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, June 27, 2017

Tamed by a Bear: Coming Home to Nature~Spirit~Self



I often smile when walking past Maggie’s garden shed here in our mountain community. A brown fiberglass bear hangs on the shed door, poised in greeting and dressed (based on Maggie’s artistic mood) in various clever outfits. He might be wearing a fishing hat and be outfitted with rod, reel and creel. Or, if the Denver Rockies are winning, a purple baseball cap might be perched between his ears, a catcher’s mitt in his paw. If tennis’s grand slam season has arrived, he might be swinging a tennis racket.

Last fall, a black bear bullied Maggie’s brown bear (and the garden shed) into submission, ripping off a hand and strips of wooden trim. Perhaps the black bear was reminding all of us not to trifle too lightheartedly with the real nature of Bear.

Reading Priscilla Stuckey’s new book, Tamed by a Bear: Coming Home to Nature~Spirit~Self, you might ask what is a bear’s real nature? You might also ask about the word “nature,” arguing (as I’m about to do) with Oxford’s primary definition: The phenomena of the physical world collectively, including plants, animals, the landscape, and other features and products of the earth, as opposed to humans or human creations.  

Really? Humans are in opposition to the phenomena of the physical world, and not part of nature? Really?

When you read Tamed by a Bear, you might want to do what Priscilla did when a wise, eloquent bear with a sense of humor showed up in her life. Suspend disbelief. Readers of fiction do it all the time. We open the first page of a novel and dive into an imaginary world, ready to believe, ready to embrace. But Priscilla Stuckey has a PhD in religious studies; she is trained in critical thinking, not openhearted dialogues with furry animals that smile toothy grins. Learning to suspend disbelief and listen to this spirit helper's wise words was not an easy process.

Bear would no doubt tell us, as he tells her when she tries to differentiate between supernatural and natural, that “it’s not necessary to divide things up that way.” Nature, Bear reminds her, is the land of your birth, the spacious place from where all life flows. Go outside and learn from a wider world.

As humans, we often base our spiritual beliefs on things we cannot see (heavenly spirits/gods and goddesses). But in Tamed by a Bear, Priscilla learns to accept the presence of a spirit helper who shows up one day sitting in a rocking chair, or the next day lounging on a chaise in sunglasses. Granted, others might not be able to see him, but Priscilla can, and she learns to trust.

When people want to connect with the sacred, Bear tells her, they’re yearning for a restored sense of communion. “The sense that love and creativity can flow freely. Communion with the deep self, the deep wellsprings.”

If the Oxford Dictionary editors were to apply their secondary definition of nature, The innate or essential qualities or character of a person or animal, they might find common ground with Bear and his belief in nature. I’ll put a different twist on their definition, one Bear might agree with: Nature as our essence. It is certainly my nephew Gabriel Lockwood's essence, seen here poised on a boulder overlooking the canyon on the north edge of our community.

“Reconciliation,” Bear tells Priscilla, “needs to happen throughout the world—between humans and nature, between humans and the less visible worlds, and within a person.” Nature, by bringing people back to a deeper experience of physical sensations, brings them back to spirit, to the unseen parts of life.”  

Real bears, the kind that hibernate in the woods and wander through the mountain neighborhood where Maggie and I live, are part of our community's unseen life. We hike in the wake of their foraging. We find overturned rocks and uprooted tubers. We catch shadowy glimpses of dark bodies disappearing into the woods.

A few days ago, our dog woke me in the early morning with a low, guttural Whoof! Whoof! Two amorous bears, a large male and a smaller female, were mating near our century old log garage. The male sensed my gaze and broke away, coming toward the deck. 

Then he turned, and together the two bears trotted across the backyard, moving up toward the neighbors. Still in an amorous mood, though, they turned back into our yard for a few more moments of romance only to disappear up the neighbor’s dirt driveway a few minutes later.

