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, May 25, 2018

Riding into the Heart of Patagonia: Weaving Together the Threads of Life


My suitcase is unpacked from Peru and repacked for Wyoming. The new lilac bushes are deep-watered; the flower box planted, and the rock garden’s perennials weeded and refreshed with new soil. My mare’s feed is sacked up and my corral group friends will check on her each morning while I’m gone. John is holding down camp, the granddaughters are healthy, and the heartbeat of Sarah’s unborn baby girl is gurgling along in a happy rhythm.

These details form the connective tissue between yesterday and tomorrow. Life, for all of us, transitions one detail at a time, one heartfelt emotion after another. Literature, too, can transition us from one moment to the next, the stories we read threading their way through the patterns of our lives.

Before I left for Peru, I started reading Nancy Pfeiffer’s memoir, Riding into the Heart of Patagonia, about a solo journey through the remote Aysen region of Chile. Nancy, an instructor for the nonprofit National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), is an experienced wilderness guide, but traveling alone horseback through the wild mountains and rivers of unknown territory, speaking very little Spanish, was a brave new experience.

Photo by Fredrik Norrsell, Patagonia
“Beside a rain-swollen river in Patagonia,” she wrote, “a man approached on a horse. His mount, a rusty red beauty, sported the short-trimmed mane and neatly squared-off tail of a well-kept horse. Colorful handwoven saddlebags tied behind a sheepskin-covered saddle contained a few supplies from town. The man wore goatskin chaps, a woolen poncho, and the jaunty black beret typical of the region. Crinkles around his eyes spoke of years of squinting into the sun. This man and his horse belonged to this place in a way I could only dream of.”

Photo by Page Lambert, Peru
I dove back into Nancy’s memoir when I returned from Peru, the threads of our South American connection stronger, more vibrant. While in Peru, I had ridden compact mountain horses up an old Inca trail high above a fertile river valley. The ride lasted only a few hours, and there were seven of us. Nancy Pfeiffer had ridden over 3000 kilometers of rugged trails, most of it alone, a journey that ended up spanning the next two decades of her life. Yet a slender thread formed a link between us, and I could better appreciate the immensity of her journey.

Nancy Pfeiffer, photo by Fredrik Norrsell
As I prepare for two weeks of riding horseback through Wyoming’s wide-open spaces, the differences are, once again, extreme. We will have wranglers, trail-wise horses, cozy cabins, and hot meals. Nancy’s was a go-it-alone, ride in the rain, eat on the trail, sleep in a tent, kind of life experience. The horses taught her the lay of the land and after a few treacherous river crossings, deep dangerous bogs, and vertical scree-covered mountain trails, she learned to listen.

Each page of her book takes the reader further into the unfolding of the journey. Nancy writes vividly. We are there with her, along for the ride with every cell of our imagination.  As Nancy grows into the experience, she grows into the landscape and culture of Patagonia. Roots establish themselves, adding texture to a life that will never be the same. She comes to belong to the place, and the people of Patagonia take her into their hearts.  

I, too, seem to have taken Nancy into the heart-threads of my journey through life. Her stories have become mine in some small way. New patterns are revealing themselves in this tapestry of life, the one that belongs to us all.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Copper Canyon Press and Ursula Le Guin: A Match Made in Heaven

"Come to dust," Ursula Le Guin urges us, even now from that great beyond, "all earth's dust has been life, held soul, is holy." On the eve of my departure for Peru, where ancientness is not a concept but a living thing you reach out and touch, on this eve it seems right to call forth her memory. For she, like the master Inca stonemasons who lifted Machu Picchu into being, masterfully raised entire worlds that will live forever in our imaginations.

Copper Canyon Press is reaching out to those who value small presses. More importantly, they are reaching out to those of us who are grateful that esteemed writers such as Ursula Le Guin create literary partnerships with these fine presses. If you would like to contribute to the cost of publishing her final poetry collection, So Far So Good, contact Copper Canyon Press.


Friday, March 30, 2018

PERU: Land of Portals and Stories


Peru is a land of portals -- openings that invite us to step through ancient archways and into the past. We lean against stone walls with both feet anchored in the present yet can almost feel the calloused hands of the builders reaching through time.

Pablo Neruda believed that when we touch an object with our fingers, we become part of that object’s memory. He also believed that all the stories he ever needed already existed, and that their inspiration could be found in simple things.

A few years ago, in Ollantaytambo (during the Weaving Words & Women retreat), we sat on a narrow earth terrace on the backside of the ruins facing the mountain from which these granite walls were quarried. Incan workers hauled mammoth chunks of stone across the valley below to this high place - an unfathomable endeavor that remains a mystery.

What stories, I had wondered, linger here? Does this place  now resonate with our presence too? There was snow on the mountain peak to the northeast, and clouds moving beneath a blue sky above the valley of tilled crops and cows, vacas,  grazing the old winter stalks.

Earlier, when our guide Huber was speaking to us about the mountain across from the ruins where the food was kept cool by the swirling winds of the three valleys, I watched three sheep trot across the empty plaza below us, moving toward a portal in the plaza walls that led to the green field beyond.

The ovejas needed no leader to find their way to the place where they spent their mornings grazing in the sun each day. Behind them, running to catch up, was a small Quechua boy.  The sheep, and then the boy, passed through the opening out into the field.

I wanted to know his story. I wanted to hear him call out to the sheep. I wanted to see his sister card their wool and his mother spin it into yarn.

"When they began excavating the ruins of Ollantaytambo," Huber told us, " they rebuilt the smaller rock walls to recreate the terraces where the Incas planted fragrant and beautiful flowers." He told us that the flowers of each terrace sweetened the air that wafted toward the Sun Temple.

As I watched the little boy below with his sheep, I thought of the women of Patacancha in the high mountain we had visited the day before, where the rain and snows gather to fill the river flowing into this valley.

Perhaps their ancestors had lived here. Perhaps their ancient grandmothers, young women then, had ground the dried bouquets of fall flowers into bright pigments with which they could dye their wool. Perhaps their sisters had tethered their sheep and their llamas to these very terraces.

In Peru, it is easy to believe Pablo Neruda, to believe that stories are found in simple things, that when our hands touch these stones, we pass through the portal of time and into a world filled with stories waiting to be told.