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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Sunday, December 11, 2011

Why Write? Paying Homage to Northern Lights aka Marry Your Dreams in 2012

Sometimes I miss a certain place, like the aspen draw on the ranch in Wyoming where Thimbleberries grow thick by July, and where snow gathers by October, staying until May.   Sometimes I miss a person, like the young Greek girl Antigone whom I barely knew, but knew well enough to lie on a hill near the Acropolis, beneath the light of a full moon counting the stars as they came out.  Ena Dio Tria Tessera,” she taught me, pointing at the sky. “One Two Three Four,” I echoed back.
Today, I am missing a magazine, and the vision that it brought to the world before publication ceased.  Northern Lights, published by Deborah Clow O’Connor.  "What does it mean to lose Northern Lights?" asked Charles Finn.  "It is like asking what it means to lose a star from its place in the sky." WHY WRITE? asks The Center section of the Summer 1998 issue.  The answers of seven writers were printed, including essays by Jane Hirschfield, Ellen Meloy, and C.L. Rawlins.  But the piece that I saved, that draws my centered attention even now, was by Terry Tempest Williams.   Dearest Deb, Terry begins…

I was dreaming about Moab, Brooke and I walking around the block just before dawn.  I threw a red silk scarf around my shoulders and then I began reciting why I write: I write to make peace with the things I cannot control.  I write to create a red fabric in a world that often appears black and white.  I write to discover.  I write to uncover.  I write to meet my ghosts.  I write to begin a dialogue. I write to imagine things differently and in imagining perhaps the world will change.  I write to honor beauty.  I write to correspond with my friends.  I write as a daily act of improvisation.  I write because it creates my composure. I write against power and for democracy.  I write myself out of my nightmares and into my dreams… I write because it is dangerous, a bloody risk, like love, to form the words, to say the words, to touch the source, to be touched, to reveal how vulnerable we are, how transient.  I write as though I am whispering in the ear of the one I love… 
Lunar Eclipse 12/10/11
Terry's entire letter celebrates writing.  Yet how different writing in this digital age feels, how easy to lose hope in the murky skies of this new electronic era.  Yet don't we still write for the same reasons, even though it is a bloody risk?  And don't we still seek the eyes and ears of the ones we love?  Like painters and musicians and sculptors, our art celebrates life.  Deb O'Connor, though no longer publishing a magazine, paints and explores the celestial world as a gifted astrologer and visual artist.  "Who says the Universe doesn't have a sublime sense of humor," she begins her November 24, 2011 column.  "A new and eclipsed moon the same day that Mercury goes backwards?"

It helps to have a sense of humor when we don't know if our writing is moving forward, or slipping backwards.  Sometimes it helps to count to 4 and remember why we write.  Why do you write?  If you're in the mood to share, I would love to know.  Shout it out to the world, if you want.  Declare your intentions as if 2012 will be the year that you marry your dreams.  Then make it so. 

Learn more about astrologer Deb O'Connor's paintings and services.
Contact Page for Complete Copy of Terry's Letter to Deb.
Return to All Things Literary. All Things Natural.
Leave a comment.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Horse & Human: The Mysterious Link

Horses have been studying humans from across the safety of a river, or from the overlook of a high ridge, or from across an expanse of grassland, for thousands of years. The oldest archealogical evidence links horses and humans as far back as 400,000 to 600,000 years ago, not as companions, but as prey and predator. When horse and human first touched because of a far more benevolent mutual curiosity, we may never know. But horses have been a part of the human heart, and of our history, for time immemorial.

We incorporate their beings into every aspect of our lives. We celebrate their presence in our art, our stories, our lives. You can view Chinese painter Xu Beihongat's beautiful images through January at the Denver Art Museum.  In Washington, DC at the National Museum of the American Indian, the exhibit A Song of the Horse Nation, created by museum scholar Emil Her Many Horses, celebrates native arts and the horse, the impact of the horse, and the decline and revival of the horse.

Yes, horses are everywhere. Even on the covers of books guiding smart women in midlife back to their horse-filled girlhood dreams, like Melinda Folse's new book, The Smart Woman's Guide to Midlife Horses. "What about my dreams?" she wants us to ask ourselves. "Is it my turn yet?" But it isn't just women who understand the desire for a relationship with a horse. Back in the 1700s, British Lord Palmerston proclaimed, "The best thing for the inside of a man, is the outside of a horse." And then, of course, there's that well known cowboy poem by Gary McMahan, who asks only that when he dies, they make a saddle out of his hide and give it to a cowgirl so that he "may rest between the two things" that he loves the best!