The following day, someone living east of our small community reported seeing the bears, then hearing a shot. She thought she saw one of the bears limping. Wildlife officials apparently found no blood trail. The next day, the bears were back on our side of the mountain (perhaps more of a sanctuary). A neighbor below us spotted the female walking on a lower trail. Following 40 yards behind her was the male, limping badly, holding up an injured front foot. 

I imagine the male bear alone now that mating season is over. I like to think that he will heal. I still smile when I walk by Maggie's garden shed, but I wonder how long it will be before humans reconcile what is in our wounded hearts with our self-exile from nature. I wonder what Priscilla's wise Bear might say about all this. I wonder about the things that draw us closer to the natural world, our world, our essence, and I wonder about those things that move us further from where we need to be.

NOTE: Read about Stuckey's book Kissed by a Fox. Purchase Tamed by a Bear from Counterpoint Press.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

All That Endures


The hour is late. The day, filled with packing and riding, rain and anticipation, stretches behind like a scene in a rear view mirror. Tomorrow morning Sheri Griffith and I leave to drive to Wyoming to celebrate the 10th anniversary of our Literature & Land of the Horse Retreat, held at the Vee Bar Guest Ranch. A few years ago, this Sandhill Crane surprised us in the meadow during one of our horseback rides. Wild irises bloomed among vibrant yellow flowers against a backdrop of spring green.

How does one take in all the beauty and goodness, when the heart has been weighed down by the barrage of nightly newscasts? Start with a deep breath, I imagine. Listen to the sound of your horse's footsteps. His breathing. The creak of saddle leather. Watch the red-winged blackbird perched on the cattail. Think of Sandhill Cranes, mated for life. Think of the ancient crane that walked the earth two and a half million years ago. Think of the ancient Equus galloping across the tundra here on his native land, two and a half million years ago. Imagine him gone. Imagine him returning. Imagine today's horse meeting yesteryear's dancing crane. Think of all that endures. Take another deep breath. Be grateful for the mysteries that go unsolved.


Sunday, April 30, 2017

Traveling the Backroads with Mary Sojourner


Words flow through Mary Sojourner’s veins. I’m not exaggerating. Nothing else could explain the way her stories pulse off the page. You’ve probably heard that all you must do to be a writer is open a vein and bleed, right? Well, wrong. You’ve also got to clean up the mess. Not all writers, especially writers who enter their work heart first, have a mind capable of resurrecting the messy emotional outpouring. Mary has that kind of brilliant mind.

With Mary’s stories, the words flow through her veins, and into the veins of her characters—an infusion that pumps humanity right back into the reader. Her stories are earthy, and deceivingly simple because they are so accessible - like a vitamin injection, a tonic to the soul.

Over 15 years ago, I stood on the shoulder of a Wyoming highway with Mary Sojourner, overlooking rolling grasslands that edged up to the ponderosa slopes of the Bearlodge Mountains. I pointed east to Sundance Mountain, then west toward Devils’ Tower and the Missouri Buttes. 


I remember sensing a kindred spirit because Mary didn’t just love the land in a sentimental fashion, she wore the land. Dirt under her fingernails and on the sleeves of her flannel shirt. Mud on her boots. Maybe even creased into the lines of her face. Mary didn’t gaze at nature, she got down and dirty with nature.

Mary has lived nestled against evergreen forests, and under the hot sun of a southwest desert. She’s a true sojourner. In Mary’s most recent book, The Talker you will travel the back roads—meeting up with characters as original as the ones you might meet if you were hitching rides on America's byways.

The portal into each story may creak in the wind and have rusty hinges, but the doors swing wide open with little formality and all business. Let's get to it.

Here's how a few of these stories begin:

It all started with black olives, the bogus kind, the ones that look like patent leather and taste worse. (“Great Blue"). 

First my dad died. Then Mom found out he’d borrowed from the life insurance right down to the dust on the last nickel. (“Kashmir”) The dust on the last nickel? I would kill to steal that line.

How about this one? My aunt calls from Burns. “Jinella, I got some sad news. Your cousin Kyrin laid himself down on the railroad tracks up near Pasco and got hit.”

And the title story, "The Talker" - this opening takes you right inside the woman who crafted these stories, and who knows every curve and bend of those back roads.

