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


"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

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Monday, July 31, 2017

Walking the Medicine Trail with Richard Wagamese and A.B. Guthrie

Sometimes, deep inside a good novel, you feel the throbbing lifeblood of its author—an agony that shines at the edges with a certain ecstasy, like gazing at the ceiling in the Sistine Chapel and feeling the anguish of Michelangelo in every brushstroke.

The hand of the artist has become one with the hand of God, and our own lives are touched by both.

I come late to the books of Ojibwa writer Richard Wagamese, but his novel Medicine Walk touches the reader with this same authenticity—the bittersweet pain and joy of the human experience—as lived by the author and expressed through his characters.

In the essay “Returning to Harmony” (appearing in the collection Speaking My Truth), Richard Wagamese writes of his own childhood:

“When I was born, my family still lived the seasonal nomadic life of traditional Ojibwa people. In the great rolling territories surrounding the Winnipeg River in Northwestern Ontario, they fished, hunted, and trapped. Their years were marked by the peregrinations of a people guided by the motions and turns of the land. I came into the world and lived in a canvas army tent hung from a spruce bough frame as my first home. The first sounds I heard were the calls of loon, the snap and crackle of a fire, and the low, rolling undulation of Ojibwa talk… But there was a spectre in our midst.”

Like Wagamese (who would be separated from his Ojibwa family for twenty years), the main character in Medicine Walk, sixteen-year-old Franklin Starlight, grew like a sapling up out of the land, “hearing symphonies in wind across a ridge and arias in the screech of hawks and eagles, the huff of grizzlies and the pierce of a wolf call against the unblinking eye of the moon. He was Indian.”

But there was a specter in his midst, too. Raw-boned and angular, Franklin leaves the old man and mountain that reared him to retrieve his liquored-up father from a one room hovel where he is living out the last days of a tortured life. The father wants to die in the warrior way of his people. Duty bound, Franklin agrees to lead his father back into the mountains. Tethered to a saddle on the back of a faithful old mare so that he won’t spill onto the ground, the father is led by his son on a journey that pulls them both through untold stories and unwanted memories.

Medicine Walk is epic in scope, in part because of the timeless, generational themes, but also because it shows us the broad, deep scope of the human heart. The story has a familiarity about it because we find bits of ourselves inside each character. We know the bittersweet taste of our own agony and ecstasy, and so we can intuit what it is to be young Franklin, or dying Eldon, or to be like the old man, valuing love and loyalty above blame or sorrow.

When confronted with the herculean task of painting the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo escaped to the mountains and found inspiration in nature. The mountains are also where young Franklin finds solace and purpose. It is in nature’s steep ravines that he hides the empty chasms of his heart.

In Wagamese’s essay “Returning to Harmony," we begin to understand how young Franklin came to inhabit the fictional pages of Medicine Walk. We glimpse the steep ravine of the author’s own life when Wagamese writes about his family:

“Each of them had experienced an institution that tried to scrape the Indian off of their insides, and they came back to the bush and river raw, sore, and aching. The pain they bore was invisible and unspoken. It seeped into their spirit, oozing its poison and blinding them from the incredible healing properties within their Indian ways.”

If the job of a novelist is to invite the reader into a world at once new and unexplored, yet so familiar that we wear it like an old flannel jacket, then Wagamese was the kind of novelist you want guiding you through this uncharted terrain. The New York Times, in their review of Medicine Walk, said that the novel felt more like it was etched rather than written. 

Like writer A.B. Guthrie, Wagamese has left a permanent mark on the literary landscape of America. Young Boone Caudill (from Guthrie’s novel The Big Sky) shares Frank Starlight’s prowess and intensity. On the brink of manhood, Boone leaves the backwoods of Kentucky and the hard knocks of a drunken father with nothing but an old, sure shot rifle and a roasted hen, still warm, wrapped inside a greasy rag. Boone leaves for the wilderness knowing all he needs to know about his family, but nothing about the West. 

Franklin knows all he needs to know about the wilderness, but nothing about his family. Both boys enter uncharted lands. “Taking life was a solemn thing,” young Franklin thinks to himself as he considers hunting, and the mystery of life. Tracking, for him, is to slip out of the bounds of what he knows of earth, and "outward into something larger, more complex and simple all at once. He had no word for that." 

But a cry born of a loss? That he slowly came to understand was a part of him forever.

A.B. Guthrie, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1950, died in 1991. Richard Wagamese passed away on March 10, 2017, after writing more than a dozen books. When the hand of the artist truly does become one with the hand of God, we feel our own lives touched by both, the art we love etched in the soft stone of our heart. 

Note: Read Wagamese's entire essay "Seeking Harmony" as published in Speaking My Truth.  
Note: Go to Richard Wagamese's author website.  
Note: Buy Medicine Walk from Milkweed Editions.

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.