ALL THINGS LITERARY. ALL THINGS NATURAL.

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

WINNER 2013 COLORADO AUTHORS' LEAGUE BLOG OF THE YEAR AWARD!

"Your recent blog about the tender return of your loved ones to the earth was moving, graceful in words and inspiration. Your words always come from the heart and intellect. A rare and insightful combination." Rolland Smith, former news anchor for WCBS-TV in New York, recipient of 11 Emmy Awards

Over 80,000 pageviews. Thank you!

RETURN TO PAGE'S HOME PAGE

Monday, June 29, 2015

The Last Unicorn - Searching for the Saola with William deBuys

In 2011, writer William deBuys joined conservation biologist William Robichaud on a trek into the jungled river country of Laos in search of the elusive and endangered saola, one of the earth’s rarest creatures. The small country of Laos, surrounded by China, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand, holds within its fragile borders a richly diverse, rapidly disappearing ecosystem.  Smugglers from Vietnam, their own country now devoid of its once plentiful flora and fauna, haul out everything from Siamese rosewood to elephant trunk snakes and scaly “pangolin” anteaters.  Most of the contraband is en route to China.

The Vietnam I knew in the late 1960s—when many of my male friends were either drafted into the Army, or recruited by the Air Force or Naval Academy after graduation—was a country divided north from south. I knew Vietnam only by what I saw on the news, or by what our liberal, armband-wearing civics teacher whispered about “the political truth” of this unholy war.

What little I now know, I glean during snippets of conversation while I’m having a pedicure at Diamond Nails—one foot spa-soaking while the other is being expertly exfoliated, toes soon to be meticulously polished.  I often ask the Vietnamese nail technicians to tell me about their homeland.  Most are too young to remember the Vietnam War, but not too young to have intimate knowledge of the chemical devastation to their country’s landscape, which peels back another, deeper layer to deBuys’ story.

Reading William deBuys’ eloquent story The Last Unicorn: A Search for One of Earth’s Rarest Creatures (2015: Little, Brown and Company), I found myself immersed in a post-war culture where everything that grows or crawls or trots or flies, is either eaten or commoditized. Including human beings. This post-war world is poignantly, beautifully and humbly rendered by deBuys in The Last Unicorn.

To trek with deBuys and Robichaud into the rarely glimpsed world of the elusive saola is to awaken your senses to “air musky with leaf mold” and to slender apes summoning the day. The songs of the gibbons lie “beyond metaphor, beyond the ordinary meanings of words.”  To travel up the canyon of the Nam Mon River is to stand with men "in stunned silence... at the place where the saola disappeared."

To travel with him through the pages of The Last Unicorn is to follow an illegal snare line along the crest of a jungled ridge only to find a red-shanked douc hanging upside down, snared by one foot, dead.

DeBuys does not portray himself as indefatigable.  He admits to not being physically equal to the grueling pace set by the team leader, biologist William Robichaud.  Each night brings bone deep, muscle weary exhaustion. Yet I can envision the journals, into which deBuys poured both the beauty and harshness of each day, laying restless beside him—repositories vibrating with strength of prose and the vivid, keen imagery of this sensate world.

I am grateful that at the close of each day, or during brief quite moments on the trail in search of the illusive saola, deBuys found the energy to record this quest in the pages of his journals so that we might take this journey with him. We are the richer for it, which is not a small thing in a disappearing world.

Perhaps I will buy a copy of The Last Unicorn for the women at Diamond Nails. Perhaps one of them remembers a grandfather's tale from long ago about a mysterious, dark eyed creature in the woods traveling unharmed across a borderless land.

Notes: View more photos in a slideshow of William deBuys travels in search of the saola. Read “A Wildlife Mystery in Vietnam: The discovery of the saola alerted scientists to the strange diversity of Southeast Asia's threatened forests” (Richard Stone, Smithsonian, 2008).  Read "Sticking it Out" guest essay by William deBuys in the Colorado Plateau Advocate magazine, Spring 2015.  Read The New York Times March review, "Searching for a Magical Creature."

Friday, May 29, 2015

Auker's THE STORY IS THE THING and Brooks' PAINTED HORSES


According to the inside flap of Malcolm Brooks’ debut novel Painted Horses, in the mid-1950s America was flush with prosperity and the West was still very much wild.  Like Painted Horses, I was born in the 1950s, a child of both prosperity and wildness.  I learned how to toddle my way down mountain trails used by deer and elk about the same time I learned which fork to use for shrimp cocktail.  I learned how to trust our paint horse Bingo as he high-stepped over rocks and around fallen branches.  Then we moved and I learned what it meant to say goodbye.  Life, I discovered, was not going to be a linear journey.

