ALL THINGS LITERARY. ALL THINGS NATURAL.

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

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Friday, October 31, 2014

At the Heart of Place with Dawn Wink, Julene Bair, Susan Tweit and Page Lambert

PLACE was the topic that brought Julene Bair, Susan Tweit (Walking Nature Home: A Life’s Journey), Dawn Wink (Meadowlark: A Novel), and me, together for a panel at the recent Women Writing the West conference in Golden, Colorado.  Each of us talked about the power of a particular place in our writing.  

For Julene, it was the west Kansas farm of her childhood that drew her as her nostalgia shape-shifted over the years into guilt as she realized her family’s culpability in the draining of the Ogallala aquifer that had, for millennium, given life to the prairie.  “When I arrived at the Little Beaver, I discovered that the creek was now nothing more than a depression. Runoff from all the newly farmed pastureland had filled it with silt…there had once been sand, vacant and pinkish tan. In my childhood, the sand had poured sensuously through my hands, each granule having its own color, shape, size, sheen.”

I could almost feel the sand sifting through my own fingers as I read The Ogallala Road: A Memoir ofLove and Reckoning, my sense of Julene’s “place” moving from the larger Kansas prairie to the intimacy of the creek bed.

Susan Tweit, a gifted and scientifically trained observer of plants, ironically turned to the stars in her first memoir, Walking Nature Home, to get her earthly bearings.  “Like stardust and the other materials of life itself, we are in constant motion, changing shape as we pass through our lives…”  In her new memoir Bless the Birds (the story of her husband’s terminal brain cancer), we move through many landscapes—from the high plains of Wyoming, to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of Colorado, to the sterile halls of Denver’s hospitals.  Yet it is in the moments when Susan turns to the words in her husband’s journal after he has died, where I feel the deepest connection to Place—not a geographical location, but a place found only in the heart—the place where Susan’s world of the living crosses through that invisible veil and she finds herself again rooted to memory and emotion.  

I knew when I read the opening in Dawn Wink’s novel Meadowlark, that for young Grace, Place could be either comforting, or menacing.  “Grace went down the hill and straight to the corral, through the gate to Mame and put her arms around the mare’s neck, pressing her cheek against the warm gold of her buckskin coat…She lifted her eyes to the sod house just beyond the fence and saw a shift of movement behind the window.” 

How then, is setting or location different?  When narrative, story, brings a place to life, it becomes the Place where something happened.  Keith H. Basso, in his book Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache, gives wonderful examples of place names such as these:

Widows Pause For Breath; They Piled On Top Of Each Other; Two Old Women Are Buried; and She Carries Her Brother On Her Back. 

These are not only geographical locations, but entire narratives rising up from the landscape, moving easily between the centuries.  For Dawn, the story of Meadowlark rose up from the very ranchland where Dawn’s own mother spent summers as a child.  And it was this same ranchland that yielded the answers to Dawn’s questions.  “I walked the land and listened,” Dawn tells us. 

When I first moved to Santa Fe, before moving back to Colorado, I forgot to listen to the land—forgot that, just because I did not yet understand the language of the New Mexico desert, did not mean that the land was mute.  Then one day I saw the tracks of two coyotes circling a desert shrub, and saw frantic rabbit tracks and tufts of fur and blood. The land was telling me a story, and I began to listen.  That place became The place where the rabbit died. 

For each of us, and with each new story, Place will be different.  At its heart will be everything that has ever been born, lived in, or died in that place, everything in the past, everything in the present, all energy— every sound, smell, ray of sun, every shadow, every sorrow, every joy. 

Notes: The Denver Post book review of Julene Bair’s memoir The Ogallala Road: A Memoir of Love and Reckoning begins like this: “To write a sweeping story, it helps to have lived many lives within the one allotted to you.  And to skillfully root them in a particular place.” For updates on Susan Tweit's next memoir Bless the Beasts, read her blog.  For the latest in Dawn's writing life, read her blog Dewdrops

Thursday, September 11, 2014

LOVE + LUST, and Other Profound Desires

Once, I listened to a man tell of how he bandaged a topless dancer’s bleeding finger after she cut it while stroking the edge of a mirror during a performance.  Listening, I felt sick to my stomach.  I had that same feeling once when walking down the sidewalk in Las Vegas, trying to avoid stepping on the dozens of tossed-aside postcards that littered the streets, lascivious photographs of young women staring up at me. For a good time call.

I didn't want to walk on their faces. She’s someone’s daughter, I thought. Someone’s niece. Someone’s mother. I found a restaurant with an outdoor bar shaded by palm trees, green ferns and flowers.  I sat on a stool and ordered a ginger ale.  The land beneath the city felt dead, suffocated by cement, devoid of spirit, even as fountains sprayed a river of water a hundred feet into the desert air and glittering neon lights dwarfed the sun.  I took deep breaths and focused my attention on two birds flittering among the branches. 

Later, I wrote a poem about the young topless dancer, and her bleeding finger, and the man who bandaged it.  When OPEN TO INTERPRETATION sent out a call for submissions to writers and photographers for their upcoming issue, LOVE+LUST, I sent in the poem.*

Editor Claire O’Neill writes in the book’s Introduction, “More than 2,500 photographs were submitted. Of the 31 images chosen, only one is devoid of a person. Why?” she asks us. “Maybe because love and lust relate to our very core as humans.”  She goes on to quote Paulo Coelho: “Profound desire, true desire is the desire to be close to someone.”

