ALL THINGS LITERARY. ALL THINGS NATURAL.

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

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Monday, May 25, 2009

Cultivating a Literary Garden

Plant the Seeds of Intention
The dog days of summer, when Sirius, the “dog star,” rises and sets with the sun, will soon be upon us. Hot sultry weather. Balmy nights. Screen doors and porch swings. Iced lemonade and fresh peach ice cream. The long sagas of our lives lived at a lazy pace.

Sound like the summer of a by-gone era? For many of us, there is nothing slow or lazy about summer. Fall arrives and we glance back over our sun-burned shoulders wondering why we didn’t read more books, or work on that novel, or fill at least one journal with poetic prose. Our writing aspirations, along with the dog, were left to languish on that figurative summer porch.

Cultivating a literary summer garden doesn’t have to be hard work, but it won’t flourish unless you plant seeds of clear intention. Identify your goals, scatter them among your other activities, and fertilize them with attentiveness. Here’s a two-pronged tool to get you started.

Explore Your Literary Neighborhood
There are more reasons than ever to stay close to home this summer, to travel the literary back roads of your neighborhood, your state, your region. The West is abundant with authors of award-winning books. Since 1971, the Colorado Center for the Book has been recognizing with annual awards the best novels, poetry, works of nonfiction, anthologies, biographies, histories, children’s books, fine press, and pictorial publications. (A list of the Colorado Book Award winners is available from Kris Rabida at Colorado Humanities, (303) 894-7951, or rabida@coloradohumanities.org. If you live in Wyoming, check out the Wyoming Center for the Book, or think about attending the Wyoming Book Festival in Cheyenne. Or go to the National Center for the Book website, click on your affiliated state organization, and search their site for literary events in your area.

Here's another way to begin planting your literary garden. This summer, set aside a few hours each week. Pluck one book each week (preferably in the genre in which you write) from the list of award winners in your state. Take that book with you to your local café or nearby park. By the end of the summer, you will have harvested a working knowledge of your genre at the regional level, and you will have a much better idea of which books are winning these coveted awards, and why. I plan on picking up a copy of Bruce Decker's Home Pool: Stories of Fly Fishing and Lesser Passions (a 2009 Colorado Book Award fiction/literary finalist) and taking it with me on my River Writing and Sculpting Journey for Women in August.

Explore Your Physical Neighborhood
In 1985, Johnson Books of Boulder (Big Earth Publishing) published the quiet little book Seven Half Miles from Home by Wyoming author Mary Back. For twenty years, Mary, an artist, left her home each morning before breakfast and took a one-mile walk, a half-mile out, and a half-mile back. “The record of her observations became a conscious immersion in the body of life,” wrote Library Journal in their review. “She began to study seven different ecological communities including thickets, desert, swamp, forest, and river.”


Explore the terrain within a half-mile of your home. Explore what it means to be a westerner. Learn the names of the plants, trees, animals, and birds that share your neighborhood. Create a character sketch of them. Are they native to the area? Deciduous? Nocturnal? Do they mate for life? Where do they spend their winters? Sit with your journal among your favorite family of lichen-covered boulders and ponder their history and genetics. Pick a few characters from the novel you’re writing, or the memoir you’re crafting, and learn about the flora and fauna in their neighborhoods.
Start a list of your favorite regional poets. Commit to buying 3 books of poetry this summer from that list. Begin a dialogue with your favorite poems from those books. Each week, pick a poem, read it twice, then write a response to it (no rules, anything goes, just write). You might enjoy Open Range: Poetry of the Reimagined West (Ghost Road Press) edited by my friend Laurie Wagner Buyer and her husband WC Jameson, or Tamped: Loose Enough to Breath by Mark Todd, an exploration of the interaction between man and nature.


Pick up a copy of Susan Tweit’s award-winning book Colorado Scenic Byways, enjoy the gorgeous photography by Jim Steinberg, then plan a road trip. Or get a copy of Candy Moulton's Roadside History of Wyoming, take a journal with you, stop at all the greasy spoons and hidden hideaways, and pilfer as many tidbits of overheard dialogue as you can. Then, just for fun, sprinkle a few of these tidbits into the mouths of your characters and let them take over the story for awhile. You might be surprised at what you’ll glean from this playful scattering of seed, fresh from the tongues of locals.

This article first appeared in the May 2009 issue of InPrint, the official newsletter of the Colorado Authors' League.


Friday, May 1, 2009

Walking Nature Home: Are We Our Mothers' Daughters?