Nor is the journey you will take while reading Painted Horses (Grove Atlantic, NY, 2014).  The opening drops you smack dab in the middle of backstory that unfolds in real time—the smell of the ancient muck of an archaeological dig in London rises up from the page even as the female protagonist sinks her toes into the mire. In a deft literary turn to the West, we find her suddenly disembarking a train in Miles City, Montana, wandering down a muddy path and coming face-to-painted face with a tethered war horse.  Enter John H, and a new female protagonist. She was a loyal horse but also a captive mustang.  At that instant, I was tethered to the novel, eager for the round-about ride.

Reading Amy Hale Auker’s new novel The Story Is the Thing (Pen-L Publishing, AR, 2014), also requires a dexterous reader who enjoys navigating a winding path.  You’ll meet Uncle Bill, an old man riding a stocky bay horse, his face weathered by the decades, his eyes studying tracks on the dusty trail.   The next chapter leads us to the daughter of Bill’s ranch boss three days after old Bill’s funeral.  Within minutes, Katy has the squat wood-burning stove in the ranch house burning, the teapot hissing, and the pewter urn holding Bill’s ashes on a bookshelf.  He has left her a stack of yellow pads on which he meant to write only the truth of the previous summer, but somehow a far more complicated story finds its way from his arthritic hands elegantly onto the pages.

Sixty years after I first toddled down those mountain trails, I’m back riding them horseback.  Our old paint horse Bingo is gone and my parents' ashes have been scattered to the western winds.  The gray Arab horse I now ride brought me face-to-face with the past as the ongoing journey circles back.  I find myself thinking of the fully fleshed characters (human and equine) that inhabit the pages of Painted Horses and The Story Is the Thing—an oddly fitting title for a book, but a good reminder for all of us that yes, the story is what matters.  The story, for all of us, is the legacy we leave behind.  

NOTES:  In 2012, Amy Hale Auker won the Women Writing the West Willa Award for her nonfiction book Rightful Place (Texas Tech University). Malcolm Brooks received a 4-star review from USA Today for Painted Horses, also a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Selection.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Keeping Your World Safe within the Pages of a Book: Learning from Kazuo Ishiguro

I recently attended a very public evening, and less public morning, with renowned British author Kazuo Ishiguro.  He read from and discussed his new novel The Buried Giant, his fourth since writing Remains of the Day (awarded the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 1989).

Here was my chance to sit at the foot of a master storyteller, to learn about his creative process, and about the emotional impulses and insecurities that haunt even one of the world’s most prominent writers.  Thank you, Lighthouse Writers, for organizing this event. 

Ishiguro was born in Japan, but moved with his parents to Great Britain when he was only five.  He talked a great deal about memory, and how it defines individuals and cultures.

“I became an adult with the memory of a very precious place, Japan, in my mind—a Japan that didn’t really exist.  I wanted to preserve this remembered place and I thought:  If I write a novel, I can recreate this world, and then this world will be safe within the pages of that novel."

In listening to him, I realized that my own desire to keep the memories of my beloved Wyoming ranchland safe within the pages of a book was the deeply rooted yearning that urged me forward during the entire writing of my memoir In Search of Kinship.

I had never before articulated this desire in quite that way, yet it was into that well of desire that I dipped my emotional bucket each and every time I sat down to write.  And now, with the Wyoming Highway Department's plans to reroute a major highway through this land, the memories contained within the pages of In Search of Kinship are all the more poignant.

Three of Ishiguro’s books now inhabit my writing office: The Remains of the Day, The Buried Giant, and Conversations with Kazuo Ishiguro.  Anytime I wish to once again sit at his feet as a disciple, all I need to do is reach out a hand and the maestro is there, extending his art and his passion, inviting me into his world.

Note: Watch video of full book scene from The Remains of the Day.  

Monday, March 2, 2015

The Extraordinary Worlds of Alice Hoffman and Nick Arvin


A few days ago, as I was turning the final page on Alice Hoffman’s novel The Museum of Extraordinary Things, Nick Arvin posted (rather humbly) to his Facebook page that his short story “The Crying Man” had just been awarded this year's Alice Hoffman Prize by Ploughshares.