But sadly, throughout the centuries, humans have not always thought about what was good for the inside of the horse. Horses have been our faithful friends, dying for us in battle, carrying our belongings from horizon to horizon, carrying our children and our dreams -- from the wind-swept steppes of Mongolia, to the alpine meadows of America, from a violent past, into an unknown future.

Photo by Gary Caskey
What is it like to view the world through the eyes of the horse? To understand a horse's relationship with human beings? Why do they allow us to ride on their backs? What ancient cellular memories do they hold inside of their elegant bodies? Why are we fascinated with stories like Black Beauty and The War Horse? How can their sensual and perceptive natures help us to interpret our own stories? How can we better serve horses, rather than just allowing them to serve us? Our debt to them is immeasurable, and universal.

Creating a place and time where we could reinvision our relationship with the horse, and with ourselves, even if only for 5 days, became an important goal of mine. This will be the 5th year I've returned to the beautiful Vee Bar Guest Ranch in Wyoming to lead the Literature & Landscape of the Horse retreat, co-facilitated by my friend Sheri Griffith, who has been leading outdoor adventures for 35 years. We knew that there must be other men and women in the world who shared deep-seated yearnings to connect with horses in a new, more grateful way.

The beautiful gray horse above is a member of the Vee Bar ranch remuda. To watch a short slideshow featuring some of the other Vee Bar horses and fun times from past retreats, click on this link, Click on 2012 June retreat for complete details. And don't worry if you've never ridden a mile, or written a word. All you need to bring to Wyoming is a willingness to open your heart to the landscape of the horse, and to the landscape of your dreams. 

Friday, October 28, 2011

Alone in the West?

THEY SAY WRITING IS A SOLITARY THING—as if we are all lone wolves howling into the wind with only the moon as our companion.  Yet from the first writer’s conference I attended as a freshman at the University of Colorado in 1970, where Reader’s Digest managing editor John Allen befriended and encouraged me, to a 1996 reading at The Writer’s Voice in Billings, Montana, where Kim Barnes and I read from our memoirs, to the upcoming reading and panel discussion at The Tattered Cover for the new anthology West of 98: Living and Writing the American West, I have found writing to be about community. 

Writers support other writers.  Especially western writers.  If author Laura Pritchett had not suggested my name to the editors of West of 98, my essay might not have found its way into the collection.  Thank you, Laura!  And had John Allen not tucked me under his wing when I was only 18, I might never have held onto this dream.  But he did.  And she did.  And they did.  And we all do.

Opening my contributor’s copy of West of 98, I see Kim Barnes’ name in the list of contributors, not far from mine.  I read her essay and discover that we both have Oklahoma roots. She shares that she misses the backwoodsness of her upbringing—the stories of forest fires and widow-maker snags.  At the end, she declares that she is bored by her "nice black pants and Italian leather boots and the sameness of every interview she has ever been drug through." It is a charming confession.

I turn to page 193 and read Laura’s essay. "I do not like to gut fish," she tells the reader.  Then she confesses in a few lines that “I’m a ranch kid who now owns a Suburu, criss-cross suntan patterns are visible on my feet when I’m not wearing cowboy boots, and I am apt to fall in love with thoroughly western men, most particularly my husband.”

Does any other profession create the space for this kind of dialogue?  Those of us who write personal narratives about the West don’t always have to gut fish, we’re often too busy spilling our own guts.  But isn’t there something wonderfully vulnerable and trusting about that?  About writing about the people and places that we love and hate, then casting these stories out into the world? 

“Writing personal stories about the landscapes we love is a radical act,” I write in West of 98“A protective act.  A celebratory act.  Even an act of desperation.  It is also an intimate and sensual act.  Sometimes I crave the western earth like food, or breath, or sex, or water…”  I crave storytelling and storytellers in this same way too.  They are my people--my tribe.  Their community is my community.  Our language is the language of lore and truth and connectedness.  And even when it gets messy, I'll never toss this profession back.

NOTES:  West of 98, edited by Russell Rowland and Lynn Stegner, is published by University of Texas Press. Please attend the reading and panel discussion at The Tattered Cover in Denver on November 5, 2011, at 7:30 pm.  Contributors include Rick Bass, Ron Carlson, Gretel Ehrlich, Maxine Hong Kingston, Barry Lopez, Larry McMurtry, and more!  Read more about Kim's first memoir, In the Wilderness: Coming of Age in an Unknown Country.  Read Page's entire essay "A Shape-Shifting Land."

