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Robin Wall Kimmerer's books are well-regarded. Gathering Moss won the John Burroughs Nature Writing Award, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants the Sigurd F. Olson Nature Writing Award. In 2020, after that second book made national bestseller lists, she shared online interviews with such prominent nature writers as Terry Tempest Williams, Robert Macfarlane, and Helen Macdonald (Macdonald's Vesper Flights was my most recent bedtime read). A back cover quote on Braiding Sweetgrass from Jane Goodall asserted, "Robin Wall Kimmerer shows how the factual, objective approach of science can be enriched by the ancient knowledge of the indigenous people." Other books I'd been reading had been shifting my sense of the way the world—maybe the universe—works. It seemed timely to examine Kimmerer.


The literary scholar Jane Tompkins has noted that Kimmerer's "native heritage, and the teachings she has received" from it, gave her a perspective that "transforms her experience, and her perception, of the natural world," one removed from what most non-Indigenous readers would expect. As both a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and a Distinguished Professor of Environmental Biology, "two radically different thought worlds," Kimmerer "draws not only on the inherited wisdom of Native Americans, but also on the knowledge Western science has accumulated about plants." The blend that emerges is powerful and persuasive and allows the reader to simultaneously enter both perspectives.


Sweetgrass when braided has sacred uses among Indigenous peoples in prayer and purifying ceremonies. Sections of Kimmerer's book are organized around planting, tending, picking, braiding, and burning sweetgrass, and her preface suggests that she is braiding stories in the three strands of her subtitle, merging Native American, European, and botanical perspectives. Her approach doesn't simply harmonize cultural perspectives, though she does that well, but also raises the reader's consciousness of interaction with the natural world. From an indigenous perspective the interaction between people and plants and animals is never one-sided; it's a system of mutual benefits, of give and take, of giving back to the natural things that sustain us, helping them thrive even as they help us thrive.  


In a chapter about basket making, Kimmerer is told by the man who helped her shear strips from a black ash, "Just think of the tree and all its hard work before you start." Gathered with others for craft classes, she quotes her teacher often. John Pigeon's approach to the craft of basket making insists on starting with the generation of the materials in a forest tree that "gave its life for this basket, so you know your responsibility." Kimmerer tells us, "Responsibility to the tree makes everyone pause before beginning." She claims to have that same sense when facing a blank sheet of paper: "For me, writing is an act of reciprocity with the world; it is what I can give back in return for everything that has been given to me. And now there's another layer of responsibility, writing on a thin sheet of tree and hoping the words are worth it. Such a thought could make a person set down her pen."


Anchoring her reflections on the natural world in an Indigenous perspective, Kimmerer thinks of our relationship with everything other than ourselves in terms of reciprocity. She emphasizes existence, being alive and being grateful for natural forces that contribute to her being alive—plants and animals and elements. Her gratitude extends toward everything she encounters, witnesses, experiences—berries, rain, maple sugar, waterlilies, corn, air itself—every aspect of existence. In contrast to seeing everything in European cultural terms—emphasizing technology, production, exploitation, profit—she establishes the idea of a simpler, more direct, more rewarding way to perceive everything.


Arguing against an "economy that grants personhood to corporations but denies it to the more-than-human beings," Kimmerer advocates the Indigenous teaching "of 'One Bowl and One Spoon,'" where "the gifts of the earth are all in one bowl, all to be shared by a single spoon" so that "resources fundamental to our well-being, like water and land and forests, are commonly held rather than commodified." She claims this idea echoes "the Indigenous worldview in which the earth exists, not as private property, but as a commons, to be tended with respect and reciprocity for the benefit of all." That worldview contrasts thoroughly with the commercial, competitive perspective of the society most of us are accustomed to.


Kimmerer suggests an alternative to the relationship our dominant culture has had with the planet. Suppressing that alternative has brought us to the cultural and ecological and economic and political place we face now in the 21st century. Braiding Sweetgrass puts those consequences in perspective, revealing options we've been ignoring that we might not have for our future.




Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2013; 2nd Ed., 2020.

Tompkins, Jane. "Book Review: Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer." Andes, NY: The Andes Gazette. April 30, 2020.

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The Edible Wild


As a child, living with or near my grandmother, I enjoyed solid, nutritional, home-cooked meals. In certain seasons, we drove out to farmers' roadside stands for fresh produce and meat. Later, when my mother worked at a supermarket, my siblings and I adjusted to packaged meals she brought home—TV dinners, pot pies, canned soups, and frozen vegetables. Meals were predictable: fish sticks, French fries, and frozen peas or corn (or both), especially on Fridays; Kellogg's or General Mills cereals or toasted Wonder Bread for breakfast; meat, potatoes, and vegetable for dinner most nights. Our diet was now store-bought, local, and predictable.


