ALL THINGS LITERARY. ALL THINGS NATURAL.

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Friday, December 18, 2015

Heaven Must Have Sent You

Chuck Pyle, fly fishing  
When musician and song writer Chuck Pyle passed away on November 6th, he'd been fly fishing on a lake close to home, casting out across the water, no doubt watching his line arc and loop as he reached for the shadowed depths. When Chuck didn't come home at dusk, his sweetheart Terri followed her own heart line, that mysterious filament that links two souls as surely as a nylon line links rainbow trout to faithful angler. Near dark, she headed out to the lake to find him…

Chuck Pyle, Lambert wedding
But that story is Terri’s to tell, not mine, and when she’s ready, I know her own poetry will lead her back to the peace and joy that Chuck’s music brought to the world. The story that is mine to tell is of the friendship that evolved between Chuck and Terri and John and me over the last ten years, and of the song that he sang at my daughter’s wedding. 

As my daughter walked arm in arm with her father toward the young cowboy to whom she had already given her heart and was about to commit her future, Chuck's voice floated out over the crowd. “High, wide and handsome... swept her up on his horse…keep her steady, cowgirl...don't let go of the reins...you are ready now, girl, never mind the growing pains...”* 

A few moments later, her father sat down and the minister asked the bride and groom to sit apart on either side of him. Beyond them rose the Colorado mountains while Chuck's lyrics floated out across the canyon below. "Worlds out there are waiting, big and wide as the sky, no more hesitating, it's now or never, do or die...."

Bucking Horse by John Gritts
After the wedding, John gave Chuck a print of his pen and ink drawing, "Bucking Horse." That year for Christmas,Terri framed it and they hung it over their bed.  

Lives and stories interweave themselves in mysterious ways. Four years after Chuck sang at my daughter's wedding, my faithful horse Farside left this world suddenly, galloping up the path to the Milky Way. Four days later, Terri went looking for Chuck at the lake. The following day, my daughter gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. I like to imagine that my horse gave Chuck a ride to "the far side" and from that mysterious place, Chuck once again serenaded my daughter, this time as she brought baby Jayde into the world with her husband beside her... keep 'er steady cowgirl, you are ready now girl...

A Cowboy's Christmas Dream
Chuck Pyle
This week, John and I have been listening to some of Chuck's favorite holiday songs on his CD, A Cowboy's Christmas Dream. And we've been reading tributes from musicians around the world. “He was a consummate writer,” musician Jim Ratts is quoted in Denver's Westword Magazine. “He was writing all the time. It wasn’t just songs. It was poems. It was notes. It was letters. It was journals. It was anything that he could do to put words together. I just think he was crafting his art..."

Terri Watson and Chuck Pyle, Sitka, Alaska
Chuck was not only crafting his art, he was crafting the way his admirers might view the world. Affectionately known as the Zen Cowboy, he rode that "trail of inspiration" on a spiritual quest that he shared with all of us. And at the heart of that quest, was Terri. He did not ride that trail alone, yet her trail now is a solitary one, the lonely journey grief-filled. 

Terri Watson,
photo by Chuck Pyle
I wish now that during all those times I had thanked Chuck for his music, that I had also thanked Terri. Theirs was not solely a partnership of love, it was also an artistic partnership. Perhaps it's not too late to say, "Thank you, Terri, for riding alongside Chuck, for keeping 'er steady." In Chuck's words, Heaven must have sent you...


John Gritts and Page Lambert
And thank you, John, for walking alongside me as I travel this literary path, trying to put those words together, trying to craft my art. I would sing to you, if I could. Instead, let's put Chuck's CD Romancing the Moment in the stereo and dance to I found a dream, and the dream was you... 

Note: Donations may be made to the Chuck Pyle Memorial Fund, P.O Box 726, Palmer Lake, CO 80133. *"Keep 'er steady" song lyrics from the CD Higher Ground--Songs of Colorado, copyright Chuck Pyle, used with permission.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

If I were to write a novel....

Farside
Last night Farside was lifted from the world of the seen, into the world of the unseen. I did not awaken yesterday sensing that the day would be filled with heartrending decisions. I did not envision holding Farside’s proud Arab head in my arms, stroking his neck, running my hands along the length of his still body. Nor did I know when I awoke yesterday that my corral friends, Farside’s human herd, would gather around us during a twelve-hour vigil, or that Dominica, the big white warmblood who has been Farside’s closest companion for seven years, would come to touch noses and bid him adieu. In the end, five women were with Farside and me—offering strength, solace, prayer. “You were his life blessing, Page,” Sheri said. “Send him to the love and light.”  

