors once lived. They yearn to a part of nature. Therein lies the hope.

The back cover of Wool asks these questions:

What would you do if the world outside was deadly, and the air you breathed could kill? And you lived in a place where every birth required a death?

Wikipedia image
I read Howey's 563-page novel while also reading a back-issue of Orion Magazine, and an essay about tree houses by UK author Paul Kingsnorth. “This summer,” he writes, “I built my children a tree house.”

His essay is about much more than tree houses, of course. It is about the ecological crisis facing our home, the earth. It is about the stories that we continue to tell ourselves that are not true. It is about the intellectual ideas that we think can save the earth, when truly the only thing that will save us is to return to the relationship we once had with the earth. The relationship.

“At the core of our animal beings, something is bleeding,” Kingsnorth warns us. “If we stop and pay attention, we can feel the wound. In the wound lies the hope.”

Kingsnorth’s essay, written in the here-and-now, is not merely a doomsday warning. Read it in the midst of reading Howey’s apocalypse novel and it becomes a profound call to action.

“Human beings, Kingsnorth writes, are the universe made self-aware…. We could do worse than to return to the notion of the planet as the mother that birthed us.”

Like Howey, Paul Kingsnorth dares to hope. The world will make it and perhaps we will too, he tells us. “If we live right by our inheritance—our inner wildness and that of the world…but first we are going to have to walk through the fires we have set, and much of what we think we are, and much of what we have built, is going to have to burn away.”

How ironic, and synchronistic, that Juliette, the heroic female protagonist in Wool, must walk through fire in order to return to a home devoid of life as we now know it, but beloved nonetheless.

Hugh Howey’s dedication page in the original self-published version of WOOL reads simply: For those who dare to hope. “I think it’s the bravest thing we can do,” Howey writes in his January blog post. “2018 should be a year in which we remind ourselves of this…”

Paul Kingsnorth, Orion
I wonder if Howey and Kingsnorth have ever met. They have, it seems, much in common - nature, the earth, a shared humanity, storytelling.

"Any new religion," writes Kingsnorth, "any new way of seeing, will probably grow from the ground where we are.

"This new way of seeing [the old way], will emerge from something small that demands our attention; something we love, something animate with the spirit of life."

Something like a dog. Or a tree. Or the patch of earth outside our window. Even the wind-swept horizon. Cherish it, we must.

NOTES: Read Huffington Post article about Hugh Howey's huge climb to success and his unique publishing deal. Browse Hugh Howey's Amazon Author's Page. Read Paul Kingsworth's complete essay "The Axis and the Sycamore Tree." 

Friday, December 29, 2017

Don’t Touch the Snow: Greeting the New Year with Willa Cather and My Antonia

A few years ago, during a progressive dinner in our mountain community, a neighbor who had moved to town said to me, “At our daughter’s new school, the kids aren’t allowed to touch the snow.” I nearly choked on my tomato tart. Willa Cather would have turned over in her grave.

Can a child who has never crunched a snowball between reddened palms, or run barefoot through knee-high grass, or climbed into the arms of a waiting tree, ever feel they belong to this great gorgeous and gritty earth? How else can a child come to know simple happiness?

Happiness, young Jim Burden contemplates in Willa Cather’s novel My Ántonia, comes from being “dissolved into something complete and great.” He was laying under the sun “like a pumpkin” when he was thinking this profound thought, and he had no desire (just then) to be anything more than a pumpkin.

Orphaned at the age of ten, Jim crossed the plains of Nebraska by wagon, arriving at his grandfather’s farm before daybreak. But when the sun rose and he looked about him, he felt that the grass was the country, as the water was the sea. “There was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running.”

At a writing conference in Montana once, New York editor Dan Slater (now an executive at Amazon Kindle) stayed perched outside on a corral fence long after the rest of us retreated inside. “I’ve never seen such a big sky,” he told me later, “or so many stars."

When young Jim first met Ántonia, he described her eyes as being warm and full of light, not like stars, but like the sun shining on “brown pools in the wood.” She was wild looking, and he loved her for it. His love for her grew each day as they raced toward creeks, or stood panting at the crumbling edges of ravines.

Memories of their childhood days together stayed with him over the many decades that they were separated. When he saw her once again, she was a farmwife with a gaggle of children, some nearly grown, some shy, all eager to gather the cows off the fields and bring them to the barn to be milked.

By then, Jim was an attorney, living in the city but he felt “Everything was as it should be: the strong smell of sunflowers and ironweed in the dew, the clear blue and gold of the sky, the evening star, the purr of the milk into the pails, the grunts and squeals of the pigs fighting over their supper.”

A few weeks ago, I was also reunited with a childhood friend—not in the pages of a novel, but on the mountain where we used to play together as toddlers. Mary and I would lose ourselves on the wildlife trails between our houses, eating wild onions and plucking bluebell bouquets for our mothers.

We had not seen each other in nearly fifty years, and we could not stop smiling. Her eyes had not changed – they remained mischievous and daring. Even as toddlers, we had been the wild ones, the ones who wandered too far from the safety of home, then fell asleep, cheeks to the soil.