To imagine how it was where we lived that Northern Arizona autumn, you might burn a little juniper, breathe in the gray-green smoke and picture ten ramshackle cabins gathered in a crescent, as though the young moon has fallen to earth and grown shelter in its light.

Explorer Craig Childs (author of The Secret Knowledge of Water, The Animal Dialogues, and several other of my favorite books) calls Mary “a weaver of the heart.” 

Mary's latest stories, cut from the same richly textured cloth, are woven into a tapestry that rings with truth and heart. When you read them, don’t be surprised if your fingers leave smudges as you turn the pages – you’re bound to come away with a little dirt under your nails. 

Backstory: I first met Mary Sojourner when she was invited to our small town by the local writers' group, Bearlodge Writers. Her residency complete, she was on her way home. I think her short story collection, Bonelight: Ruin and Grace in the New Southwest, had just been published by the University of Nevada Press, and she was working on her memoir Solace: Rituals of Loss & Desire, which would be released by Scribner the following year. Read more about her books here.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Soul of an Octopus: Sy Montgomery's Latest Masterpiece



Simon & Schuster video with Sy Montgomery
Though I’ve never known an octopus, every encounter I’ve had with animals has been a testament to the existence of their emotional lives. And now, here was a writer brave enough to explore their soulfulness. The title of Sy Montgomery’s latest book hooked me, and I was thrilled to be turning its pages. 

Every chapter took me either into the nooks and crannies of the aquariums where Athena, Kali, Octavia, and Karma lived, or to the depths of the sea from whence they had come. What surprised me, and Sy Montgomery when researching The Soul of an Octopus, wasn’t how different these creatures were, but rather the level of intimacy she felt with them after they met.
Sy’s use of the word “met” implies an underlying premise that guides her through the writing of all her books about animals. We meet them, we don’t merely observe them.  

To Sy, animals are somebodies, not somethings.* Even octopuses (yes, the Greek plural). “Each one of them changed my life and made me a more compassionate person,” she tells us in her talk with her editors at Simon & Schuster. “Oh, I love them all so much.” 

Not surprising language coming from a writer whom The New York Times calls both poet and scientist.  

Octavio, the cephalopod molluscs Sy met right after the octopus came to a New England aquarium, is the octopus that, even now, inhabits her heart.

“I saw her transformation from a shy animal who had been living in the wild as an adult and who was nervous around people to somebody who really relished interactions with people. And then, of course, I got see her lay eggs and tend to those eggs. That was an amazing thing to watch.”

If ever I have coveted another writer’s career, it is the career of Sy Montgomery. Small wonder that The Boston Globe calls Sy “Part Indiana Jones and part Emily Dickinson.” 

In addition to her meet-ups with octopuses and gorillas, vampire bats and tarantulas, she has been “deftly undressed by an orangutan in Borneo, hunted by a tiger in India, and swum with piranhas, electric eels and dolphins in the Amazon. She has searched the Altai Mountains of Mongolia’s Gobi for snow leopards, hiked into the trackless cloud forest of Papua New Guinea to radiocollar tree kangaroos, and learned to SCUBA dive in order to commune with octopuses.” (More About Sy)

“When I saw Octavia again,” she writes in The Soul of an Octopus, “she held on to me, gently but firmly, for an hour and fifteen minutes.  I stroked her head, her arms, her webbing, absorbed in her presence. She seemed equally attentive to me. Clearly, each of us wanted the other’s company, just as human friends are excited to reunite with each other. With each touch and each taste, we seemed to reiterate, almost like a mantra: “It’s you! It’s you! It’s you!”

Photo Credit: David Scheel
If only this could be the rallying call heard in the halls of congress, and heard around the world—a call that recognizes all that we share, a call that unites us because of our commonalities, not despite our differences. 

It’s you! It’s you! It's you!

*Note for Writers: A helpful article on 
“How to Handle Animal Pronouns: He, She or It?” (dimatrichino, Writers Digest, August 24, 2010)