Remembering those meals when I read about different approaches to culture and cuisine, I realize how isolated is my sense of how people not raised like me lived their lives. We take a certain way of living for granted until we're confronted with an alternative way. Recent memoirs have raised my awareness of alternatives quite a bit.


In Feasting Wild: In Search of the Last Untamed Food, Gina Rae La Cerva compares past and present food preparation. "For 99 percent of our history," she points out, "humans ate hunted and gathered foods. [. . .] As recently as two hundred years ago, nearly half the North American diet still came from the wild [. . .] Today, most people will never eat anything undomesticated or uncultured." It's rare to eat untamed food. She sets off to discover what it's "like to consume the least processed foods, the most unadulterated," food not "overbred, monocultural."


Her observations of what she sees—and tastes—are lively, vivid, and detailed. In Borneo she is given a sautéed caterpillar. "It bursts in my mouth, releasing hot eggy water. The chewy body gets caught in the back of my throat like the caterpillars I ate in Congo." The image slowed my reading. (A few days later a Facebook friend posted a photo of "fresh fried tarantulas" she'd eaten in Phnom Penh: "Crisp, sweet and spicy--once you get up the nerve to pick them up and bite into a couple legs"). I now think of sautéed caterpillar and fried tarantula much too often.


In Congo La Cerva witnesses the trade in wild foods. She watches "men unload crates of smoked game," sees monitor lizards, forest turtles, piles of river fish, a live river crocodile strapped onto a motorcycle, its mouth tied shut. "A man in green flip-flops and a Central Michigan Football Champions T-shirt carries a pair of freshly killed monkeys with rust-red and grey fur. Their long tails have been tied to their necks, making for a sort of handle. The man holds them in one hand and his cell phone in the other as he walks through the market. Monkey arms and legs and hands and feet dangle downward and swing slightly in the air."


As a CMU emeritus professor, I'm startled by the man carrying monkeys, but mostly impressed by how thoroughly the scene comes alive, turning the reader into an observant bystander. Everywhere she visits, she notices how changes in population, politics, and commerce affect the availability of wild foods. In Borneo, she hopes to "study the trade in edible bird's nests, [. . .] one of the most expensive wild food products in the world." The nests of the cave-dwelling white-nest swiftlet consist of 95 percent saliva; black-nest swiftlet nests contain around 50 percent feathers. The swiftlet population was sorely depleted by commercial exploitation until people figured out how to farm the birds and their nests. Wild cave nests are now hard to find.


La Cerva distinguishes between farmed nests, "pure white and uniform, an accurate reflection of their industrial production," and nests from wild caves, "beautifully complex and aesthetically disordered." Wild cave nests "look like stalagmite seashells," multi-colored with "just a few traces of grey downy feathers." Served bird's nest soup by a friend, she finds the nest "soft, but discernible, with a chewy, slippery, almost leathery texture."


While sampling other wild foods—Swedish moose, Polish boar, Maine lobster, garlic from a Copenhagen cemetery—she ponders how commercial enterprise and environmental alteration separates people from ancestral history, their connection to the land that gave them existence. She warns us, "I've often felt wary of trusting the future, especially if the past is any measure of its path. But if we don't believe in the future, we must live in the unreliable present."


We dwell in the present—it demands our attention—but considering the past with the depth and breadth La Cerva provides helps us better understand where we are, makes us more alert to where we're heading,



Note: Gina Rae La Cerva, Feasting Wild: In Search of the Last Untamed Food. Vancouver/Berkeley: Greystone Books, 2021

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Writing about Home

The Lockport Locks


"Writers, particularly novelists, are linked to place," Joyce Carol Oates has written. Home is "where you find yourself in your most haunting dreams. . . dreams most embedded in memory." For her, home is "upstate New York—the rural crossroads of Millersport, on the Tonawanda Creek, and the city of Lockport on the Erie Canal." I've long been aware of her links to my hometown.


Joyce Carol Oates and I were born four years apart in the same Lockport hospital. She attended early grades in a one-room schoolhouse near those rural crossroads and "between the ages of 11 and 15—through sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth grades," was a student first at John E. Pound Elementary School and then at North Park Junior High. John E. Pound was a short walk from my home. When she was in sixth grade, her classroom on the second floor, I was in second, my classroom on the first floor; we may have passed each other in the halls. Our junior highs were different—mine was Emmet Belknap—and she attended high school elsewhere. We never met.


Yet particulars of her Lockport life match mine so well I almost feel her presence in my hometown memories. She writes about the Lockport Public Library, "beside the dull red brick of the YMCA" (I swam there sometimes) and across the street from Lockport High School (replaced by a new building elsewhere when I was in junior high). She thought the library had "the look of a Greek temple . . . with elegantly ascending steps, a portico and four columns," set back past a gated wrought-iron fence and "very green jewel-like lawn." How often I crossed that lawn, climbed those steps, sometimes sat there with friends reading books we'd just checked out. I remember the spacious interior and the stairs to the basement children's section.