In some ways, choosing to write only about the few times in Walking Nature Home where Susan Tweit writes about her mother is like describing a single sea shell when the entire ocean stretches before you. So I urge you to journey on your own into the tide-deep waters of this memoir. You will find an intimate world inhabited by much more than a single shell.

Explore her author's notes. You'll appreciate the sources she references and the useful way in which she categorizes them. Astrology and Star Lore. Astronomy. Autoimmune diseases. Community of the Land and Ecology. Gardening. Health and Healing. Quakerism. Science. These are the myriad, sometimes turbulent, but always thoughtful waters inhabited by her memoir.

"To my eyes," writes Susan, "my mom is beautiful, with large blue eyes, a cap of wavy silver hair framing her tan face, and a ready, charming smile. The notes in her health log, though, reveal the pain of swollen and distorted joints, the debilitating curve in her spine, the digits frozen or twisted into unnatural angles, her stick-thin arms and legs."


Both our mothers suffer(ed) from debilitating and chronic disease. Susan's mother, married to a scientist with a doctorate in organic chemistry and still alive, has great faith in western medicine. My mother, married for twenty-five years to a visionary but complicated man who founded the financial planning profession, followed dual paths of healing while she was alive. Susan's mother wrote of the "disappointment when each drug, so promising at the start, became less and less effective; of days when her body felt like a battleground.”


I remember standing in front of the bathroom mirror with my mother after her fifth surgery, this time for breast cancer. The lymph pump was still connected to the red, swollen tissue in the caverns where her right breast and lymph glands had been. She smiled, rather wistfully, as she stared at her battered body. But as always, she was pragmatic and positive. Much to her doctors’ amazement, she rallied again and again, and continued to take mega doses of IP-6.

“Before arthritis,” Susan writes, “my mother wore three rings: her engagement diamond, a slender gold wedding band, and an antique Italian cameo passed down from her mother’s aunt. When Mom’s finger joints became so swollen that her rings had to be cut and bridged, she gave the cameo to me.

“One afternoon, I was trimming her nails… As I cradled her cold and bloodless hands gingerly in mine, I was struck by the juxtaposition of our fingers, hers swollen, crooked, and painful, mine still slender and relatively straight… I felt the stiffness in my joints and fear stabbed by gut: I saw my mother’s hands in mine. And I swore that I would not allow my body to become a battlefield.”

Take it back, this living will that condemns us both.

That line is from a poem of mine, written when my mother was still alive. I understand Susan’s fear. It is mine, too. And my sister’s. Must we inherit your diseases? we asked silently, even as we knelt to rub peppermint oil on her swollen knees.

But Susan’s book is not about fear. It is about channeling fear back into the river bed where the waters of life flow. Like the waters that flow through the industrialized banks of Ditch Creek in Salida, Colorado, which Susan and her husband Richard live. Susan has transformed her fear into fertile soil, fertile enough to grow strawberries and eggplant and sugar snap peas and summer squash, enough to feed them for months, enough to share with neighbors.

Are we are our mothers’ daughters? If we are, then we must remember to claim all of them, not just their frailties and illnesses. Susan inherited “luminous fibers” from her mother, who was born and raised near San Francisco Bay. “’For some people,” Susan quotes Barry Lopez in her book, “what they are is not finished at the skin, but continues with the reach of the senses out into the land….Such people are connected to the land as if by luminous fibers….’”

Susan’s mother had a “feel for sea cliff, wave form, and beach sand” that “was honed on the central California coast, her affinity for desert shaped by visits to her grandparents in Tucson….” My mother was raised by a deaf mother in the Mohave Desert, and as a young woman moved to Berkeley, California, where she met my father. They later moved to Colorado, where I was born, and where Susan lives.

My mother grew to love the mountains of Colorado. She chose to live the last twenty years of her life in these mountains. And now I live here too, in the same home where she died. I sleep in the same bedroom where I last held her in my arms as she grasped my hands. I look out at the same gangly Ponderosa pines and at the occasional deer walking the same backyard trail. Susan watches a muskrat burrowing along the creek and a red fox hunting amidst the Indian ricegrass.

To find yourself engaged in a beautiful book written by a kindred spirit is one of life’s greatest gifts, especially a book with as many layers as Walking Nature Home. “Susan Tweit has written a glorious love story,” writes Kathleen Dean Moore, “to her Rocky Mountain sage meadows, to her husband Richard, to her own unreliable body. I read this book long into the night, lifted by the beauty of the story….”


To read more about mother/daughter health connections, read Mother-Daughter Wisdom: Creating a Legacy of Physical and Emotional Health by Christiane Northrup, M.D., available from Random House.