Friday, September 30, 2011

My Horse Agrees with Author D.H. Lawrence

On stage for a "Page Wisdom"
segment at CampExperience 2011
My great religion is a belief in the blood, the flesh, as being wiser than the intellect.  We can go wrong in our minds.  But what our blood feels and believes and says, is always true.  The intellect is only a bit and a bridle. 

I like this quote from D.H. Lawrence (Lady Chatterly's Lover). When I get on my horse's back, he reminds me that we do best as a team if I ease up on the reins, and quit pulling on his head.  Farside responds more quickly to gentle leg pressure around his center, his girth - when the calf of my left leg is close to his heart, that blood-pumping organ that propels us literally and metaphorically. 

Page's daughter riding Farside
with halter and loose lead rope

Last weekend, at the 2011 CampExperience retreat, I asked the 240 women in the audience to stand up, grab a partner, and try to lead each other around by the head. Mayhem ruled until they switched their hands from their partner's head, to the middle, the core.  Our bodies like balanced, centered movement.  I think we like our stories that way, too.

Letting our hearts guide us as we move through each day is a good motto for life.  Not that we should ignore the intellect, but too often we ignore the physical sensations the natural world sends us to inform each moment.

Good storytellers know how to engage the reader's sensory recall.  With a few carefully chosen descriptive words, they tap into the reader's cellular memory bank and a scene comes alive.  But what happens when we try to guide the characters in our stories with our intellect, rather than letting our "writing" heart lead us to what a character's heart would be feeling?   

Drawing of Solar Plexus

What happens if we construct a plot outline, or a scene, without allowing our gut instincts to inform the process, and what is "gut instinct" anyway?  The Solar Plexus - that ganglia of sympathetic nerves found below the sternum and above the diaphragm - is sometimes called our Primitive Brain.

In From Where You Dream, Robert Olen Butler begins Chapter 4 (The Cinema of the Mind) with this Pablo Picasso quote:

If only we could pull out our brains, and use only our eyes. 

Dr. Christiane Northrup, in her book Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom, claims that the "mind" and the "brain" are two different things, asking us to ponder the idea that the mind is in every cell of our body. 

Next time I climb on my horse's back, or sit in the center of a story-in-progress, maybe I should try writing what my body "sees," instead of writing what my intellect "thinks."  Maybe I should toss aside that bit and bridle and listen to what my gut is telling me. 

NOTE: November 5, 2011, Page will be teaching a one-day workshop, THE YEARNING FACTOR, inspired by Butler's book From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Eve Ensler's SUDDENLY, MY BODY: watch it, then write what matters

I just watched Eve Ensler's powerful new 12-minute video on TED. I immediately wanted to reach out to all the women in my life. And to all the men who love but are confused by the women in their lives.  Please don’t miss Suddenly, my body. Watch it with a friend. Watch it right now. Watch it tonight with a glass of wine or in the morning with a cup of tea. Watch it with your mother, or your daughter, or your husband, or your son. Watch it with your journal in one hand and a fistful of earth in the other. 

Eve's story reminds us of our deep kinship with nature, of the emotional link between the bodies of women and the body we call Earth.  If her story reminds you of your story, seek out a healing moment in a place of intrinsic beauty--a moment as perfect as a flitting butterfly poised on a wild flower.  Let nature pollinate you.  Let it feed your art.  If you must choose between reading the rest of this post, or watching the video, please watch the video. 

Sometimes on the river women talk about how we have gathered at the water’s edge for thousands of years, and so we feel at home there. Sometimes, during the horse retreats in Wyoming, we talk about how we are fooled by the strength and grace of horses until we see them bolt and run. We are reminded then that horses are prey animals and suddenly we understand their desire to flee because we understand our own desire to flee, even in the face of our human predatory nature.

We understand strength and aggression even as we understand what it is to be powerless. We understand that we are emotional creatures before we are cerebral creatures, extensions of the earth as aware of our own internal turbulence, as of the external storms which ravish our paved shorelines and plowed fields and thatched huts. Our emotions are rooted to the earth and for many of us, this truth informs our stories, our poems, our art. But for some of us, like Eve Ensler, our bodies--these rooted appendages of the earth--have become something alien and separate, apart from who we understand ourselves to be.

For many of us, to stay connected to our own flesh and blood, to our own emotions, is too painful. And so we disembody ourselves. We hold our emotions at arms length. We separate ourselves from the earth because we recognize her wounds as our wounds.  We forget that when we walk on the earth, our footsteps are no different to the earth than are the cloven steps of a deer, or the fingerprint patterns of a crane.

Suddenly, my body, Eve Ensler’s impassioned new video on, is difficult to watch. It is important to watch. It is about our relationship to ourselves and to the earth. If you get angry or filled with angst when you watch it, use these emotions to fuel your creative work.  Embrace the earth as you would a lover, then ask her forgiveness and write what really matters.