"What I most love about Lockport is its timelessness," she claims. She thinks the Erie Canal, "so deep-set in what appears to be solid rock, you can barely see it unless you come close, to lean over the railing of the wide bridge at the foot of Cottage Street," is what "resurfaces in dreams" of people who move away. She remembers the canal locks and boats passing through; recalls standing on the Big Bridge and feeling "a sensation of vertigo as you peer down at, or into, the canal 50 feet below." I crossed the Big Bridge alone on Wednesday afternoons for religious instruction at St. Patrick's, passing my father's Presbyterian church and a Ford gumball factory; with friends I clambered below it in search of pet baby alligators flushed into the canal.


She remembers being "a solitary individual mostly walking—walking and walking—along the streets of downtown, and along residential streets; over the wide windswept bridge above the canal at Cottage Street, and over the narrower bridge, at Pine Street; on paths above the towpath, winding through vacant overgrown lots in the vicinity of Niagara Street; and on the shaky pedestrian bridge that ran unnervingly close beside the railroad tracks crossing the canal." I too walked all those streets alone, crossed that footbridge with friends, and climbed onto the supports of the railroad bridge. One kid who jumped from there into the canal almost drowned. The footbridge shook when trains crossed above it.


Oates remembers "the dreary Lockport bus station, located near Lockport's largest employer, Harrison Radiator" where her "father worked as a tool and die designer for 40 years." My grandfather and his three sons also worked there. Perhaps one of them knew Fred Oates. My mother and I sometimes rode the Greyhound from that station to reach my eye doctor in Buffalo, crossing Tonawanda Creek and turning at Millersport. Watching movies before catching her bus home after school, Oates thought the Palace Theatre "a place of romance" because of "its baroque splendors—gilt-framed mirrors in the lobby, crimson and gold plush, chandeliers, Oriental carpets." She preferred it to "the less reputable Rialto," a grittier theater where I often enjoyed popcorn, two boxes of candy, a cartoon, a double feature, and a Saturday serials chapter. The Palace seemed too posh for me.


Oates' return to Lockport in 2009 to speak at the Palace Theatre likely occasioned those memories of her school years. Our youths in Western New York have a lot less in common if we step back from the article's focus and deeper into memoir. But often another's writing will not simply take me away into the landscape of her experience but simultaneously return me to the landscape of my own memory. As she says, "Writers . . . are linked to place" and sometimes, when readers are linked to the same place, it heightens the connection between them.



Note: More of Oates in Western New York


Oates, Joyce Carol. "American Gothic," The New Yorker, May 8, 1995: 35.

Oates, Joyce Carol. "Joyce Carol Oates Goes Home Again," Smithsonian Magazine, March 2010.

Oates, Joyce Carol. The Lost Landscape: A Writer's Coming of Age. NY: Harper Collins, 2016.

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Hwaet! Some Luck

Beowulf Manuscript


Jane Smiley's Last Hundred Years Trilogy follows one Iowa family for generations. I was reading Some Luck, the first novel, aloud at dinnertime when, in a chapter about Henry Langdon's life at the University of Iowa, I started this sentence: "The real benefit of the class, though, was that he met Professor McGalliard, and now, in the second semester, he was having a private tutorial in Old English, or Anglo-Saxon, or whatever you wanted to call it." The next sentence mentioned Beowulf. I stopped reading and exclaimed, "What?! What!?" Sue turned questioningly and I declared, "I studied Beowulf with Professor McGalliard at Iowa twenty years after Henry did." Except, of course, Henry was fictional and Professor McGalliard and the Beowulf class and I were real.


Jane Smiley, younger than I, earned her MA and MFA at Iowa when I was completing PhD and post-doctoral studies. We wandered the same hallways, studied with some of the same professors, but never met. The real-life professor in her novel, John McGalliard, was taught me to read Beowulf in Old English.


In Some Luck Henry meets McGalliard in a literature survey course running from Chaucer to Oscar Wilde, and later studies Old English texts with him, including The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, "The Seafarer," and Beowulf. Smiley tells us, "After Christmas, he had brought that stolen copy of Beowulf back to Iowa City with him, and he kept it under his mattress." I studied those same titles at Iowa, several of them with McGalliard, and I suspect Jane Smiley did as well.