Farside and Tripp, Wyoming
Before Farside came to live here with me in these green mountain pastures, he and Sheri traveled over 4000 competitive trail miles together—in Utah, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico.  In the last few years, Farside and Tripp, Sheri’s endurance horse, traveled to Wyoming for our annual Literature & Landscape of the Horse Retreat, sharing adventures in the river bottom country of the Medicine Bow Mountains.  Last spring, Sheri’s friends gathered around her as she blessed Tripp to the light, wishing him bon voyage. I envision Tripp there in the world of the unseen now, waiting for Farside…

Farside, Page, Matt
If I were to write a novel about Farside and the life we shared, I would include a chapter about the wedding day he carried me on his back to the mountain meadow where John and our community of friends and family waited, yellow wild flowers braided in his mane and tail, his coat shining from the bath Sheri and my daughter had given him, my son walking alongside us.

Photo by Cyrus McCrimmon
Read Denver Post article
I would want to write about our adventures in Wyoming, and here in Colorado on these mountain trails. Perhaps I would write a scene where Farside gives pony rides during the community’s July 4th picnic. And of course, a scene close to the end of the story out in the pasture with his horse herd and a photographer from The Denver Post clicking away trying to capture the mystery that was Farside.

Farside by Sybil Hill
I would include a scene from last Sunday, when John and I ventured into the high Colorado mountains, crossing the Continental Divide enroute to an art gallery at Beaver Creek. In this scene, we would meet artist Sybil Hill, a painter of iconic horses, and she would give to me a portrait of Farside. We would hug and talk about how handsome and gentlemanly Farside was, how he always greeted me with a nicker.  John would tuck the painting safely in the trunk of our car and later, at home, I would carry it from room to room, imagining where we would hang it. The final scene might show me lighting a candle the next night and sitting on the floor beside the painting, as only hours earlier I had knelt beside Farside, cradling his head in my arms.

Yes, if I were to write a novel, I would include all these scenes. And from them would emerge a grand design, a mysterious and destined love, a blessing from the highest hill in that unseen world. Some readers might scoff at the coincidental timing of the events of the last weeks shared by this woman and this horse. But others would recognize the symbolism arising from the synchronicity. They would turn the last page of the book, and slowly—gently—close its covers. And the love would live on.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Squirrels of Inspiration

It’s morning and the October sky is subdued, the early sun obscured by a veil of haze. The house is quiet. I’m alone. The rascally pine squirrel that John trapped last week and set free near a pond three miles away is back – burying pine cones in my flower boxes, carrying pilfered insulation from the crawl space beneath the house to his nest in a nearby ponderosa. Tufts of insulation peak out from uninhabited bird boxes. He’s creative in his choice of winter larders. At dusk, he’ll retreat to curl up in his drey, nose tucked to tail. At dawn, he’ll be back at it again.

Some of the graduate students at the university taking my “Writing Life” class this fall quarter have been discussing what time of the day they’re most creative—dusk or dawn, or late into the midnight hours. For me, like for the squirrel, creativity comes early, like dewdrops on the leaves of a bleeding-heart. Morning hours are hopeful hours, when no idea seems too insignificant, no inspiration too frivolous, no seed of an idea too small.

All summer, I’ve watched the squirrel run back and forth along the top rail of our old wooden fence in the morning, tufts of insulation or sprigs of juniper berries in his mouth. He’s gnawed down my garden’s penstemons and foxglove, blanket flowers and columbines. John offered to trap him again. “Turn him loose in the next county,” I joked. But we won’t. Winter will arrive here on the mountain soon, and I admire how he’s lined his nests. And though I haven’t found it, I also know that somewhere nearby is a well-stocked midden.  Who am I to rob him of these hoarded treasures?

It’s evening now. The sun cast the ponderosas into dark silhouettes before dropping behind the mountains. I wonder if when I wake in the morning, perhaps even at dawn before the squirrel has roused himself from his nest, if hope will come again in the shape of new stories. Will the dreams I've stored in my subconscious serve as fodder for the new day? What creature of the night will leave dewdrops to quench this early morning yearning?

