ALL THINGS LITERARY. ALL THINGS NATURAL.

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Thursday, November 30, 2017

Gathering from the Grassland with Linda Hasselstrom



I am contemplating the November 30th entry in Linda Hasselstrom’s new book, Gathering from the Grassland: A Plains Journal. I am also contemplating what I see as the three-dimensional structure of the book. It is more than linear entries which invite the reader, day by day, into a year of Linda’s life on the plains of South Dakota. 

This book stands as humbly and remarkably steady as a three-legged stool. One might say this about all of Linda’s admirable body of work. She is a gifted wordsmith, but it is not her well-wrought language that she wants us to notice, but the earth upon which that body of work rests—steady as a three-legged stool on a patch of shortgrass prairie. (I hope you're smiling, Linda.)

Let’s talk about those three legs. First, deep mapping. The idea of “deep-mapping first occurred to me several years ago when I was reading an interview with Robert Lawlor in Parabola: Myth and Tradition. In the interview, Lawlor speaks of the Aboriginal belief that there is a kinship system that connects all people born to the same piece of earth, even those separated by generations. Each carries the stories and songs tied to that land, and thus their bond of kinship is formed not by blood, but by their common connection to Place. And so began my desire to deep-map Colorado, the land of my birth.

Linda, because of her generational connection to her family’s small South Dakota ranch, is able to go layers deep into the history of the ranch. She does so through her own experience, and through what she learns when reading the letters and journals of family members, primarily her mother and father.

Linda on her ranch in South Dakota, photo South Dakota Humanities
Linda gathers from the grassland not only stories about family, but stories about the animals with whom she shares the ranch land. These scattered stories, when collected, reveal the rich landscape of her life. John Price also touches on the idea of deep mapping in his foreword for Gathering from the Grasslands.

The second leg of this literary stool has to do with the concept of the Tibetan word “shul.” I first encountered the word in a poem by Julie Fowler. In 1397, the philosopher Tsongkhapa used the word shul to describe a track or “the impression that remains” after that which made it has passed, like the scarred hollow in the ground where a house once stood. This brings me back to the November 30th entry in Linda’s journal. She writes:

I look down at the ranch yard and am still startled when I see the gap where an old shed stood… it was over a hundred years old… for sixty odd years I have seen that shed in that place.

Throughout the book, January through December, we encounter this idea of shul as Linda reveals more and more about her life and its connections to the past, not just her familial past, but to the history of the soil that grows her gardens, and the plains that grow the grass that feeds the cattle that have always been a part of her life.

Open up any page, fix your gaze on any day, and you will sense the tactile impression of the past in her words.

The third leg is the Mary Oliver leg, built from the same simple yet utterly astounding tree of mindfulness. In Oliver’s poem “Mindful,” she speaks of the beauty of the ordinary. I think she had Linda in mind when she wrote of “the prayers that are made out of grass.”

On March 23rd, Linda wrote of sitting in her reading chair with her father’s journals. She was able to “look down the hill and see the steps where he cried and where he collapsed into death, dying instantly, just as he’d hoped.”

Reading our own journals, let alone the journal of a father who caused as much pain as joy in our lives, takes courage because we know we might be deep-diving into unpleasant waters. This is why it is so important for writers, who often find ourselves immersed in darkness, to remember that we must rise to the surface (away from all those heavy thoughts), and be mindful of life’s simple beauty – like the blades of grass that speak to us, like a prayer, of life’s renewal.

Linda, too, had to pull herself away darkness while gathering these stories. She was studying her life and its meaning. Not all of us are so courageous, but the writing demands its toll.

Everyday I have gone out and thrown myself into noticing the red-winged blackbirds, the greening grass, and the signs of returning hope.

On March 26th, she writes: 

At sunrise, every blade of grass stands outlined in light, a glorious morning.

Why else do we write about our lives, and read about the lives of others, if not to hasten the return of hope? If not to be reminded that we must look for the glory in each day, the simple honest glory. 


Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Delving Beneath Ordinary Skin with Amy Hale Auker


Ordinary Skin, Essays from Willow Springs
Once upon a recent time, there was a little black hen whose flock was attacked by a coyote. In the story, the little black hen survives, spending several nights alone in the woods but when she returns to her flock in the hen house, she returns as an outcast.

“I am her only friend,” writes Amy Hale Auker in her new book Ordinary Skin, Essays from Willow Springs (Texas Tech University Press). “I think she got lonely out there among the grass and leaves. Sleeping alone.”

Life in the transient rural West can be lonely for outcasts, whether they’re chickens or women or men or children. “Any roots I’ve ever had,” writes Auker, “were fragile and tentative, ripped from the soil...”

Wallace Stegner was correct, the West is as much about motion as it is about place yet Auker’s connections to place, temporary as they have been all her life, are never thinly forged connections. 

Ordinary Skin is an immersion into living skin-to-skin with the world. Not the world at large or the world in motion, but the still and intimate world captured with clarity in brief and intentional moments – the world that exists beside you in a candlelit bedroom, the world that lives outside your kitchen door, the world living in your dreams and in your fears and failings.

Amy Hale Auker, Texas Tech
Auker is a master of metaphor and metaphors show up everywhere in her stories. The stories might come to us fully fledged, or only as fragments that she graciously invites us to piece together. Whether a story about her only possessions carried protectively in a pack on her back while swimming through deep river water, or a story about the broken eggshells she finds swept from swallow nests by overzealous birds, she dips us quickly into each story. 

A skinny-dipping kind of reading experience, we don’t hesitate to toss our clothing on the shore and plunge in, even when she takes us into the naked and metaphorical heart of an intimate moment between a man and a woman.

I want to pick up the eggshells, but I am oh, so careful, for the lightest touch can crush. 
They aren’t chickens.
“But they are already broken,” you say.
“I know, but I can’t bear to be the one who does any more damage.”
Late at night, in the dark, we are speaking of the past and he says, “Don’t touch that.”
I nod with respect, for I know how fragile already broken can be.

The subtext is visceral and the intellect is helpless to interpret its meaning on its own. We turn instinctively to the body for a deeper understanding. Auker seems to agree with D.H. Lawrence: “What our blood feels and believes and says, is always true. The intellect is only a bit and a bridle.”

The stories in Ordinary Skin are unbridled stories, as close to poetry as un-bitted prose can be.

Once upon a recent time a woman and her husband were riding along the trail to a place called Willow Springs. The woman looked up at a hillside and saw what she first thought was a small black cow. But it was a young black bear, chasing a jackrabbit through the grass. He caught the jackrabbit (not an easy feat), and walking stiff-legged to keep from dragging the rabbit on the ground, carried it over to where a few cows were grazing before plopping down with them to eat.

“When we got to the spring,” Auker writes, “we could see by the manure, scat and tracks around the water that the little bear had been living with those cows for quite some time.”

Amy Hale Auker, Photo by Steve Atkinson
Country women like Amy instinctively seek solace in the company of animals, and in their stories. We learn how to rear our children by watching how animals rear theirs. We recognize ourselves as the herd animals we are, and as female creatures who are both predator and prey. We form plant communities by giving names to the flowering cactuses and wild sego lilies that grow along the trails we walk. We plant roots in shallow soil, over and over again, ever faithful to the notion of place, our place.

Some of us, like Amy Hale Auker, write stories of lonely black hens and orphaned bears and stoic men, learning how to embrace whatever comes within the arc of our open arms. This is the hope we give to the world with every stroke of our pens – a tender strength that cannot be denied. 