Write what will change the world.  Write what will heal the earth.  Write with your pen dipped in humbleness and your heart lifted to your highest hopes.

NOTE:  About Eve Ensler: The author of The Vagina Monologues, I first heard her speak in 2002 at a V-day fundraiser for the Cangleska Center for Women on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation near Rapid City, South Dakota. This week, August 9-11, 2011, Native women are gathered at Mystic Lake, Minnesota, for the 10th Annual Women Are Sacred Conference
PHOTO CREDITS:  Thank you to Pat Jurgens for the horse photo, and to John Gritts for the wild flower and field photo.  If you watched the video, I hope you will share your thoughts by leaving a comment.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

What do Butler's A Small Hotel, Louv's The Nature Principle, and Abram's Becoming Animal have in common?

Well, for one thing, the first two book titles made the list of Oprah's top 27 summer reads.  The third, Becoming Animal, should have, but didn't. 

A Small Hotel, Robert Olen Butler's latest work of fiction, is an unapologetic romantic story of a couple in love for nearly 25 years but now in the throes of separation and divorce.  (I first met Butler about six years ago at a Narrative Magazine fundraising dinner in Santa Fe, New Mexico.)  Butler read from Intercourse, his 2008 collection of irreverant short stories that, through humerous paired dialogues, allow the reader to romp through imagined sexual moments of some very famous characters. It's a very "fleshy" book, but more about "connections" than separations, which is the theme of A Small Hotel.

Richard Louv's latest book, The Nature Principle: Human Restoration and the End of Nature Deficit Disorder is also about separation (you'll have to look a little harder for the sexuality, though one might argue that nature is all about sex).  But I imagine the reason Oprah's edtiors included The Nature Principle  in her list of top summer reads isn't because the book is about how adults have divorced ourselves from the very thing most deeply rooted in us - Nature - but more importantly, because the book gives us 7 very specific concepts for helping us restore our lives.  The Nature Principle, writes Louv, "is about the power of living in nature—not with it, but in it."
What does it mean to be living in nature?  Or to be living in a marriage?  The hummingbird nestled among the petunias in my garden doesn't only live in nature; it is nature - an integral, organic part of the natural world.  Dave Abram (Spell of the Sensuous) might say that all living things are actually organs of the world - allowing the world to perceive and continually recreate itself.

In Richad Louv's review of Abram's latest book, Becoming Animal: An Earthy Cosmology, Louv writes, "Abram offers a startling new exploration of our entanglement with the rest of nature. This time, his focus is the intimate but sadly forgotten relationship between our bodies and the earth. By excavating the most ordinary and familiar of our experiences ... he re-opens for us the knowing that our bodies are intertwined with the flesh of the earth."

Louv goes on to say, "I cannot imagine another book that so gently and so persuasively alters how we look at ourselves, and reminds us that sentience was never our private possession, that our very awareness is a means of participating in a more than human world..." 

The word sentient is rooted in the belief that we become conscious of the world through what our senses perceive because we live in a sensual world.  Animals that we are, it is through how we touch, taste, see, hear, and smell the world around us that allows us to live in the world. All these things help us to intuit the world and develop a conscious awareness of the world.  Can you think of a recent moment when you felt keenly aware of your surroundings?  When your ears perked and your nose twitched and your eyes flashed?  When the hair on the back of your neck stood up, or your solar plexus tightened?  I hope you'll share it with us by leaving a comment HERE.

Interesting links:
See NEWS for photos and info on Rich's June signing at the Tattered Cover Book Store. See Tom Jenk's essay in Narrative on editing Hemingway's The Garden of Eden. See what Pulitzer-prize winning author Robert Olen Butler has to say about the craft of writing in his book From Where You Dream.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Fierce and Hopeful Attachments

I have a file box on my desk next to my Storyteller Doll with clippings torn from magazines and newspapers -- uplifting stories of people reconnecting to the land.  These stories appear in diverse publications, like Native Peoples Magazine and High Country News, or The Quivira Coalition Journal and the Nature Conservancy, even the World Ark and The Denver Post.

The Omeg family in Oregon has planted blanket flowers and catmint around the perimeter of their cherry orchard so that threatened bumblebees, mason bees, and even sweat bees will have blossoms to sustain them. In the heart of Navajo country, Tammy Herrera is reconnecting people to the land and helping teach horsemanship to youth through a feral horse 4-H program (see pg.22 of pdf).

