ALL THINGS LITERARY. ALL THINGS NATURAL.

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

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Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Wind in the Willows & Love of Place


Kathleen Cain begins her review of Standing in the Light by Sharman Apt Russell (Bloomsbury Review, May/June/July 2009; http://www.bloomsburyreview.com/) this way: “I’ve been waiting for this book all my life…I am urged to awe that equals spiritual fervor in the presence of Nature.”
What is it about Nature—Nature with a capitol N as depicted in Sharman’s new book—that moves us so? How can the physical world cause our spirits to have such passionate responses?

On May 4, 2009, Time Magazine chose The Wind in the Willows as its “Book Pick for the Week.” This classic children’s novel, a compilation of stories told by the author Kenneth Grahame to his four-year-old son, was first published in America in 1909. One hundred years ago! Yet here we are today, still falling in love with Mole and Rat and Badger and Otter and yes, even arrogant Toad—creatures great and small who live charmed lives full of missteps and dangerous escapades at, or near, the River. Not just any river, but THE River. As in NATURE. All caps. It is the River that forms the landscape of their lives and serves as metaphor for ours. It teaches them, and us, about the hospitality of community.


A couple of years ago, I attended the annual conference of the Quivira Coalition in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I was there to do a book-signing for Home Land: Ranching and a West that Works (Rocky Mountain Land Library). Renowned writer Wendell Barry was the keynote speaker. The Quivira Coalition was formed in 2003, when “twenty ranchers, environmentalists, and scientists met for forty-eight hours to figure out a way to take back the American West…”

A community of people seeking to “find a way to make ourselves worthy of the land we all love” evolved from this initial gathering. And though these individuals were as different from one another as were Mole and Rat and Badger and Otter and Toad, their love of place, of the landscape where they lived their lives, was greater than the divisive issues that had, in the past, kept them apart.

While in Albuquerque at the Quivira Conference, I also had a chance to visit with Peter Forbes, founder of the Center for Whole Communities. “How is it that those of us who care about people and those of us who care about the land, have ended up divided from one another?” the Center asks. “What might we achieve if movements for environmental and social change worked together for healthy, whole communities?” The Center poses this question on their website, where you can view an 8-minute presentation on reweaving people, land, and communities. “Story is the way we carry the land inside of us,” writes Peter Forbes in his book, What Is A Whole Community. “We tell stories to cross the borders that separate us from one another.”

In this same spirit of reweaving, Sharman’s blog, “Love of Place,” celebrates and promotes a “greater relationship and intimacy with the natural world.” She does not advocate a natural world without human beings, though she often writes passionately and with firm opinions about how we interact with the land. (Her perspective and mine on public land grazing probably differ greatly, in great part because she writes about the arid southwest, while my experience is with the forests and grasslands of the Black Hills of Wyoming—much different ecosystems.)


In Standing in the Light, when writing about the environmentally threatened Gila River, Sharman asks who cares about a dead river, what does it mean to care? She tells us of sitting in a meeting packed with men and women who had come to watch a slide show about saving the river. “Outside, the soft August night still smells of rain,” she writes. “The clay in the soil has released compounds like those found in urine, a distinct acrid odor. Walking back to my house, I hear an owl hoot, and I click off the flashlight, letting my eyes adjust to the darkness.”

I cherish these points of intersection, where Sharman’s world and mine come together—where I hear the owl hoot as if I were there walking with her, because, on the ranch in the Black Hills where I reared my children, I, too, listened to the hooting of owls and smelled the acrid odor of clay soil.

When Wendell Barry gave the keynote talk at the Quivira Coalition’s annual conference, more than 500 people attended. I could not help but smile when I scanned the room. The audience was filled with men, women, and children, as different looking from one another as the critters in The Wind in the Willows. Some wore cowboy hats. Some wore Birkenstocks. Some wore Forest Service uniforms. Some wore Park Service uniforms. Some wore Wranglers and denim jackets. Some wore microfleece and Sahara pants. Here was a true gathering of people from all walks of life. But they shared one thing in common—their love of Place.