NOTE: To read some of Amy's poetry, click here. To purchase Ordinary Skin or other titles by Amy, click here.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

BRAIDING SWEETGRASS with ROBIN WALL KIMMERER


Into every book there is a portal, an opening that beckons. In Braiding Sweetgrass, every sentence is a portal, so finely crafted that we do not notice the frame of the door, only the entrancing light that invites us in. No wonder so many friends said to me in the last few years, “Page, you will love this book!” Thank you, Kathleen. Thank you, Julie. Thank you, Milkweed Editions, for sending the review copy. Thank you all.

What I do here matters, writes Robin Wall Kimmerer. Everybody lives downstream.

This one line epitomizes a major theme weaving in and out of Robin’s fine book. Published by Milkweed Editions in 2013, Braiding Sweetgrass is more than memoir, more than nature writing, more than one woman’s narrative. What I do here matters. The words echo. Each story – as it loops back to the story before, simultaneously sends out tendrils, rooting itself to the next story.

We are reminded metaphorically and literally that what happens upstream sends ripples to all who live downstream. That is Robin’s point. We all live downstream. Cycles of responsibility to the earth and the repercussions of unwise action circle back. The sediments that clog lakes and suffocate fish will find their way to the city ponds and country creeks where all children are meant to play.

But Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer is not a doomsayer. A scientist, enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, and recipient of the John Burroughs Medal for outstanding nature writing, Robin reminds us of nature’s resiliency at every bend in the river. Just when we think humans have broken the earth beyond repair, green blades of sweetgrass rise from denuded wastelands. The sweetgrass teaches Robin what we all need to understand.

She reminded me that it is not the land that has been broken, but our relationship to it.

Robin’s narrative voice is an intimate one, as is her relationship with all beings – with green plants, red berries, winged birds, great cedars, soft-bodied salamanders, slick-furred martens. Even stones that tumbled down mountains as glaciers melted eons ago. All beings.

The portals, the doorways that Robin swings open for us allow us to venture into a wounded world armed with hope. Braiding Sweetgrass opens our eyes by letting us see what has been there all along. Nature, in the hands of Robin, is both miraculous and ordinary. It is the sap of the sugar maples that sweetens our winter mornings. It is the cattail on which the red-winged blackbird perches. It is all that we should love, and all that we stand to lose.

“Weep! Weep! Calls a toad from the water’s edge. And I do,” Robin writes. “If grief can be a doorway to love, then let us all weep for the world we are breaking apart so we can love it back to wholeness again.”

This is the hope Robin offers. Love makes wholeness possible.We can begin to return to the Honorable Harvest. We can choose to remember the ancestors' path and begin to walk the Green Path.

WATCH the 2017 Grand Canyon Trust interview with Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer, "The Time of the Seventh Fire."




Saturday, August 26, 2017

20th Anniversary River Trip -- Yoo hoo!

Leaving for Moab to meet up with 20 women guests, 5 women guides--ready to embark on my 20th anniversary River Writing Journey for Women with Sheri Griffith Expeditions.

Renowned sculptor Roxanne Swentzell from the Santa Clara Pueblo is my featured guest so we'll be sculpting with river clay and words! And my daughter Sarah Mease is coming--yoo hoo!! I'll be back in touch in September, writing about Robin Wall Kimmerer's beautiful book, Braiding Sweetgrass. 

Monday, July 31, 2017

Walking the Medicine Trail with Richard Wagamese and A.B. Guthrie


Sometimes, deep inside a good novel, you feel the throbbing lifeblood of its author—an agony that shines at the edges with a certain ecstasy, like gazing at the ceiling in the Sistine Chapel and feeling the anguish of Michelangelo in every brushstroke.

The hand of the artist has become one with the hand of God, and our own lives are touched by both.

I come late to the books of Ojibwa writer Richard Wagamese, but his novel Medicine Walk touches the reader with this same authenticity—the bittersweet pain and joy of the human experience—as lived by the author and expressed through his characters.