In a small Amazon village in the Oiapoque region of northern Brazil, children are helping to restore native populations of tracaja, the green and yellow river turtles. In Colorado, prison inmates are training mustangs that are later ridden by patrolmen, reviving an old alliance between human and horse.

In the fertile valley of Willamette, Alicia and Tyler Jones have found a way to compete with the nation's 4 mega-big poultry processors by building their own processing greenhouse, and small farmers are being linked to local food programs through the "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food" Federal initiative.

The youth of the Poarch Creek Tribal Council in Alabama are planting rivercane, restoring this sacred plant to the environment where it once traditionally thrived.

These stories find their way into print not just because they are newsworthy but because, as many of us find our own intimate connection to nature diminishing, we seek encouraging stories that remind us of the ways we are still intimately connected.  And even when we have found ways to live our lives within the natural world, we still seek opportunities to reconnect ourselves to THE LANDSCAPES THAT HOLD OUR STORIES.

How does a landscape "hold" a story?  Ron Rash, author of the New York Times bestselling  novel SERENA, when asked how places are fundamental to his identity as a writer, responded:  "There's a wonderful term the Welsh use, cynefin, for a primal, fierce attachment to a part of a landscape.  I have read that this attachment can be so fierce that when sheep are sold the owners have to sell the land along with the flock.  The sheep cannot adjust to any other landscape; they become so disoriented ... When I write a novel, I want that same fierce attachment to the landscape..."

Do you have a "fierce attachment" to a landscape?  Have you written about your connection to this place?  Have you ever tapped into this fierce, personal connection and used it to fuel a character's love of place?  Without a physical geography in which to root ourselves--a place to care for and which cares for us--we cannot orient ourselves within the larger context.  Life itself becomes devoid of life.  It's true. 

Note: Photo of woman (Donna R.) perched on rock was taken by Alice Liles during the 2011 Literature & Landscape of the Horse retreat.  Alice writes about her special place at The Bright Lights of Muleshoe.


Sunday, April 24, 2011

Inside the DAM: Roxanne Swentzell, Mud Woman, and The Whisper of the Land

Sometimes, the most memorable moments for an artist or writer are hidden. Sometimes our work itself is hidden.

Several weeks ago Roxanne Swentzell told me over dinner and a glass of Blue Moon that she had inserted a PVC pipe into Mud Woman’s center to stabilize the 10-foot-tall sculpture. “But now I have this space that runs from her head to her heart,” she said. “I need to put something special in it. Maybe you have a poem about Denver?”

Mud Woman is monumental—certainly not hidden.  The Denver Art Museum commissioned Roxanne to create the piece for their new Native American exhibit and, after months of planning, Mud Woman is coming to life.  The sculpture, officially named Mud Woman Rolls On, is the first thing that greets visitors when they step off the 3rd floor elevator of the DAM, Denver’s world class art museum. 

Roxanne, a world class sculptor, will be working on the piece all spring and summer.  Rox is from the Santa Clara Pueblo in New Mexico.  Her roots go back thousands of years.  She knows intimately the land her ancestors have walked for generations.  But she doesn’t know Denver like I do.  Denver is the land of my birth and as a descendent of this city, like everyone else born here, I have inherited the responsibility of keeping the city’s stories alive.  It’s not a responsibility I take lightly.  And Rox knows that.  
To Rox, Mud Woman isn’t just a Roxanne Swentzell sculpture either. Mud Woman belongs to Denver. She is being birthed here—shaped with sand and mud and straw by Rox’s intuitive, artistic hands (and occasionally with a little help from museum visitors). Rox doesn’t analyze as she sculpts, though, she feels. “When it feels right, I just know it. This piece is telling us a story, a story about generations and our connection to the Earth.”

Credit: RMA U.S. Army historic photos
When Roxanne was telling me about the hollow core running from Mud Woman’s head to her heart, and the need to honor that space, shivers ran down my spine. Mud Woman had a shaft leading to her heart, an empty space that deserved to be filled. Denver, too, had a shaft—a deep injection well built in 1961 at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, once known as the most "polluted square mile on earth." In 1942, the Army purchased over 19,000 acres of prairie and farmland near Denver and the War Board announced the location would be the site of a chemical manufacturing center (toxic nerve and mustard gas production). In 1961, the Army drilled two miles down into the earth and during the next 5 years poured 165 million gallons of toxic waste into the shaft. The well was capped in 1966 after more than 1300 earthquake tremors shook the Denver area.

Even though I grew up in the foothills west of Denver, and near the Platte River south of Denver, I remembered nothing of this incident until doing research for my novel, All the Water Yet to Come (also a work-in-progress).  Maybe, I thought, we could make a small atonement for this grievous injury done to the earth—place a few healing objects inside of Mud Woman. 