Professor McGalliard made a lasting impression on me. The mere mention of his name triggers lines from Beowulf: the very opening of the epic poem, "Hwaet! We Gardena in geardagum" ("Lo! We Speardanes in days of yore"); the statement "Beowulf mathelode bearn Ecgtheowes" ("Beowulf made a speech, the son of Edgethow"). I can still recite them with something close to the correct pronunciation, though I alter the orthography—the original text has different accents and letter combinations. McGalliard made his students read passages in Beowulf aloud, to get a sense not only of pronunciation but also of rhythm and meter. Those two alliterative lines (out of over 3000) have stayed with me for decades.


Late in our semester, McGalliard gathered his students in the Iowa Memorial Union to hear a discussion of ancient languages between our professor and a professor from Coe College, in nearby Cedar Rapids (whose wife was in our class). At one point the Coe professor read a long passage of Homer's Iliad in ancient Greek and then McGalliard read a long passage from Beowulf in Old English (or Anglo-Saxon or whatever you want to call it). We all recognized similarities in the nature of oral transmission and composition in ancient languages that we would have imagined had nothing in common. The occasion fostered an appreciation of the epic poem that our silent reading had not made apparent.


Around the time I took McGalliard's course, John Gardner published his novel Grendel, taking the perspective of the creature Beowulf kills in the epic. Gardner, it turned out, had been a student of McGalliard's. Ten years older than me, he was born in Batavia, New York, one county east of where I grew up, and earned both MA and PhD at the University of Iowa. Grendel, his third novel, was published in 1971. Someone in our class raised the topic of Gardner's book, and McGalliard spent a good part of that session inveighing against Gardner's interpretation. The discussion later made me read Grendel and, because it was about Batavia, I also read his novel The Sunlight Dialogues. I no longer recall what I thought of Gardner's fiction, but I confess that, since taking McGalliard's class, I've read at least four subsequent translations of Beowulf.


McGalliard was given passing reference in Smiley's Golden Age, the final volume of the trilogy. He retired about the time I finished my studies, a couple years before Jane Smiley ended hers. Gardner's Grendel was published almost two decades after he took McGalliard's class, Smiley's Some Luck roughly four decades later. Now I write this, almost five decades after Beowulf, Grendel, McGalliard and I met, just one passage in Smiley's novel merging my memories of graduate school with memories of her trilogy, John Gardner's novels, Batavia, western New York and eastern Iowa. All those things squirreled away somewhere in memory, somehow able to occasionally meet and mingle.


Notes: Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. Translated by Seamus Heaney. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999; Gardner, John. Grendel. Ballantine Books, 1971; Smiley, Jane. 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel. Toronto: Random House of Canada, 2005; Smiley, Jane. Some Luck. New York: Knopf, 2014.

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Like Memory


I've mentioned before how scenes that surface in my reading, whatever my reading, sometimes trigger unexpected moments in memory, often rising from some deep catacomb in my mind. In the past, when I was more professorial—some blog entries may suggest academic tendencies—I would have tracked down literary or psychological references about it and quote other people's examples. But lately I'm less inclined to pontificate publicly about such theories and more internally prompted to learn how such moments happen to me.


Take, for example, how moments in Michele Morano's essay "All the Power This Charm Doth Owe" ignited moments in my own memory. I admired her earlier book, Grammar Lessons: Translating a Life in Spain, and I was moved and thoroughly engaged with Like Love, her most recent work. Throughout intimate, artful, and absorbing essays, she explores the complications and ambiguities of relationships. Readers living through them with her risk reviving complications and ambiguities in their own pasts. That could be a good thing—I recommend it; certainly, it set me to reviewing memories of my own that I haven't consulted for a very long time.


That particular essay startled me with references to Iowa City. Morano and I both graduated from the University of Iowa, many years apart. The experimental nonfiction courses I studied in eventually became her MFA program. As graduate assistants we both taught courses for undergraduates. She mentions teaching an "Introduction to Literature class that included Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream"; I taught Interpretation of Literature, as well as courses other GAs avoided: Drama (including a Shakespeare play), Medieval & Renaissance Literature, and Ancient & Biblical Literature (the course that eventually got me a college teaching job and a career).


In her essay, Morano refers to familiar locations. She recalls having "looked out on the English-Philosophy building where I taught and took classes, and on the massive library where I'd spent so many hours . . ." Reading that sentence I immediately visualize those buildings and navigating sidewalks between them, their entrances, staircases, hallways. I stop reading to tour memories of the EPB: the office I shared with another GA, classrooms I learned or taught in, offices where I met teachers and advisors. I remember searching shelves in the library, checking out or returning books, sitting at tables near windows with a view of the Iowa River, eventually earning a study carrel.