In the essay “Returning to Harmony” (appearing in the collection Speaking My Truth), Richard Wagamese writes of his own childhood:

“When I was born, my family still lived the seasonal nomadic life of traditional Ojibwa people. In the great rolling territories surrounding the Winnipeg River in Northwestern Ontario, they fished, hunted, and trapped. Their years were marked by the peregrinations of a people guided by the motions and turns of the land. I came into the world and lived in a canvas army tent hung from a spruce bough frame as my first home. The first sounds I heard were the calls of loon, the snap and crackle of a fire, and the low, rolling undulation of Ojibwa talk… But there was a spectre in our midst.”

Like Wagamese (who would be separated from his Ojibwa family for twenty years), the main character in Medicine Walk, sixteen-year-old Franklin Starlight, grew like a sapling up out of the land, “hearing symphonies in wind across a ridge and arias in the screech of hawks and eagles, the huff of grizzlies and the pierce of a wolf call against the unblinking eye of the moon. He was Indian.”

But there was a specter in his midst, too. Raw-boned and angular, Franklin leaves the old man and mountain that reared him to retrieve his liquored-up father from a one room hovel where he is living out the last days of a tortured life. The father wants to die in the warrior way of his people. Duty bound, Franklin agrees to lead his father back into the mountains. Tethered to a saddle on the back of a faithful old mare so that he won’t spill onto the ground, the father is led by his son on a journey that pulls them both through untold stories and unwanted memories.

Medicine Walk is epic in scope, in part because of the timeless, generational themes, but also because it shows us the broad, deep scope of the human heart. The story has a familiarity about it because we find bits of ourselves inside each character. We know the bittersweet taste of our own agony and ecstasy, and so we can intuit what it is to be young Franklin, or dying Eldon, or to be like the old man, valuing love and loyalty above blame or sorrow.

When confronted with the herculean task of painting the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo escaped to the mountains and found inspiration in nature. The mountains are also where young Franklin finds solace and purpose. It is in nature’s steep ravines that he hides the empty chasms of his heart.

In Wagamese’s essay “Returning to Harmony," we begin to understand how young Franklin came to inhabit the fictional pages of Medicine Walk. We glimpse the steep ravine of the author’s own life when Wagamese writes about his family:

“Each of them had experienced an institution that tried to scrape the Indian off of their insides, and they came back to the bush and river raw, sore, and aching. The pain they bore was invisible and unspoken. It seeped into their spirit, oozing its poison and blinding them from the incredible healing properties within their Indian ways.”

If the job of a novelist is to invite the reader into a world at once new and unexplored, yet so familiar that we wear it like an old flannel jacket, then Wagamese was the kind of novelist you want guiding you through this uncharted terrain. The New York Times, in their review of Medicine Walk, said that the novel felt more like it was etched rather than written. 

Like writer A.B. Guthrie, Wagamese has left a permanent mark on the literary landscape of America. Young Boone Caudill (from Guthrie’s novel The Big Sky) shares Frank Starlight’s prowess and intensity. On the brink of manhood, Boone leaves the backwoods of Kentucky and the hard knocks of a drunken father with nothing but an old, sure shot rifle and a roasted hen, still warm, wrapped inside a greasy rag. Boone leaves for the wilderness knowing all he needs to know about his family, but nothing about the West. 

Franklin knows all he needs to know about the wilderness, but nothing about his family. Both boys enter uncharted lands. “Taking life was a solemn thing,” young Franklin thinks to himself as he considers hunting, and the mystery of life. Tracking, for him, is to slip out of the bounds of what he knows of earth, and "outward into something larger, more complex and simple all at once. He had no word for that." 

But a cry born of a loss? That he slowly came to understand was a part of him forever.

A.B. Guthrie, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1950, died in 1991. Richard Wagamese passed away on March 10, 2017, after writing more than a dozen books. When the hand of the artist truly does become one with the hand of God, we feel our own lives touched by both, the art we love etched in the soft stone of our heart. 



Note: Read Wagamese's entire essay "Seeking Harmony" as published in Speaking My Truth.  
Note: Go to Richard Wagamese's author website.  
Note: Buy Medicine Walk from Milkweed Editions.