Perhaps she could even carry Denver’s history inside her, from the first glacial age that came to the land when the winds and waters formed the gently rolling hills through which the waters of Cherry Creek and the South Platte would someday flow. Even the stories of Sand Creek. Even the stories of “the greening of the Platte” when the entire city worked together to cleanse the river so that ducks could nest along her banks once more, and children could swim in her waters.

“Yes,” I said, “I can give you a poem—a love song to Denver that will honor the stories that lie buried beneath her paved streets and high rises.”  Rox smiled. “That would be good.” And then, simultaneously, we both grinned. “And quartz. Some rose quartz from the mountains.”  That’s how it came to be that a few weeks later, Roxanne and I, and my partner John Gritts and Rox’s husband Tim Star, gathered at the museum for a small ceremony to fill Mud Woman’s center with a few heartfelt objects, including my long prose poem, “Whisper of the Land.”

Heather Nielsen, Master Teacher for Native Arts at the Museum, asked us to explain the significance of each object while a staff member videotaped us.  Then Roxanne climbed the ladder up to Mud Woman and placed each object inside her, including the breast feather from an eagle that John (of the Cherokee Nation) gave her. 

Two weeks later, Roxanne and I taught an all-day teachers' workshop at the DAM, and Rox asked me to read from the poem as we sat gathered by the sculpture. 

The soul of the city is here, in the heartbeat of the people. The land still stirs beneath our feet, beneath the asphalt and concrete and high-rise buildings. Creation’s afterglow is still here, on the faces of all the strangers we meet.  Listen. Mud Woman is talking. She is the whisper of the land, the shout of the people, the sorrow of the city. She is us. 

Read complete poem/essay on News page.

Postscript: Since the 1980s, the Rocky Mountain Arsenal has made great reclamation strides to return the land to health.  Not only have bison been reintroduced to the shortgrass prairie, but the RMA National Wildlife Refuge also has a breeding pair of eagles that have fledged a dozen eaglets.  Learn about the Rocky Mountain Wildlife Refuge

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Celtic Blood, Cherokee Blood, and Nature's Earthly Spirits

Helen Terry Dunton c. 1912
When I asked my redheaded Great Aunt Violet, who died many years ago but in whose western saddle I still ride, to tell me what she remembered about my paternal grandmother, she said, "Well, besides being a crack shot with a rifle, Helen was part Irish, and part Cherokee, and that wasn't a very good thing to be back then."   Aunti Vi was from the Dunton clan, my father's clan. "We have Scots blood," was the pronouncement, and I took it to mean that Scots blood was somehow superior to the Irish blood my grandfather had married into.  The Cherokee blood was rarely mentioned, and never with "princess" lineage claims.
Beyond the American Pale

In David M. Emmons book, Beyond the American Pale: The Irish in the West, 1845-1910, he points out interesting contrasts between the "wild" Catholic Irish, and the more respected Scots Irish who had been the Protestant dissenters.  And he draws interesting parallels between England's attempts to rid Ireland of the Irish, and America's attempt to rid America of it's Native Americans.  "Both peoples had 'a wealth of folk tales and a host of legends...and strange beliefs touching every native plant and animal...for the Irish, every cave, rock, inlet, cove, headland, hillock, hill, drumlin, rill, pond, and bog and all who lived in, on, over, and under them had a name."
photo from Celtic Lady blog artist unknown
I am drawn to the old clan systems of the Irish and the Scottish, and to their beliefs (not strange at all) that all of nature is inhabited by spirits--not supernatural spirits, but earthly spirits. Perhaps the Little People of the Cherokees have more in common with leprachauns than we know.  Both cultures were also constantly telling and renewing their own oral histories.  And a good thing, Emmons points out, for the written histories of these tribal peoples were being penned by their conquerors.  "The Irish, after all," Emmon writes, "had no money to bribe the historians."  And being "cattle folk as the Indians were buffalo hunters...'they would rather have cow dung than soil' on their hands."
Chief Cherokee John Ross circa 1835

This quote will make you want to read Emmon's chapter "Savage Twins" cautiously.  I question the statements that generalize (such as implying that all Indians were buffalo hunters).  Or this one: "Neither people had well established work habits," he writes.  "Both were materially poor beyond powers of description."  He seems to draw his conclusions from post-contact historians and anthropologists (none of them Native to my knowledge). It's interesting to note that had the Cherokee leaders NOT been prosperous in the early 1800s, both in land and culture, and had the literacy of the entire Cherokee Nation and the Cherokee Supreme Court not been a threat to the encroaching nonliterate immigrants, and had the gold on the Cherokee land not been coveted, the Trail of Tears might never have been forced upon them.