"The heart of Iowa City is a leafy, T-shaped pedestrian mall," she tells us, and recalls sitting on a bench there with a companion, "ice cream in hand, the music from a live salsa band down the block rocking our feet and shoulders. Small children marched past, followed by their parents, and the occasional grad student waved hello." What comes back to me is climbing up to the Old Capitol Building from the riverside, crossing to the university bookstore, circling the block to Prairie Lights Bookstore where so many literary readings were held, walking to a bar where some graduate poets and grad students worked, sitting alone at a movie theater matinee. Much more of the city winks from memory's shadows. I lived there six and a half years, through four years of teaching and a post-doctoral year. Being a grad student and hanging out on campus were things I was good at.


Michele Morano ponders aspects of love in her Iowa City life; I lived a different life from hers in my time there. My wife and I lived in a sprawling graduate student apartment complex where, in time, my son and my daughter were born, where my interactions with student families were social and energetic, especially when we gathered for volleyball, and possibly where that first marriage began to unravel. Morano's essay didn't remind me of any of that, some of which I've written about elsewhere, but it's only now, writing this, that I start thinking again about those aspects of my Iowa City life.


It's not that I'd forgotten them by any means but reading Morano's essay didn't immediately call them to mind. The reading turned on a light in a darkened room and reminded me of having been in it. I remembered the room and some more superficial aspects of it. To really remember living in it myself I would need to step fully out of that author's life and let the light further illuminate other spaces to reveal more of my life there to me. The illuminating happens the more I write about being there, the way writing tends to do. For now, I'll settle for recalling the spaces in Iowa City that, decades apart, Michele Morano and I both wandered through.



Notes: Morano, Michele. "All the Power This Charm Doth Owe," Like Love. Columbus, OH: Mad Creek Books, 2020: 153-191. Michele's website:

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Waiting for the Apocalypse


We are living in a time of fundamental change, making it necessary to reassess who we are, what we value, why we make certain choices. What we are confronted with is disturbing, even alarming, its scale and scope extending to universal dimensions.


Days before I wrote this, the Perseverance Rover landed on Mars, sending images and sounds from a distant planet that alter our sense of our place in our solar system. Here on Earth a global pandemic had caused over two and a half million deaths worldwide, a fifth of them in our country. Politically, the democracy that once distinguished us had been at severe risk, and its restoration is still under challenge. Much of this century's entertainment focuses on the chaotic and the apocalyptic, abundant depictions of our civilizations, our cultures, our very existence facing willful degradation and potential extinction. The helplessness of the people of Texas confronted with freezing weather, inoperable power, and inaccessible water sources provides a concentrated image of where we are on a larger scale. The cumulative effect of all this has been to awaken awareness of our irrelevance to the universe.


But recognizing our irrelevance to the universe shouldn't encourage indifference to the lives we're actually living or the places we experience them. Many of us can't help sharing their thoughts about what they've realized. Any number of encouraging posts by people on Facebook emphasize how to recognize who we are and where we are and how to adjust positively to that knowledge. My friend Lisa Hadden recently posted a passage from Lyrical Zen titled "Ancestral Mathematics." It listed the number of ancestors, from 2 parents, 4 grandparents, and 8 great-grandparents on up to 2,048 ninth great-grandparents and, by the 12th generation, a total of 4,094 ancestors over the last 400 years necessary for any of us to exist. To be alive today means that your lineage never terminated from the earliest homo sapiens in your genealogy until now.


I'm a grandfather; I'm aware that my lineage has extended beyond me. Once there was me, then I became one of two ancestors, and now I'm one of four ancestors my descendants can trace. Making it into the group of eight great-grandparents is remotely possible, but probably no further. By then, each younger generation of my lineage will have generated even younger generations, offspring I may never have knowledge of. That's the way life works. The great-grandparents I met as a toddler left only the slightest, foggiest impression on me; likely I made little on them. By the time I came along, I was only the newest of their great-grandchildren, and they saw me seldom before they left existence. In the course of daily living, we seldom consider how transitory existence is for everyone, even when we acknowledge those in generations before ours who are no longer with us or those friends and prominent strangers we were once familiar with who have now "departed"—have "passed," as funeral directors politely term it. My grandparents gone, my parents gone, recently my sister and my brother gone, one of my closest friends gone. Over the past 400 years more than four thousand ancestors gone.


That "Ancestral Mathematics" post, after enumerating generations past, asks readers, "Think for a moment – How many struggles? How many battles? How many difficulties? How much sadness? How much happiness? How many love stories? How many expressions of hope for the future? – did your ancestors have to undergo for you to exist in this present moment?" The questions are not ones we can readily answer, although family records sometimes may hint at some of them, but we recognize the issues being raised. How much happiness? How much sadness? What and whom did they love and who loved them? What did they hope for and what hopes were realized? We can't always say but we certainly believe that these were what they experienced. How different could they have been from us?