When Antonia stood before Jim, she was not the lovely young girl he remembered, “but she still had that something which fires the imagination, that could still stop one’s breath for a moment. All the strong things of her heart came out in her body…”

I felt that way about Mary when we hugged each other, could feel all the strong things in her heart, even after all these years.

After Jim left Ántonia, he stood by himself on the faded and overgrown road that had connected his grandfather’s farm to her parents’ homestead. He sensed that he was coming home to himself.

“For Antonia and for me, this had been the road of Destiny. Now I understood that the same road was to bring us together again. Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past.”

A novel such as Willa Cather’s My Ántonia reaches out to us through the sensibilities of the past, as if knowing that our modern souls yearn for a simpler time, and simpler happiness. The streets of our paved cities, though teeming with cars, will never be in motion like the prairie grasses stirred by a free-flowing wind. Our snow will never be quite as white, quite as pure.

But touch it, we must. Bend our eyes to the big sky with its bright stars, we must. Dissolve into something complete and greater than ourselves, we must. This will be my New Year's resolution - to look for simple joys, and to remember in all ways that I am only completed when I belong to something greater.

NOTES: My Antonia, published in 1918 and set during the 1880s–1910s, is cataloged as Frontier fiction. To learn more about the author, watch Yours, Willa Cather.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Gathering from the Grassland with Linda Hasselstrom

I am contemplating the November 30th entry in Linda Hasselstrom’s new book, Gathering from the Grassland: A Plains Journal. I am also contemplating what I see as the three-dimensional structure of the book. It is more than linear entries which invite the reader, day by day, into a year of Linda’s life on the plains of South Dakota. 

This book stands as humbly and remarkably steady as a three-legged stool. One might say this about all of Linda’s admirable body of work. She is a gifted wordsmith, but it is not her well-wrought language that she wants us to notice, but the earth upon which that body of work rests—steady as a three-legged stool on a patch of shortgrass prairie. (I hope you're smiling, Linda.)

Let’s talk about those three legs. First, deep mapping. The idea of “deep-mapping first occurred to me several years ago when I was reading an interview with Robert Lawlor in Parabola: Myth and Tradition. In the interview, Lawlor speaks of the Aboriginal belief that there is a kinship system that connects all people born to the same piece of earth, even those separated by generations. Each carries the stories and songs tied to that land, and thus their bond of kinship is formed not by blood, but by their common connection to Place. And so began my desire to deep-map Colorado, the land of my birth.

Linda, because of her generational connection to her family’s small South Dakota ranch, is able to go layers deep into the history of the ranch. She does so through her own experience, and through what she learns when reading the letters and journals of family members, primarily her mother and father.

Linda on her ranch in South Dakota, photo South Dakota Humanities
Linda gathers from the grassland not only stories about family, but stories about the animals with whom she shares the ranch land. These scattered stories, when collected, reveal the rich landscape of her life. John Price also touches on the idea of deep mapping in his foreword for Gathering from the Grasslands.

The second leg of this literary stool has to do with the concept of the Tibetan word “shul.” I first encountered the word in a poem by Julie Fowler. In 1397, the philosopher Tsongkhapa used the word shul to describe a track or “the impression that remains” after that which made it has passed, like the scarred hollow in the ground where a house once stood. This brings me back to the November 30th entry in Linda’s journal. She writes:

I look down at the ranch yard and am still startled when I see the gap where an old shed stood… it was over a hundred years old… for sixty odd years I have seen that shed in that place.

Throughout the book, January through December, we encounter this idea of shul as Linda reveals more and more about her life and its connections to the past, not just her familial past, but to the history of the soil that grows her gardens, and the plains that grow the grass that feeds the cattle that have always been a part of her life.

Open up any page, fix your gaze on any day, and you will sense the tactile impression of the past in her words.

The third leg is the Mary Oliver leg, built from the same simple yet utterly astounding tree of mindfulness. In Oliver’s poem “Mindful,” she speaks of the beauty of the ordinary. I think she had Linda in mind when she wrote of “the prayers that are made out of grass.”

On March 23rd, Linda wrote of sitting in her reading chair with her father’s journals. She was able to “look down the hill and see the steps where he cried and where he collapsed into death, dying instantly, just as he’d hoped.”

Reading our own journals, let alone the journal of a father who caused as much pain as joy in our lives, takes courage because we know we might be deep-diving into unpleasant waters. This is why it is so important for writers, who often find ourselves immersed in darkness, to remember that we must rise to the surface (away from all those heavy thoughts), and be mindful of life’s simple beauty – like the blades of grass that speak to us, like a prayer, of life’s renewal.

Linda, too, had to pull herself away darkness while gathering these stories. She was studying her life and its meaning. Not all of us are so courageous, but the writing demands its toll.

Everyday I have gone out and thrown myself into noticing the red-winged blackbirds, the greening grass, and the signs of returning hope.

On March 26th, she writes: 

At sunrise, every blade of grass stands outlined in light, a glorious morning.

Why else do we write about our lives, and read about the lives of others, if not to hasten the return of hope? If not to be reminded that we must look for the glory in each day, the simple honest glory.