ALL THINGS LITERARY. ALL THINGS NATURAL.

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

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Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Nose to Nose with Fear, Heart to Heart with Each Other

Next Monday, my 19th annual all-women river odyssey embarks, the rafts launching into the Colorado River at the Westwater put-in.  Each trip brings something new, but the river always gets the creative juices flowing.  We play.  We hike.  We swim.  We journal.  We run rapids.  We talk about process.  We share.  We get wonderfully silly.  Profoundly serious. We get silly all over again, in and out of the water, up and down the canyon walls, in and out of each others stories.  

From sun to shade, dark to light—in every metaphorical way imaginable. Wilderness landscapes stir our souls in life-changing ways.  We become lost in their grandeur and in the getting lost rediscover a vital part of ourselves.
Nowhere else besides the river is this transformation so enabled.  Each time, the joy of living simply is rediscovered as we journey down the river together—a cool drink of water, a playful mud bath, quiet conversation, the taste of a fresh tomato, sliced avocado, sweet summer corn.  But it’s the evening memories that endure, when our tents are pitched and the women guides are gathered with us around a fire as night comes to the canyon.

Several years ago, an underwater photographer for National Geographic whose job took her to the depths of the ocean, joined the trip.  I’ll call her Susan. “I figured the other women were bound to be interesting,’ she told me.  Yet she felt far more at home with a camera than a pen.  One evening, she volunteered to share her journaling from earlier that day.  She waited for a woman from Wyoming to finish reading a humorous piece about the time her brave, old grandmother killed a cranky rattlesnake with a short pair of horse hobbles.  Shaking, she began. “This takes so much courage,” she said.  “I was diving off the coast of Florida, and came nose to nose with a shark.”

Photo by Peter Verhoog / Dutch Shark Society, used with permission.  


As if by accident, the story of her brother’s untimely death several months earlier had woven its way into her journal.  She read aloud to us, comparing the darkness of her grief as she stared into the shark’s cold eyes, to the grip of fear she felt as a deadly sea serpent coiled itself around her flippers.  Her story ended as a canyon wren’s last song of the evening spiraled through the dusk.

Memories like these, coupled with the memories of laughter while floating down the river, or quiet conversation as we rest in the shade after a hike, exploring our own interior landscapes, remind me why I have been returning to the river for nineteen years.  Susan had walked through a desert of sorrow to bring us the gift of her story.  We listened by the fire, each holding stories close to the heart, emboldened to begin telling our stories.  The river returned us to our roots, our wildness, our spirituality, our sense of self.  The river gave us courage.  

Note: Contact me if you would like to get on the waiting list for the 2017, 20th River Writing & Sculpting Adventure. Roxanne Swentzell, renowned sculptor from the Santa Clara Pueblo in New Mexico, will be returning as my featured guest for this celebratory trip.  You may view her bronzes at Tower Gallery.  View more Peter Verhoog photography (Dutch Shark Society).

Friday, July 29, 2016

Breaking Trail: Gudy Gaskill Leads the Way



Gudy Gaskill’s death two weeks ago inspired a rush of outpouring by all who knew her. Gudy was a trailblazer—literally.  Our small Mount Vernon community knew her as a neighbor and family friend for decades, but the world at large knew her as the “Mother of the Colorado Trail” (more than 500 miles of trail stretching from Denver to Durango).  A painter, sculptor, and river runner, Gudy ascended all 54 of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks, climbed 23,000-foot international peaks, and was inducted into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame. She rallied our community to help her clear a steep hill of trees and brush so that the Mount Vernon children, along with her own sons and daughters, could learn to sled and ski.  After she died, her children wrote, “She taught us to love wandering in the mountains, the beauty of wildflowers, and the chill of a waterfall.”  

Western trailblazers like Gudy break ground literally and figuratively.  Around the same time as the 1988 official dedication of Gudy’s Colorado Trail, a new cadre of women writers began publishing memoirs about the West.  Terry Tempest William’s memoir Refuge broke early literary ground, followed by Linda Hasselstrom’s and Teresa Jordan’s memoirs Land Circle and Riding the White Horse Home.  Kim Barnes went on book tour for her memoir In the Wilderness: Coming of Age in Unknown Country the same month I began traveling the bookstore circuit with In Search of Kinship: Modern Pioneering on the Western Landscape.  Mary Clearman Blew and Judy Blunt garnered national attention with their memoirs about growing up in Montana, while Milkweed Editions published Homestead: The World as Home by Montana writer Annick Smith. Anna co-produced A River Runs Through It and was executive producer of Heartland.  

Kathleen Norris’s early book The Cloister Walk (which made the New York Time’s bestseller list), paved the way for her memoir Dakota: A Spiritual Journey. In 1997, Houghton Mifflin published Leaning Into the Wind, the first of three collections by western women. This trailblazing project kept my friends Linda Hasselstrom, Gaydell Collier, and Nancy Curtis busy editing for nearly a decade. Plant biologist Susan Tweit was also one of the early trailblazers with her memoir Pieces of Light: A Year On Colorado’s Front Range.

Recently, Susan and I shared with each other sections from our new memoirs (still works-in-progress).  After she read a section where I talked about the women writers mentioned above, she said to me, “This wasn’t just the literary territory where you stood, Page; it was within this literary landscape where you found your true self.”  Susan helped me remember that these women writers, who loved the West every bit as much as I did, had not only cleared the way for the rest of us—they had welcomed us.   

Now, I think about Gudy, and those of us who have “found” our most authentic selves while wandering and writing about the western landscape. I think of how often we have all stopped to marvel at the softly turned petals of a wild flower, or stood beneath the invigorating rush of a waterfall as Gudy's children have. This iconic woman, who shared tea with my mother, who baked bread for my husband and me, who walked each day from her mountain cabin to her plot in our community garden, this iconic woman who inspired songwriter Michael Martin Murphey to sing a love song to the Colorado Trail and a woman named Laura with eyes like the morning star and cheeks like a rose, this revered woman's memory will live on for many more miles to come.

Note:  Click here to listen to Michael Martin Murphey's The Colorado Trail.  Read more about the Colorado Trail and Gudy here.  Photos below were taken at an exhibit of Gudy's paintings and sculptures in July, 2014.

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.