The questions we might ask of our ancestors are ones it would be fair for our descendants to ask of us. They are questions we might ask of ourselves. What consolations did we find as we waited for the apocalypse? What happiness did we find in the world we lived in? What did we do to make a better world for those for whom we would be ancestors? What hopes did we try to fulfill and how well did we realize them? What struggles, battles, difficulties will we have left our descendants to face? When the time comes that none of our descendants will ever have been in the world when we were, what will we hope they might still carry on from us? How much more at peace with themselves do we hope they'll be?



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Book and Movie


I just completed a rare combination, at least for me, of reading and viewing. I read Where Bigfoot Walks: Crossing the Dark Divide by Robert Michael Pyle, an updated 2017 edition of his original 1995 book. Then I viewed The Dark Divide, a film based on Pyle's book starring David Cross as Pyle and Debra Messing as Pyle's wife Thea. A short promotional video included scenes from the trailer, interviews with Pyle, Cross, and director Thomas Putnam and occasional mention of Bigfoot. The book is a series of chapters about Pyle's travels in Bigfoot terrain, his research, and his conversations with people who wrote, both pro and con, about Bigfoot's existence. Pyle isn't totally convinced but, especially in additional material for the new edition, tends to lean that way. A respected lepidopterist, he also writes authoritatively about butterflies, moths, wildlife, and terrain. His scientific observations often deflect his attention from narrative. The book is less a nature memoir than a blend of informative reflection interspersed with trail observations.


Pyle as a writer was not unknown to me. Years ago, living near Denver, I discovered The Thunder Tree: Lessons from an Urban Wildland, his 1993 nature memoir about the High Line Canal in Colorado, near where he grew up. Because I'd grown up near the Erie Canal in western New York, I was curious about parallels we perhaps shared in our youth and also eager to learn about unfamiliar western terrain. Recently, a joint online presentation of Pyle with Scott Russell Sanders led me first to his Nature Matrix: New and Selected Essays and then, somehow, to both the Bigfoot book and the movie.


Curiosity about the film made me read the book first. It's not often that a nature book gets dramatized into a story film. The Dark Divide is not a documentary; it doesn't play like an episode of Nova or Nature or other PBS programs. A trailer I'd seen convinced me it was filmed in the Pacific Northwest and offered a thorough sense of the terrain Pyle traveled through to research his book. The movie's title was taken from the subtitle of the book; viewers shouldn't expect close encounters of the Sasquatch kind. Spoiler alert: A single muddy footprint is the only sign of Bigfoot in the film. Pyle is sometimes alarmed by vague sounds, but no hairy giants emerge from the forest.


Though ostensibly set in 1995, the film was created decades later. In that 27-year-long-gap between them, the personal changes in the lives of the main characters altered the interpretation of Pyle's experiences in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. In the book Thea Pyle has a minor but useful role as a backup figure in her husband's travel plans, but she died in 2013, twenty years after it was published; in the film, she is introduced as suffering from cancer and Pyle is presented as hesitant to leave her to head into the wilderness to hunt for lepidoptera. Only after her death does he set out, haunted by her earlier urging. The film presents Pyle as someone psychologically unprepared for wilderness wandering; Cross plays him as often confused or clumsy or uncertain, while the Pyle who narrates the book is assured and reliable and confident as both scientist and outdoorsman.


The film is dedicated to Thea and the credits mention drawing material from Pyle's other books. These alterations in the life facts surrounding the book affect our understanding of the film as an adaption of it. The film is largely the story of one man's expedition into unfamiliar terrain in the wake of tremendous loss, responding belatedly to the encouragement his dying wife gave him while they were still together. His experiences are alternately comical, arduous, harrowing, and healing. He comes through them as a man altered in his sense of himself. The Dark Divide is an actual portion of the landscape in the Cascade Mountains of Washington State, but metaphorically it suggests the descent into grief and ascent into recovery. The visual elements of the film reinforce that distinction sequentially—at one point, Pyle clambers through a long underground passage, finds pictographs on cave walls, and weeps in the darkness before emerging. He is a stronger individual by the end of his trek.


I'm quite fond of both Where Bigfoot Walks and The Dark Divide, but I'm not inclined to recommend reading and viewing them sequentially or even close together. They don't reinforce one another as perhaps a production of a Shakespearean play might validate a previous reading of it. Instead, together they make us aware of the demands each genre makes on the way it presents its material. That's not a criticism; it's an explanation.