Scottish Highlanders: Indian Peoples
For years, when I thought of Ireland and Scotland, I thought of our family's visits to both countries in 1964, of heather covered hills and stone cottages, of thatched roofs where flowers bloomed, of the Celtic blood in my grandmother's veins.  But it wasn't until I started research on my novel Shifting Stars that I began to understand the intermingling of culture and blood between the Scottish and Native Americans.  And it wasn't until Joe McDonald, president at the time of Salish Kootenai Tribal College in Pablo, Montana, gifted me with a copy of Scottish Highlanders: Indian Peoples, Thirty Generations of a Montana Family that I realized that the Montana McDonald's traced their roots back to the great chiefs of the Nez Perce Indians.  No doubt, there really is an Indian "princess" in their ancestry.  And no doubt, earthly spirits still inhabit the mountains and creeks and rocks and trees of their homelands.

What are the legends of your homelands?  Do you feel the presence of earthly spirits when you walk the familiar trails of your childhood?  Are you drawn to particular historical settings when you're browsing the bookshelves for a new novel to read?  Perhaps your ancestors are whispering in your ear.

NOTES:  Read about the top 30 Celtic blogs at Celtic Lady.  Read more about Shifting Stars.  Search the Native Authors website for books on traditional storytelling, legends, and beliefs.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Research is not a dirty word. Or: A story about an elk, an eagle, and two-hearted women

Bull elk on Lookout Mountain
 in snowstorm
Writing is not just about what we already know.  It's also about what we wish we knew.  At this juncture, where facts and experience meet curiosity, inspiration takes root.  Passion and our emotional connection to a story may form the heart, but research gives a story legs; it keeps the story moving forward and keeps writer and reader engaged.  Research is exploration.  It is venturing into unknown territory, and the tension created between knowing, and not knowing, like a taut rubber band, can catapult us into someplace new.

Take this elk, for instance.  Large antlers serve bull elk well during the rut, when they're sparring to test strength and endurance and hopefully gather up a harem of cows. But twice this winter, my neighbors and I have seen big bulls tangle with the orange plastic mesh fencing used on construction sites. This particular bull is a member of the large herd that lives here in our mountain community, and we've all been concerned about him. "When do elk shed their antlers?" a neighbor asked. "March or April," I answered, then I called my son in Montana to confirm.  "Yep," he said, "late winter or early spring." 

I call this grassroots research.  And it piqued my curiosity.  Eventually the antlers end up on the forest floor where they provide calcium for chipmunks, squirrels, mice, and other rodents. You can tell a rodent-chewed antler by the teeth carving. I found this ornamental tine when hiking on our Wyoming ranch several years ago.  What causes elk or deer to shed their antlers?  Lowered testosterone levels (which vary from animal to animal) cause the bond where the antlers join the pedicle to weaken.  I learned that
Deer tine found in the Black Hills
when I was involved with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, but I went online to verify.  Since I'm not a wildlife biologist, I also have to trust what my wildlife biologist friends tell me.  I call these second-hand resources, which lead to half-assed but well-intentioned and oftentimes reliable research. 

Even Jack London had to rely on second-hand research.  Many of the tales he wrote, and we love, he first heard sitting in the Klondike bars up at Dawson in the Yukon. 

Photo by Gary Caskey Photography,
Vee Bar Guest Ranch, Wyoming, during 2009
Literature & Landscape of the Horse Retreat
Here's another example of second-hand research.  Yesterday, I was sifting through my journals looking for passages that explored the sounds of the Colorado Plateau through the written word.  We are quietI wrote last year at Black Rock in Westwater Canyon, even before we see the eagle's dark mottled body enter the blue breath of morning.  Then the young eagle whistled, a long high-pitched piping that echoed from the canyon walls.  Only I hadn't written the word "piping" in my journal.  That word made its way into my revised journaling only yesterday, when I happened onto Cornell Lab's site, All About Birds. 
What is familiar is comfortable. What is unknown, is worth pursuing, at least for writers. Writers are, if nothing else, hunters of words and story.  We are studies in contradiction, enjoying our comfort zones yet always yearning to move beyond them.