Definition Postscript:
creature (n.)  late 13c., "anything created," also "living being," from Old French creature (Modern French créature), from Late Latin creatura "thing created," from creatus, past participle of Latin creare "create" (see create). 

create (v.)  late 14c., from Latin creatus, past participle of creare "to make, bring forth, produce, beget," related to crescere "arise, grow" (see crescent). Related: Created; creating.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Red Lightning and the Human Heart

“Aim for the absolute version,” editor Tom Jenks advised us during a week-long intensive writing workshop in Denver several years ago.  “Write the story so that anyone can understand it.”  I struggled to understand this advice.  What about the complexities of plot and character?  What about hidden meaning and layered nuances?  Didn’t I want my story to appeal to the sophisticated reader, the reader who sought out intelligent stories?  Surely I didn’t want to write uncomplicated stories that anyone could understand.

And yet, that is exactly what Laura Pritchett did with her novel Red Lightning. I’m not talking simple here; I’m talking uncluttered.  Anyone who has ever known or lost a mother, loved a sister or a brother, given up a child, or regained a piece of lost, fractured heart—anyone who’s own small humanity has shriveled because of large failures—who has ever sought forgiveness—will appreciate Red Lightning for the clarity with which it portrays that universal human experience.

Perhaps a better interpretation of the “absolute version” of a story is the version based on absolute knowledge, on things understood to be true worldwide.  Red Lightning taps into the complex and tangled emotions that are found in almost all mother/daughter/sister relationships.  The beauty of Pritchett’s writing is that she uses lucid prose—clear and unfettered—to convey the shadowy depths of the human heart.

FEATURED WORD
Pellucid:  Adjective 1) allowing the maximum passage of light, as glass; translucent. 2) clear or limpid: pellucid waters. 3) clear in meaning, expression, or style: a pellucid way of writing.


Sunday, July 19, 2015

Timothy Egan Comes to Fishtrap


Timothy Egan, Summer Fishtrap Gathering
Photo credit: Sam Traylor, Whitman Intern
"I get afraid sometimes when I've signed a book contract," Seattle author Timothy Egan told the Fishtrap crowd Friday night, "because I start out kind of panicky when I don't know where the story arc is." Pulitzer-prizing winning author of seven award-winning books, including Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis, Egan came to the Summer Fishtrap Gathering at Wallowa Lake, Oregon, to talk to writers who had been immersed in a week of workshops, panels, digital storytelling, and poetry since Monday.

A generous and thoughtful speaker, Egan shared his three-step approach to writing a book. "First, I go out and see if I can find that story arc.  For The Worst Hard Time about the Dust Bowl, I went to places like Texas and Oklahoma and Kansas - places the hardest hit by the worst environmental disaster our country has ever known - and I tried to find people who had lived through it.  I found dozens, but I focused on the story of just seven women."

Earlier that day at Fishtrap, I had flipped through the book's index, looking for references to the Panhandle of Oklahoma, where my daughter and son-in-law live. The women Egan wrote about had been young girls when the nation's "worst hard time" hit. Now, old women bent with age, lines of disaster were etched in their resilient faces. "The earth pushed back," Egan told us, "against the hubris of our nation."

Once Egan begins to understand the arc of a story - the human journey - he begins to research, going into the archives, diving deep into historical documents.  When researching The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America, the heart of the story rose up when Egan read this line in one of Roosevelt's journals, written after Roosevelt lost his wife in childbirth, and later that day, lost his mother. "The  light went out of my life," Roosevelt wrote. "This tragic day changed the course of his life," Egan told us, "and of our nation." Roosevelt entrusts his sister with the care of the infant, and goes West to become a cowboy.  "The West," continued Egan "gave him back his life."

Thus is the power of place.  "You've got to go to the place where the story happened," said Egan of his third step. "Going to the Texas Panhandle, feeling the wind. Come here to this Wallowa Valley," he swung his arm wide, "and you understand the Nez Perce and Chief Joseph."

In a July 17 op-ed for The New York Times, "Heritage and Healing," Egan wrote about his appearance at Fishtrap. "I recently went back to the isolated, alpine hideaway of Joseph, Ore., a little town I’d spent some time in 17 years ago, and was pleased to find a laboratory of hope for small town America... it is a stunning place — set in a cradle of grass and forests in the Wallowa Mountains of eastern Oregon."