I hope Sharman and I can sit down soon and talk about the issues we hold close to our hearts—those that lead us closer to the Divine and about which Sharman speaks so eloquently in Standing in the Light. “How should I live in the world,” she asks. “How can I face my death?” “How can I be more joyous?” These are intimate questions, soul-piercing questions to ponder while walking on a favorite trail at dusk, as the evening light draws near, or perhaps while floating down a sunlit river with someone who was, only moments ago, a stranger.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Mushrooms, Growing Our Writing, and Parabola Magazine


Wine kept cool in dark cellars. Whiskey aging in oak barrels. Bread dough set out to rise on the counter. A chicken breast marinating in soy and ginger. The lacy white filaments of a mushroom root buried in damp compost. A poem fleshed out, then tucked away in a drawer. The germinating seed of a short story. The landscape of a novel unfurling after a dormant winter. All these things do better given time to ripen.


We’ve had abundant moisture this spring and early summer. The Rocky Mountains are awash in wild flowers. And wild mushrooms. They’re everywhere. Sprouting stubborn caps in gravelly soil. Pushing up through needle-covered ground beneath ponderosas. They’re in the sun. In the shade. Under logs. Next to rocks. Growing in between the bunch grasses and among the penstemons.


Several years ago, the Wyoming Center for the Book asked many of the Wyoming Arts Council literary fellowship recipients and a few other notable authors living in Wyoming to write essays for the anthology Deep West: A Literary Tour of Wyoming (Pronghorn Press, 2003). They asked us to explore how our work had been influenced or not influenced by life in Wyoming; what our views were on regionalism in literature; and what issues of Place interested us.

We were given almost a year’s advance notice. Plenty of time to let an idea percolate. Of course, writers as accomplished as Annie Proulx probably didn’t need much time. But I did. I felt deeply rooted to the landscape where I lived, but also felt deeply rooted to the Colorado landscape from which I had come. When I spent fourteen days in the depths of the Grand Canyon and felt totally at home, I ventured to ask myself: What is this thing called Place?

One of the writer’s resources that I keep on hand, and have been subscribing to for several years, is Parabola, published by the Society for Myth and Tradition. What I love about the magazine is that each issue explores a single theme from a multi-cultural perspective. Want to know more about humanity’s place in the cosmic order? Read the “The Tree of Life” interview with Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai in the Fall, 2007 issue Holy Earth. Want to know more about knowledge? Read Mara Freeman’s Celtic essay “Eating the Salmon of Wisdom” in the Spring, 1997 issue Ways of Knowing.


Several months before the essay was due, I sat down with Parabola’s Summer 1993 issue, Place and Space, and began reading. I highlighted passages and quotes from essays. I savored epicycles and reread poems. I fell gratefully into the responses of Robert Lawlor in the interview with him “Dreaming a Beginning” in which he talks about the Aborigines of Australia. “In a sense we are all indigenous people in that we are all of the earth,” he said.

In a sense we are all indigenous people in that we are all of the earth. What a comforting thought--that each of us is indeed native to the earth. I let that thought simmer for several weeks, perhaps for a few months. Not in a preoccupied way, but in the quiet way evening shadows have of creeping over the land. What I read crept over me and the essay began to form itself, even though I hadn’t yet written a word. It was gestating in the dark chambers of my heart and mind.

I was preparing the writing. Not procrastinating, but preparing--garnering wisdom so that I would be wise enough to write.


“What is this thing called place?" I eventually asked the reader. "How can we be so deeply rooted to it, yet so easily transplanted from it? If a sacred place is where two worlds intersect, can it also be a place where two stories meet?”

In posing these questions for myself, and the reader, I came closer to understanding what I did not know--an important step in growing stories, and wisdom.

Writing, and preparing ourselves to write, allows us to unearth hidden knowledge, hidden meaning, and hidden purpose. It’s best not to rush these things. When we plant our ideas in the compost of time and allow some distance from them, they often rise fully formed, and perhaps if we’re lucky, even with a touch of brilliance as breathtaking as a mushroom pushing up from the earth.

Mushroom photos by Page Lambert, taken near Mt. Vernon in the foothills west of Denver, Colorado. If you would like a copy of Page's essay, "This Thing Called Place," please leave a comment here on the blog requesting one, along with your email. Or contact Page directly at page@pagelambert.com. To subscribe to Parabola magazine or check their submission guidelines, go to http://www.parabola.org/.