Alice Hoffman, as final judge for the Ploughshares award, was obviously impressed with Arvin's writing.  She singled his story out from an elite field, as did the final judges (myself, and two others) who selected his novel Articles of War to receive the Colorado Book Award for Best Novel in 2007.
 
How interesting if we could somehow weave a web made of all the synchronistic strands that link judges to winners.  More than luck connects us - some mysterious "call and response" seems to be at work, an invisible silky strand linking this particular story to that particular heart and mind.

Arvin’s work first impressed me when I read Articles of War, his spare and powerfully moving novel about an eighteen-year-old farm boy from Iowa who enlists in the Army during World War II, arriving in Normandy just after D-day. 

Unlike the steel-nerved, real life character in the recent movie blockbuster The American Sniper, Arvin’s young soldier is consumed by fear and ultimately must face what for a soldier with a deep sense of cowardice is a horrifying job—to be a member of the firing squad assigned to kill a fellow soldier committed of treason.

In the novel Articles of War, Arvin takes us back to America of the mid-1940s.  In The Museum of Extraordinary Things, Alice Hoffman takes us back more than a century, to New York City’s Coney Island in 1911, and to a young woman raised by the sinister impresario of a museum filled with grotesque and extraordinary things. 
 
Born with webbed fingers, trained to breathe underwater, Coralie lives among these unnatural creatures (and for whom the public pays good money to gawk)—the Wolfman, the Butterfly Girl, a two-headed fetus—hundreds of exhibits all either natural oddities, or gruesomely manipulated to appear so by the man who raised Coralie.
 
Eventually, Coralie finds herself in a glass fish tank, exhibited to drunken men only an arm’s length away, her father’s patrons leering at her night after night—this pale and sensual creature, falsely portrayed as half mermaid, half girl, floating in illuminated water.  Unlike Arvin’s crying man, her sorrowful tears fall unnoticed.
 
In an interview with Nick Arvin for the blog Eudaemonia after Articles of War was named a book of the year by Esquire magazine, and received several other prestigious awards, Arvin was asked if the book had been optioned for film. 

“It's become almost commonplace to say that recent fiction has been heavily influenced by cinematic techniques,” said Arvin, “and generally cross-pollination between the arts is a good thing, but is there a danger that readers might begin to see a novel, any novel, as merely a kind of half-assed movie? (I think there actually is a danger of this, based on how quick people are to ask me whether my novel will be a movie, and ask this in a way that seems to imply its potential will only be fully realized if it does become a movie.)”

More than once, when reading The Museum of Extraordinary Things, I closed my eyes and imagined the scenes Hoffman was describing - the Wolfman, covered in hair, kissing the beautiful woman whose face had been scarred with acid.  Or young Coralie confiding in a 100-year-old turtle held captive for nearly a century.  I imagined Coralie swimming alone through the cold, dark waters of the Hudson River—a lonely young woman more at home with fish than with humans.  I imagined the young Russian man who visited her in her dreams, his immigrant heart steeled against his own father until he met Coralie.   

All of Alice Hoffman’s books have been optioned for films and  she has written several of the screenplays herself.  Yet I doubt if any serious fan of Alice Hoffman novels wishes the movie "had come out first."

According to Shortlist.com, The American Sniper is the first of eight books to read before they become movies in 2015.  Too late for those of us who have already seen the movie but haven't yet read the book.  I saw The American Sniper  the same week I was reading The Museum of Extraordinary Things. 

Yet it is the world of creatures, both natural and unnatural, rendered vividly by Hoffman, that stays with me in my waking dreams.
Yesterday, swimming in the Pacific Ocean, I felt my body swayed by the current, like the sea turtles riding the waves, imagined the lives of the whales in the waters beyond the reef, and I thought of Coralie.  I felt grateful that the boundaries of my imagination seemed wider than the waters of the Pacific, unbounded by the square-cornered walls and flat screens of even the most luxurious movie theaters. 

Also noteworthy:

WATCH Alice Hoffman talk about the transforming power of the imagination.

Nick Arvin's story "The Crying Man" was recently featured in a dramatic reading by actor Michael McNeill during the Stories on Stage event, Another Fine Mess.) 
ATTEND the upcoming Stories on Stage production, “Son of Very Short Stories,” featuring wildly eclectic flash fiction performed by the Buntport Theater Company Saturday, March l7, Su Teatro Cultural and Performing Arts Center in Denver, and Friday, March 13, at the Chautauqua Community House, Boulder.