Sound like a perfect place for a writer's conference?  Yes, the power of this place was palpable, and no doubt some of the stories and poetry generated at Fishtrap reverberate with this sense of place.  And certainly, Fishtrap reverberated with a sense of appreciation at Timothy Egan's generous storytelling. During a relaxed Q&A session after his keynote, Egan took time to tell us about his latest, favorite book. Anthony Doerr's  All the Light You Cannot See"A novel about the German occupation of Paris in 1940 - a blind French girl and an orphaned German boy - ultimately it's a story about how people, against all odds, try to be good to each other. A remarkable story."

And for all of us at Fishtrap, a remarkable week, giving back to many of us the life we call writing.  Yes, we will remember this place...

Note: Learn more about FISHTRAP: Writing and the West, and the annual Summer Fishtrap Gathering of Writers.

Monday, June 29, 2015

The Last Unicorn - Searching for the Saola with William deBuys

In 2011, writer William deBuys joined conservation biologist William Robichaud on a trek into the jungled river country of Laos in search of the elusive and endangered saola, one of the earth’s rarest creatures. The small country of Laos, surrounded by China, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand, holds within its fragile borders a richly diverse, rapidly disappearing ecosystem.  Smugglers from Vietnam, their own country now devoid of its once plentiful flora and fauna, haul out everything from Siamese rosewood to elephant trunk snakes and scaly “pangolin” anteaters.  Most of the contraband is en route to China.

The Vietnam I knew in the late 1960s—when many of my male friends were either drafted into the Army, or recruited by the Air Force or Naval Academy after graduation—was a country divided north from south. I knew Vietnam only by what I saw on the news, or by what our liberal, armband-wearing civics teacher whispered about “the political truth” of this unholy war.

What little I now know, I glean during snippets of conversation while I’m having a pedicure at Diamond Nails—one foot spa-soaking while the other is being expertly exfoliated, toes soon to be meticulously polished.  I often ask the Vietnamese nail technicians to tell me about their homeland.  Most are too young to remember the Vietnam War, but not too young to have intimate knowledge of the chemical devastation to their country’s landscape, which peels back another, deeper layer to deBuys’ story.

Reading William deBuys’ eloquent story The Last Unicorn: A Search for One of Earth’s Rarest Creatures (2015: Little, Brown and Company), I found myself immersed in a post-war culture where everything that grows or crawls or trots or flies, is either eaten or commoditized. Including human beings. This post-war world is poignantly, beautifully and humbly rendered by deBuys in The Last Unicorn.

To trek with deBuys and Robichaud into the rarely glimpsed world of the elusive saola is to awaken your senses to “air musky with leaf mold” and to slender apes summoning the day. The songs of the gibbons lie “beyond metaphor, beyond the ordinary meanings of words.”  To travel up the canyon of the Nam Mon River is to stand with men "in stunned silence... at the place where the saola disappeared."

To travel with him through the pages of The Last Unicorn is to follow an illegal snare line along the crest of a jungled ridge only to find a red-shanked douc hanging upside down, snared by one foot, dead.

DeBuys does not portray himself as indefatigable.  He admits to not being physically equal to the grueling pace set by the team leader, biologist William Robichaud.  Each night brings bone deep, muscle weary exhaustion. Yet I can envision the journals, into which deBuys poured both the beauty and harshness of each day, laying restless beside him—repositories vibrating with strength of prose and the vivid, keen imagery of this sensate world.

I am grateful that at the close of each day, or during brief quite moments on the trail in search of the illusive saola, deBuys found the energy to record this quest in the pages of his journals so that we might take this journey with him. We are the richer for it, which is not a small thing in a disappearing world.

Perhaps I will buy a copy of The Last Unicorn for the women at Diamond Nails. Perhaps one of them remembers a grandfather's tale from long ago about a mysterious, dark eyed creature in the woods traveling unharmed across a borderless land.

Notes: View more photos in a slideshow of William deBuys travels in search of the saola. Read “A Wildlife Mystery in Vietnam: The discovery of the saola alerted scientists to the strange diversity of Southeast Asia's threatened forests” (Richard Stone, Smithsonian, 2008).  Read "Sticking it Out" guest essay by William deBuys in the Colorado Plateau Advocate magazine, Spring 2015.  Read The New York Times March review, "Searching for a Magical Creature."