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Writing In Place

Rocky Mountain National Park


An invitation to visit Diane Freedman's advanced undergraduate course titled "Cabin in the Woods," online at the University of New Hampshire, sent me searching for my writings about place. I'm to share some writing and some personal reflections centered on "the reality/idea of a cabin" and discuss what influence it might have had on my writing and thinking. Students will read Walden and investigate other works that offer variations on Thoreau's example or openly acknowledge his influence. The course description mentions such writers as Annie Dillard, May Sarton, Bernd Heinrich, Henry Beston, John Haines, Sue Hubbell, Anne LaBastille, Tom Montgomery Fate, and E. B. White, most of whom mention Thoreau's presence in their writing. I've made pilgrimages (of a sort) to some of the places explored in their books—the sea has swept away the site of Beston's The Outermost House, Thoreau's demolished cabin exists only in reproduction, and White's shack on the Maine coast can barely be seen from a distance—and walking the land where they and such Thoreauvian writers as John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and August Derleth have walked has invigorated and inspired me. I've even been inside Leopold's shack.


Once, on sabbatical, I spent a week at Great Pond in Maine where E. B. White so often vacationed throughout his life, the inspiration for his great essay "Once More to the Lake." The following week, carrying a copy of White's essay about Walden, I stayed in Concord, strolling around Walden Pond, walking through the cemetery where Thoreau and Emerson are buried, steeping myself in the atmosphere of place. The essay my pilgrimage inspired, "The Everlastingly Great Look of the Sky," retraces White's visit and records my own, both deeply aware of Thoreau's sojourn there. I reread it recently, realizing how much more writing in place I did in the wake of that research trip.


I'd already written about my time in a cabin in the woods a decade earlier. In the summer of 1993, I lived for two weeks on Scoville Point, the end of a narrow peninsula on the northeast side of Isle Royale National Park, where I hoped to get to know the island in the way the diarist Ruth Douglass experienced it in 1848-1849. It was my first time as an artist-in-residence at a national park. I hiked and canoed on my own for one week and then my wife and I hiked and canoed together the second week. I remember how silent we were driving away from Lake Superior at the end of the residency, not eager to return to the frantic world where we usually lived.


That first park residency prompted me to apply for others. During one summer in Colorado, in the midst of researching and writing about Isabella Bird's time there in 1873, I lived for two weeks in a very comfortable cabin in Rocky Mountain National Park, once owned in the early 20th century by the Kansas newspaper editor William Allen White. It gave me ready access to forest trails and mountain tops, with coyotes and mule deer and elks and cottontails and golden-mantled squirrels, magpies and hummingbirds and green-tailed towhees for occasional neighbors. In time I would climb 14,259-foot-high Longs Peak. It was exhilarating to think of myself as an inhabitant of that park, to wake each morning and see the mountains waiting for me across the flatlands below the cabin.


Two years later, no doubt inspired by reading both White and Thoreau, my final residency took me to Acadia National Park, on the coast of Maine, encompassing Mount Desert Island, Schoodic Point on the mainland, and Isle au Haut, the furthest island offshore. Over days of wandering coastal shorelines, climbing up rocky bluffs, summiting open-topped mountains, sometimes sitting on a cobblestone beach until rising tides reminded me to find higher ground, my immersion was continually rewarding. The park rangers let me stay for one night in a cabin on Isle au Haut and I envied them their opportunities to occupy it longer.


In my short virtual visit to that course, I may be asked to answer that question about what a cabin in the woods might represent for my writing life and mind. I'll need to revisit my earlier writing, find those envelopes filled with AiR photos, skim the daybooks and journals I kept, try to relive my nights in those cabins and my days wandering beyond them. I may also have to read Walden once more. Even though I've already dog-earred very many of his pages, I'm certain Thoreau will remind me again how much I still need to write about place.



Notes: "The Pattern of Life Indelible," "The Everlastingly Great Look of the Sky," "Terra Cognita," and "Time and Tide" are in Postscripts: Retrospections on Time and Place. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2012: 27-44, 45-67, 149-177. They can also be found online:


"The Everlastingly Great Look of the Sky: Thoreau and E. B. White at Walden Pond," The Concord Saunterer New Series. 12/13 (2004/2005): 370-387.


"The Pattern of Life Indelible," Ecotone: Reimagining Place 1:2 (Winter/Spring 2006): 152-167.


"Terra Cognita" and "Time and Tide." Acadia National Park Artist-in-Residence Online Catalog.


"Time and Tide," Ascent, 2010,



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Everybody Wants to be Thoreau


(Broadcast on WCMU-FM Morning Edition Fall 1984)


Everybody wants to be Thoreau. That is, the best of our modern essayists and nature writers have imbibed the spirit of the author of Walden along with their taste for outdoor air, and he continually haunts their perceptions of the world and their judgments about their own and others' work.


