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


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Friday, December 29, 2017

Don’t Touch the Snow: Greeting the New Year with Willa Cather and My Antonia

A few years ago, during a progressive dinner in our mountain community, a neighbor who had moved to town said to me, “At our daughter’s new school, the kids aren’t allowed to touch the snow.” I nearly choked on my tomato tart. Willa Cather would have turned over in her grave.

Can a child who has never crunched a snowball between reddened palms, or run barefoot through knee-high grass, or climbed into the arms of a waiting tree, ever feel they belong to this great gorgeous and gritty earth? How else can a child come to know simple happiness?

Happiness, young Jim Burden contemplates in Willa Cather’s novel My Ántonia, comes from being “dissolved into something complete and great.” He was laying under the sun “like a pumpkin” when he was thinking this profound thought, and he had no desire (just then) to be anything more than a pumpkin.

Orphaned at the age of ten, Jim crossed the plains of Nebraska by wagon, arriving at his grandfather’s farm before daybreak. But when the sun rose and he looked about him, he felt that the grass was the country, as the water was the sea. “There was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running.”

At a writing conference in Montana once, New York editor Dan Slater (now an executive at Amazon Kindle) stayed perched outside on a corral fence long after the rest of us retreated inside. “I’ve never seen such a big sky,” he told me later, “or so many stars."

When young Jim first met Ántonia, he described her eyes as being warm and full of light, not like stars, but like the sun shining on “brown pools in the wood.” She was wild looking, and he loved her for it. His love for her grew each day as they raced toward creeks, or stood panting at the crumbling edges of ravines.

Memories of their childhood days together stayed with him over the many decades that they were separated. When he saw her once again, she was a farmwife with a gaggle of children, some nearly grown, some shy, all eager to gather the cows off the fields and bring them to the barn to be milked.

By then, Jim was an attorney, living in the city but he felt “Everything was as it should be: the strong smell of sunflowers and ironweed in the dew, the clear blue and gold of the sky, the evening star, the purr of the milk into the pails, the grunts and squeals of the pigs fighting over their supper.”

A few weeks ago, I was also reunited with a childhood friend—not in the pages of a novel, but on the mountain where we used to play together as toddlers. Mary and I would lose ourselves on the wildlife trails between our houses, eating wild onions and plucking bluebell bouquets for our mothers.

We had not seen each other in nearly fifty years, and we could not stop smiling. Her eyes had not changed – they remained mischievous and daring. Even as toddlers, we had been the wild ones, the ones who wandered too far from the safety of home, then fell asleep, cheeks to the soil.

When Antonia stood before Jim, she was not the lovely young girl he remembered, “but she still had that something which fires the imagination, that could still stop one’s breath for a moment. All the strong things of her heart came out in her body…”

I felt that way about Mary when we hugged each other, could feel all the strong things in her heart, even after all these years.

After Jim left Ántonia, he stood by himself on the faded and overgrown road that had connected his grandfather’s farm to her parents’ homestead. He sensed that he was coming home to himself.

“For Antonia and for me, this had been the road of Destiny. Now I understood that the same road was to bring us together again. Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past.”

A novel such as Willa Cather’s My Ántonia reaches out to us through the sensibilities of the past, as if knowing that our modern souls yearn for a simpler time, and simpler happiness. The streets of our paved cities, though teeming with cars, will never be in motion like the prairie grasses stirred by a free-flowing wind. Our snow will never be quite as white, quite as pure.

But touch it, we must. Bend our eyes to the big sky with its bright stars, we must. Dissolve into something complete and greater than ourselves, we must. This will be my New Year's resolution - to look for simple joys, and to remember in all ways that I am only completed when I belong to something greater.

NOTES: My Antonia, published in 1918 and set during the 1880s–1910s, is cataloged as Frontier fiction. To learn more about the author, watch Yours, Willa Cather.

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.