Friday, May 29, 2015

Auker's THE STORY IS THE THING and Brooks' PAINTED HORSES


According to the inside flap of Malcolm Brooks’ debut novel Painted Horses, in the mid-1950s America was flush with prosperity and the West was still very much wild.  Like Painted Horses, I was born in the 1950s, a child of both prosperity and wildness.  I learned how to toddle my way down mountain trails used by deer and elk about the same time I learned which fork to use for shrimp cocktail.  I learned how to trust our paint horse Bingo as he high-stepped over rocks and around fallen branches.  Then we moved and I learned what it meant to say goodbye.  Life, I discovered, was not going to be a linear journey.

Nor is the journey you will take while reading Painted Horses (Grove Atlantic, NY, 2014).  The opening drops you smack dab in the middle of backstory that unfolds in real time—the smell of the ancient muck of an archaeological dig in London rises up from the page even as the female protagonist sinks her toes into the mire. In a deft literary turn to the West, we find her suddenly disembarking a train in Miles City, Montana, wandering down a muddy path and coming face-to-painted face with a tethered war horse.  Enter John H, and a new female protagonist. She was a loyal horse but also a captive mustang.  At that instant, I was tethered to the novel, eager for the round-about ride.

Reading Amy Hale Auker’s new novel The Story Is the Thing (Pen-L Publishing, AR, 2014), also requires a dexterous reader who enjoys navigating a winding path.  You’ll meet Uncle Bill, an old man riding a stocky bay horse, his face weathered by the decades, his eyes studying tracks on the dusty trail.   The next chapter leads us to the daughter of Bill’s ranch boss three days after old Bill’s funeral.  Within minutes, Katy has the squat wood-burning stove in the ranch house burning, the teapot hissing, and the pewter urn holding Bill’s ashes on a bookshelf.  He has left her a stack of yellow pads on which he meant to write only the truth of the previous summer, but somehow a far more complicated story finds its way from his arthritic hands elegantly onto the pages.

Sixty years after I first toddled down those mountain trails, I’m back riding them horseback.  Our old paint horse Bingo is gone and my parents' ashes have been scattered to the western winds.  The gray Arab horse I now ride brought me face-to-face with the past as the ongoing journey circles back.  I find myself thinking of the fully fleshed characters (human and equine) that inhabit the pages of Painted Horses and The Story Is the Thing—an oddly fitting title for a book, but a good reminder for all of us that yes, the story is what matters.  The story, for all of us, is the legacy we leave behind.  

NOTES:  In 2012, Amy Hale Auker won the Women Writing the West Willa Award for her nonfiction book Rightful Place (Texas Tech University). Malcolm Brooks received a 4-star review from USA Today for Painted Horses, also a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Selection.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Keeping Your World Safe within the Pages of a Book: Learning from Kazuo Ishiguro

I recently attended a very public evening, and less public morning, with renowned British author Kazuo Ishiguro.  He read from and discussed his new novel The Buried Giant, his fourth since writing Remains of the Day (awarded the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 1989).

Here was my chance to sit at the foot of a master storyteller, to learn about his creative process, and about the emotional impulses and insecurities that haunt even one of the world’s most prominent writers.  Thank you, Lighthouse Writers, for organizing this event. 

Ishiguro was born in Japan, but moved with his parents to Great Britain when he was only five.  He talked a great deal about memory, and how it defines individuals and cultures.

“I became an adult with the memory of a very precious place, Japan, in my mind—a Japan that didn’t really exist.  I wanted to preserve this remembered place and I thought:  If I write a novel, I can recreate this world, and then this world will be safe within the pages of that novel."

In listening to him, I realized that my own desire to keep the memories of my beloved Wyoming ranchland safe within the pages of a book was the deeply rooted yearning that urged me forward during the entire writing of my memoir In Search of Kinship.

I had never before articulated this desire in quite that way, yet it was into that well of desire that I dipped my emotional bucket each and every time I sat down to write.  And now, with the Wyoming Highway Department's plans to reroute a major highway through this land, the memories contained within the pages of In Search of Kinship are all the more poignant.

Three of Ishiguro’s books now inhabit my writing office: The Remains of the Day, The Buried Giant, and Conversations with Kazuo Ishiguro.  Anytime I wish to once again sit at his feet as a disciple, all I need to do is reach out a hand and the maestro is there, extending his art and his passion, inviting me into his world.