I thought of Jennie Field’s novel The Age of Desire, about the author Edith Wharton and her scandalous, 1908 love affair with a dashing young journalist.  Twelve years later, in 1920, Wharton would write her Pulitzer prize-winning novel The Age of Innocence.  “Is it—in this world—vulgar to ask for more?” asked Katherine Mansfield after reading The Age of Innocence. “To entreat a little wildness, a dark place or two in the soul?”

When my contributor’s copy of LOVE+LUST arrived in the mail a few weeks ago, I shied away from browsing through the beautifully designed book. Uneasy, I glanced only at my poem and the photo it had been paired with before closing the cover—a stripper in a glass booth.  But last night, I took the book to bed with me and began reading.  Across from each of the photographs, presented individually on the left, were two companion poems on the facing page.  I paused when I got to the cover photo of the snake, and these opening lines by poet Melanie Richards:  Her version of the story/remains untold: forked/tongue whispering to her/from the branches….

And so it is that we are still trying to tell our version of the story.  Let us never stop.  Let us seek the wildness in our souls, in our human cores, but let us also stoop to pick up the photos of the discarded women. Let us reach out to staunch the bleeding, to strive for closeness of the most profound and yes, most godly nature. 

*NOTE: Wharton’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel The Age of Innocence was recently listed in The Guardian/The Observer as #45 in a list of the 100 Best Novels.   My sincere thanks to Carol  Muske-Dukes for her poem, "To The Muse: New Year's Eve, 1990," which inspired my poem, "For Carol Muske's Light-Eyed Drunken Girl."

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Small Heart of Things

I love what the title and subtitle of Julian Hoffman's collection of essays, being at home in a beckoning world, imply: 

It is the small heart of nature’s wonders as much as the grand vistas that we should seek. 

In his chapter on Karst country, Julian Hoffman writes, “No streams silver the valleys, no pools or ponds collect snapshots of the sky…I’m alone, and waiting for birds. When they come – singing in the near dark of fledging from the meadows – I record their names and details … The songs always reach me before their forms darken the sky.” 

We humans talk too much and listen too seldom.  I remember standing in a crowd at the edge of Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii in a drenching mist that obscured the glowing red embers spewing into the sky.  Loud, complaining voices made it impossible to hear the volcano. We moved to a far corner of the observation deck and straining, could hear the deep and powerful rumbling.  I closed my eyes and listened – Kilauea was speaking.  Every cell in my body felt the eruption, even though my eyes could not see the fiery glow.  I could feel and hear Kilauea’s labored contractions as this new, fertile soil flowed from her womb.

In The Small Heartof Things, Hoffman asks us to be attentive to details, to still our busyness and wait, to tune into the heart of things with patient senses - smelling, touching, tasting, hearing, watching.  But perhaps the most important sense, and the one we humans too often ignore, is our sense of wonder and awe. 
Note:  Watch Julian's 5-minute, inspiring book trailer

Friday, June 20, 2014

All Fishermen Are Liars: John Gierach and the Soul of Simplicity

“We seem to have a real affection for a beautiful insect that only lives for a single day," John Gierach writes about the mayfly in the opening of his book Sex, Death and Fly-fishing, "and whose only mission is to make love just once.”  My father, a romantic and a fisherman, would have applauded the mayfly's life mission (except for the just once part). 

When Gierach’s new book All Fishermen Are Liars brought him to Denver’s Tattered Cover Bookstore, I wanted to meet him.  I tucked my worn copy of Sex, Death and Fly-fishing into my purse and we headed down the mountain.  Listening to Gierach’s stories would no doubt rekindle memories of fishing the channels of Montana’s Madison River with my father.  One of my father’s greatest thrills was the day he snagged three trout in a single cast after tying on three flies.  No lie.  

Usually, though, my father fished like he wrote—with simple equipment.  A Big Chief yellow pad and a pencil, an old bamboo rod, an old fishing vest with the same set of clippers hanging from it, maybe a few nymphs and wooly worms (or whatever was hatching), the same old creel, same old green net.  But as far as I know, my father had never fished tenkara style, at least not since a boy fishing with stick and string. 

Gierach describes this traditional Japanese method as “the soul of simplicity.”  A light rod, a fixed line attached at the end, a single fly with a simple pattern.  The tenkara purist doesn’t ask in the way of tackle, “How much do I need?” but “How little can I get away with?”

As a writer, I should be asking myself the same thing:  How little can I get away with? How few words? How simple a story? Murky, turbulent water is hard to fish—trout aren’t tempted by what they can’t see.  
Several years ago, in a four-day juried workshop, Tom Jenks, editor of Narrative Magazine, gave us this directive:  “Aim for the absolute version.  Write the story so that anyone can understand it.” Do we really need more than a stick and string?  Can simple yearning be enough?  “I can teach your granddaughter to fish with a tenkara in two minutes,” Gierach quotes a well-known fisherman, “and she’ll catch more than you.”

My father will never be able to fish the Madison with his grandchildren, though I know my new granddaughter Carly will learn to love the wilds of Montana just like I did, and just like her mother and father already do.  After Gierach autographed his new book for me, I pulled the worn copy of Sex, Death and Fly-fishing out of my purse and handed it to him.  “Sign it to my father please,” I asked, “to Loren.

Someday, I’ll give both books to my son, and perhaps someday he’ll pass them on to Carly.  When she reads the inscription she might ask, “Did Grandpa Loren know the man who wrote these?”  I hope Matt tells her that all fishermen know each other - in the ways that matter, at least.  Through the simple feel of river rocks beneath the felt soles of your waders.  Through the tug on the fly at the end of your line forty feet downstream.  Through the stories we tell.  True or not.