This dual dynamic exists in our most memorable characters, too, who are often contradictions with opposing forces pulling at them.  Years ago, when a female character began forming for my novel  All the Water Yet to Come, I heard Colorado poet Anita Jepson-Gilbert read her poem "Everywoman" (the title poem of her new and powerful collection). 


harbors two hearts one    faithful and
Roxanne Swentzell & Rose Simpson
during 2009 river trip with Page
wise as swallows
who return each year
to churches    barns
to nest with mate    and
brood solidly against the wall
shielded from shearing wind
the storms of chance

but deep beneath the bones
encased and bolted tight
she bears another heart
flapping raptor wings
that ache for solitary flight
to scale the sky
to heights unkown
then plunge to earth
in wild pursuit.

As writers, we must explore - we must allow our creative vision to soar, but we must then tether our words to the rock-solid earth with research that will give our stories and poems a lasting foundation.

To purchase Everywoman, contact Anita Jepson-Gilbert.
Post a comment about this article by Page Lambert.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Behind the Chutes: Filmmaker Ann Lukacs On the Art of Storytelling

Ann Lukacs shooting from helicopter
I first met award-winning filmmaker Ann Lukacs in Gunnison, Colorado back in 2004 when I was speaking at a Writing the Rockies conference.  My topic, "Embracing Passion: In Our Stories and In Our Lives," seems to be a guiding motto for Ann, too. Last Tuesday, she was the keynote speaker at Dr. Ellie Greenberg's Feminist luncheon in Denver (Greenberg is the co-author of In Our Fifties: Men and Women Reinventing Their Lives and of A Time of Our Own: In Celebration of Women Over Sixty), where she shared with us her journey as a filmmaker, and her devotion to the story beneath the photos.
A Time Of Our Own

A few of Ann's professional credits as a cinematographer include Pirates of the Caribbean, The Bucket List, Honeysuckle Rose, Blues Brothers, and Coal Minor's Daughter.  Check out the New York Times for a list of movies featuring more of Ann's work behind the camera.
photo by Ann Lukacs

But the movie that seems closest to Ann's heart is the documentary Behind the Chutes. 

"This is a project of the heart which has been inspired by one reason only," Ann says, "the passion of these cowboys..."  In Behind the Chutes, Ann follows several professional bareback riders on the rodeo circuit, meeting their families, learning their stories, becoming their friends.  "What is it about these men that makes them want to devote so much of their life to an eight second ride?" Ann asks.  "What is it about the ride that creates such an addictive passion? And what makes a man, years later, get that sparkle in his eye when he reminisces about his rodeo days? Why do you put it all on the line for eight seconds?" 

Brent Kilmer, Vee Bar co-owner, at
Page's 2009 Literature & Landscape
of the Horse retreat, Wyoming
These were the questions that motivated Ann to perch precariously atop bucking chutes, or lie belly-down in the dirt, propping her camera up with her elbows. "Rodeo is a very misunderstood sport yet it is involves the traditions of our western American heritage--cowboys. Life on the ranch led to competition and a sport evolved using actual skills required in a work situation. It still embodies the uniqueness of a cowboy's life."

Some argue that keeping alive the cowboy legend is perpetuating a myth.  But this photo of a mother cow and calf, with Brent Kilmer of the Vee Bar coiling up his rope after ear-tagging the newborn calf and iodining its umbilical cord, is not about myth, it is about the gritty reality of making a life, and a living, on the land.  Not all rodeo cowboys come from working ranches, but they all have a story. 

Boot-race fundraiser at college rodeo, Guyman, Oklahoma, 2010
Look closely at this photo, taken a year ago at a college rodeo in Oklahoma.  You'll notice a bunch of cowboy boots piled up in the middle of the arena.  And the cowboys are riding in their socks.  This "boot race" Calcutta fundraiser was for a young girl with cancer - first cowboy to dismount, find his boots, pull 'em on, remount, and make it across the finish line, wins, and the spectator who "bought him" wins too. But the real winner is the fund to wish the proceeds will be donated.  The event suddenly has far more meaning because we now know the story behind the photo.

 "The art of storytelling," Ann tells us, "isn't confined to pages in a book.  We have become a media driven society with immediate access to visual content.  But no matter what the format, the basics of any good production remain the story structure and concept."  Ann's newest project, There Are No Milk Runs, a story of WWII B-17 aviators has a fascinating synchronistic aspect in both structure and concept, so stay tuned for updates.

Human beings are natural storytellers.  We seek out metaphor and meaning in our own personal narratives, and in the stories of our families and our communities. It is how we make meaning of our lives.  And thanks to amazing filmmakers like Ann Lukacs, we can see these stories unfold not only on the page, but on the screen - in beautiful, living color.

Note:  Click HERE to read about the regulations governing the use of livestock during PRCA sanctioned professional rodeos.  Click HERE for details on the 2011 Literature & Landscape of the Horse retreat at the Vee Bar Guest Ranch in Wyoming.

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