Note: Watch video of full book scene from The Remains of the Day.  

Monday, March 2, 2015

The Extraordinary Worlds of Alice Hoffman and Nick Arvin


A few days ago, as I was turning the final page on Alice Hoffman’s novel The Museum of Extraordinary Things, Nick Arvin posted (rather humbly) to his Facebook page that his short story “The Crying Man” had just been awarded this year's Alice Hoffman Prize by Ploughshares.

Alice Hoffman, as final judge for the Ploughshares award, was obviously impressed with Arvin's writing.  She singled his story out from an elite field, as did the final judges (myself, and two others) who selected his novel Articles of War to receive the Colorado Book Award for Best Novel in 2007.
 
How interesting if we could somehow weave a web made of all the synchronistic strands that link judges to winners.  More than luck connects us - some mysterious "call and response" seems to be at work, an invisible silky strand linking this particular story to that particular heart and mind.

Arvin’s work first impressed me when I read Articles of War, his spare and powerfully moving novel about an eighteen-year-old farm boy from Iowa who enlists in the Army during World War II, arriving in Normandy just after D-day. 

Unlike the steel-nerved, real life character in the recent movie blockbuster The American Sniper, Arvin’s young soldier is consumed by fear and ultimately must face what for a soldier with a deep sense of cowardice is a horrifying job—to be a member of the firing squad assigned to kill a fellow soldier committed of treason.

In the novel Articles of War, Arvin takes us back to America of the mid-1940s.  In The Museum of Extraordinary Things, Alice Hoffman takes us back more than a century, to New York City’s Coney Island in 1911, and to a young woman raised by the sinister impresario of a museum filled with grotesque and extraordinary things. 
 
Born with webbed fingers, trained to breathe underwater, Coralie lives among these unnatural creatures (and for whom the public pays good money to gawk)—the Wolfman, the Butterfly Girl, a two-headed fetus—hundreds of exhibits all either natural oddities, or gruesomely manipulated to appear so by the man who raised Coralie.
 
Eventually, Coralie finds herself in a glass fish tank, exhibited to drunken men only an arm’s length away, her father’s patrons leering at her night after night—this pale and sensual creature, falsely portrayed as half mermaid, half girl, floating in illuminated water.  Unlike Arvin’s crying man, her sorrowful tears fall unnoticed.
 
In an interview with Nick Arvin for the blog Eudaemonia after Articles of War was named a book of the year by Esquire magazine, and received several other prestigious awards, Arvin was asked if the book had been optioned for film. 

“It's become almost commonplace to say that recent fiction has been heavily influenced by cinematic techniques,” said Arvin, “and generally cross-pollination between the arts is a good thing, but is there a danger that readers might begin to see a novel, any novel, as merely a kind of half-assed movie? (I think there actually is a danger of this, based on how quick people are to ask me whether my novel will be a movie, and ask this in a way that seems to imply its potential will only be fully realized if it does become a movie.)”

More than once, when reading The Museum of Extraordinary Things, I closed my eyes and imagined the scenes Hoffman was describing - the Wolfman, covered in hair, kissing the beautiful woman whose face had been scarred with acid.  Or young Coralie confiding in a 100-year-old turtle held captive for nearly a century.  I imagined Coralie swimming alone through the cold, dark waters of the Hudson River—a lonely young woman more at home with fish than with humans.  I imagined the young Russian man who visited her in her dreams, his immigrant heart steeled against his own father until he met Coralie.   

All of Alice Hoffman’s books have been optioned for films and  she has written several of the screenplays herself.  Yet I doubt if any serious fan of Alice Hoffman novels wishes the movie "had come out first."

According to Shortlist.com, The American Sniper is the first of eight books to read before they become movies in 2015.  Too late for those of us who have already seen the movie but haven't yet read the book.  I saw The American Sniper  the same week I was reading The Museum of Extraordinary Things. 

Yet it is the world of creatures, both natural and unnatural, rendered vividly by Hoffman, that stays with me in my waking dreams.
Yesterday, swimming in the Pacific Ocean, I felt my body swayed by the current, like the sea turtles riding the waves, imagined the lives of the whales in the waters beyond the reef, and I thought of Coralie.  I felt grateful that the boundaries of my imagination seemed wider than the waters of the Pacific, unbounded by the square-cornered walls and flat screens of even the most luxurious movie theaters. 

