ALL THINGS LITERARY. ALL THINGS NATURAL.

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

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Friday, January 14, 2011

Can you trace the heart of your story? Great racehorses like Secretariat can.

Several years ago, I read the essay "Mt. T's Heart," by novelist Jane Smiley, the first essay in the collection The Greatest Horse Stories Ever Told. I've been fascinated by the idea of "great hearts" ever since--both the hearts of horses, and the hearts of stories.  If the stories we love to read over and over again endure because of this hard-to-measure quality, how can we ensure that the heart of the story we're writing now will tick on and on?  If you could weigh the heart of your story—feel its pulse in the palm of your hand—could you trace its genetic greatness back to the works of the authors whom you most admire?  Would there be a “felt” line of descent between your story and the first story you ever read as a child that made your heart race, perhaps Mary O’Hara’s My Friend Flicka or John Steinbeck’s The Red Pony?  What do I mean by “felt line of descent?” Let’s use a metaphor and explore the literal and figurative “heart” of the race horse, SECRETARIAT. Like any great character (and any good character sketch), his story starts long ago…

Once upon a time (actually, it was Apri1 1, 1764), in a country whose coasts stretched between the Irish Sea to the northwest, the Celtic Sea to the southwest, and the North Sea to the east, a chestnut Thoroughbred colt was born. His owner the Duke of Cumberland christened the stud colt Eclipse and sold him to a sheep dealer. The sheep dealer sold half-interest in the horse to Captain O’Kelly, who was married to a brothel owner.

Eclipse would go on to be one of the world’s great racehorses. He died in 1789 and, as was the tradition in England, just his head, heart, and hooves were buried (now wouldn’t that make for a gripping scene). When the London surgeon performing the autopsy cut him open, he found that the racehorse had a massive heart weighing 14 pounds—6 pounds heavier than the heart of an average horse.

Pocahontas with colt
But greater even than Eclipse’s fame as a racehorse was his fame as a sire. In 1837, forty-eight years after his death, a progeny filly with a rather small frame was born. They named her Pocahontas and, though they didn’t know it at the time, she carried an X chromosome passed onto her by Eclipse’s daughter Everlasting. 150 years later this “large heart” gene would be passed down to one of the greatest horses the world has ever known.

In 1973 (the same year Jonathan Livingston Seagull was at the top of the bestseller list), Secretariat won the Triple Crown, setting track records and world records at the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont. He died at the age of 19 after siring more than 600 colts. His heart wasn’t put on a scale and weighed as Eclipse’s had been, but the veterinarian who performed the autopsy estimated the great champion’s heart at more than 22 lbs. He was a power-house.

Secretariat's Meadow
Secretariat was known by those who loved him as an animal with “great heart,” not just because of his stamina, but because of his passion for competing.  Kate Chenery Tweedy, who has loved him since her bell-bottom teenage days when she walked the same meadow as he did, shares his story in the exquisite new book, Secretariat's Meadow, co-authored with Leeanne Ladin.

How, then, does a heart fuel not only our legs, but also our dreams? How can a heart urge us to go the distance in the face of overwhelming obstacles, urge us to remain loyal in the face of betrayal, or urge us to keep writing that novel, or poem, or memoir, despite all odds against publication?  These are the questions that some of our greatest authors explore, filling the pages of the books we love with stories of champions whose victories cannot be measured by mere physical stamina or prowess, but who are heroic because they lift someone else up even as they themselves are falling down. Or, like John Steinbeck’s heroes, perhaps they are heroic not because of their greatness but because of their frailties. In Mary O’Hara’s young adult novel My Fiend Flicka, I could feel my own heart racing as young Ken McLaughlin rode down the mountain after seeing Rocket’s filly for the first time:

No dream he had ever had, no imagination of adventure or triumph could touch this moment. He felt as if he had burst out of his old self and was something entirely new—and that the world had burst into something new too. So this was it—this was what being alive meant—Oh, my filly, my filly, my beautiful—

Heart-filled prose. But Mary O’Hara didn’t finish Ken’s sentence for the reader. Instead, she left it to our imaginations, perhaps even to our pens. I like to think that she hoped we would write our own everlasting stories—ones that will be felt pulsing in the palms of the reader’s hands even as we race toward the finish line.
Kate Chenery Tweedy signing at
Denver Women's Press Club
Look toward that finish line. See who has gone before. Imagine their words and stories leading the way. Visualize that line of descent. Thank those who have already run the race for us, marking the trail, then look behind you and visualize those whose stories will follow yours, and cheer them on as well. I think this is what inspired Kate as she entered the emotionally-wrought terrain of her upbringing as the daughter of Penny Chenery, and as she walked in the same meadow where Secretariat had run.  "I thought about the love in people's voices as they talked about their Meadow days," Kate writes at the end of the book. "In the end, it was the land that made them all."  Take heart, and let the stories that have come before inspire you as well.

January 16-18, Kate Chenery Tweedy will be at the North American Veterinary Conference, Orlando, FLA signing books.  Important Links:  Event Calendar for Secretariat's Meadow Author Leeane Ladin's Book Tour Blog.  Free Rein Blog Talk Radio featuring Secretariat.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Votes areTallied!

Thanks for voting everyone!  It was a close race but WRITERS OVER 40 ROCK won by a nose as your favorite blog post of 2010.  Wonder what the winning blog vote indicates about the average age of my readers?  It means you all rock!!