Also noteworthy:

WATCH Alice Hoffman talk about the transforming power of the imagination.

Nick Arvin's story "The Crying Man" was recently featured in a dramatic reading by actor Michael McNeill during the Stories on Stage event, Another Fine Mess.) 
ATTEND the upcoming Stories on Stage production, “Son of Very Short Stories,” featuring wildly eclectic flash fiction performed by the Buntport Theater Company Saturday, March l7, Su Teatro Cultural and Performing Arts Center in Denver, and Friday, March 13, at the Chautauqua Community House, Boulder.












Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Oxford Junior Silences Wind in the Willows, Strikes Fear in Piglet

Audible cries rattled the WILLOWS along the river where OTTER lived when good-natured Mole brought news that the head honchos at Oxford  had struck his name from their Junior Dictionary.  Toad, who enjoyed all the latest fads, wasn't upset until he realized that there would be no more stilted HERONS pounding down the river (a lovely phrase he discovered reading Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men). 

"Yea gads!" exclaimed Badger. "Will I be the next to go?" Even the WEASELS, who had taken over Toad Hall, were aghast.  "Hair today, gone tomorrow!" 

In Winnie the Pooh's forest, just a short dusty walk down the bookshelf, another ruckus broke out when Christopher Robin brought the news to his woodland gang.  "Dear dear little PIGLET," he said, "I'm afraid you have become defunct."  Piglet's smile turned upside down.  "What's defunct?" Pooh asked.  Christopher Robin shook his head. "It means kaput. Gone. A blip on the radar." Eeyore's ears drooped. "What's a radar?" he asked.

And so it is.  Words come and go.  In 2008, author Richard Louv (Children & Nature Network) and a pack of journalists and conservationists ferreted out the news that the folks at Oxford Junior Dictionary had removed dozens of nature, farming and agricultural words, like these ones:

Photo by John Gritts
Used with Permission
Beaver, boar, cheetah, colt, cygnet, doe, drake, ferret, heron, herring, kingfisher, lark, leopard, lobster, magpie, minnow, mussel, newt, otter, ox, oyster, panther, pelican, piglet, plaice, porcupine, porpoise, raven, starling, stoat, stork, terrapin, thrush, weasel, wren.  Acorn, almond, apricot, ash, beech, beetroot, blackberry, bluebell, bramble, brook, buttercup, carnation, catkin, cauliflower, chestnut, clover, conker, cowslip, crocus, dandelion, fern, fungus, gooseberry, hazel, hazelnut, heather, holly, horse chestnut, ivy.

The list goes on: lavender, leek, melon, mint, mistletoe, nectar, nectarine, oats, pansy, parsnip, poppy, primrose, prune, radish, rhubarb, spinach, sycamore, tulip, turnip, vine, violet, walnut, willow.

Yep, even Steinbeck's stilted heron pounding down the river in his classic work Of Mice and Men was removed.

Enter instead words like blog, celebrity, cut-and-paste, broadband, and analogue.

Now, with the latest Oxford revision, a swarm of writers like Margaret Atwood and Michael Morpurgo (War Horse) have sent a letter to Oxford expressing why they are profoundly alarmed. "We believe the OJD should address these issues and that it should seek to help shape children’s understanding of the world, not just to mirror its trends."


Alistair Fraser, the Kootenay Lake explorer, digs deep in his blog post "Shooting the Messenger," posing the question that perhaps the Oxford editors aren't to blame so much as their decisions are a reflection of the culture - kids want to play inside because, as a child once told Richard Louv, "That's where all the electrical outlets are."

I have no desire to read or write a book about an electrical outlet.  Yet I love Shilo Shiv Suleman's Ted talk, "Using Tech to Enable Dreaming" and how she takes us inside the world of interactive books.  "Storytelling," she tells us, "is becoming more and more sensorial."  A sensory experience: something you can taste, touch, smell, hear or see.  Its how our bodies interpret the world.

I like Mole's world. "Hullo, World!" he calls out to Rat.  And I like Pooh's world, where Piglet asks, "What about me?"  A.A. Milne answers, "Yes, what about us?" And I can't help but hear the entire world of Nature answering, "Yes, PLEASE, keep us on your radar!"

NOTES: Read more at CBCNews/Arts & Entertainment. Read more in Nature Canada.