Pre-eminent among them is E. B. White, who, describing his retreat from hectic New York City life to an idyllic Maine saltwater farm, wrote his own Walden in One Man's Meat. Throughout his career White continually felt Thoreau's presence at his shoulder, declaring, "I should hate to be called a Thoreauvian, yet I wince every time I walk into the barn I'm pushing before me, seventy-five feet by forty, and the author of Walden has served as the conscience of my trivial days." Time and again White used Thoreau as the measure of conscience and of observation, writing that, "I'd like to stroll about the countryside in Thoreau's company for a day, observing the modern scene . . . and offering belated apologies for my sins." He wryly observed that "Thoreau is unique among writers in that those who admire him find him uncomfortable to live with—a regular hairshirt of a man."


Other writers find him equally omnipresent. In The Survival of the Bark Canoe John McPhee discovers that everyone canoeing the Allagash River with him has virtually memorized Thoreau's The Maine Woods, discussing around the campfire Henry's accuracy and the Allagash's changes. Thoreau is the ghostly passenger in each canoe, somehow an essential element of the forest and the river.


But he doesn't only haunt the locales of his life—Concord and Cape Cod and Maine; his spirit travels wherever literate people wander the wilderness. Edward Abbey, whose Desert Solitaire is a Walden of the American southwest, writes of reading Thoreau while rafting the Colorado. Trying to discover support for his own perceptions, Abbey most often turns to Thoreau. In Beyond the Wall he writes that "sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul," and then adds, "Or as an old friend of mine once said, 'If I regret anything it is my good behavior. What demon possessed me that I behaved so well?'"


Such writers not only see themselves in Henry's terms but judge each other by measuring their integrity and insight against Thoreau's. Larry McMurty calls Edward Abbey "the Thoreau of the American West," and Edward Hoagland writes of Abbey that "like Thoreau, he is at times ornery and subversive in thrust, undeterred by the tastemakers of his own day, a man still 'with the bark on.'" The Washington Post identifies Hoagland as "the Thoreau of our time," and the American Academy of Arts and Letters claims that Hoagland's voice sounds "like Thoreau's, the sharp note of man's independence." Scott Elledge says of E. B. White that, "early on, he knew, like Thoreau, that contemplation was a form of creativity."


All this sense of Thoreau's ghostly presence in modern creative life, all this measuring of modern accomplishments against Thoreau's model, should make us suspect that something in his life and work still speaks with vitality and force to fundamental, universal issues. E. B. White called Walden "a document of increasing pertinence" and Edward Abbey wrote, "Thoreau becomes more significant with each passing decade. The deeper and faster our United States hurl themselves into industrialism, urbanism, militarism and authoritarianism—with the rest of the world doing its best to emulate America—the more poignant, strong and appealing becomes Thoreau's demand for the right of every man, every woman, every child, every dog, every tree, every snail darter, every lousewort, every living thing, to live its life in its own way at its own pace in its own square mile."


As we turn with delight and pleasure to the writing of our modern day Thoreaus, we might do well to occasionally return to the source, just as they do.


Note: Thoreau's influence continues


Fate, Tom Montgomery. Cabin Fever: A Suburban Father's Search for the Wild (2012)

Gessner, David. Quiet Desperation, Savage Delight: Sheltering with Thoreau in the Age of Crisis (2021)

Gessner, David. A Wild, Rank Place: One Year on Cape Cod (1997)

LaBastille, Annie. Woodswoman: Living Alone in the Adirondack Wilderness (1976)

Mitchell, John Hanson. Living at the End of Time: Two Years in a Tiny House (1990)

Mitchell, John Hanson. Walking Toward Walden: A Pilgrimage in Search of Place (1995)

Sanders, Scott Russell. "The Infinite Extent of Our Relations" in The Way of Imagination: Essays (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2020: 71-86). Originally published as "Hooks Baited with Darkness" in Daedalus, 143:1 (Winter 2014): 115-122.


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Reading Thoreau


I'm curious about the effects writing can have on readers, certain that what we react to in literature arises from our own personalities, the experiences we've had, our memories of people we've known and events we've lived through. Talking to people about books you and they have read or films or plays you and they have seen you often sense that they read something other than what you read or witnessed a different performance even though they sat right next to you when you witnessed it. I remember, years ago, seeing An Unmarried Woman with faculty friends and hearing reactions that varied widely among the happily married couple, the divorcees in a second marriage, the troubled married couple, and the never-married bachelor.


Over the years I've gravitated toward writers who eventually revealed their admiration for the same earlier writers. One such writer is Scott Russell Sanders, who examines his relationship with Henry David Thoreau in "The Infinite Extent of Our Relations," an essay collected in The Way of Imagination. It's a significant study of the effect an individual book may have on a younger writer's development of over the course of his career.


Sanders tells us that he first read Walden at seventeen, "at the urging of a high school teacher who sensed that my adolescent mind, brimming with questions, would benefit from grappling with a truly radical thinker." He admits, "Much of the book baffled me." Because Sanders' country upbringing was among "thrifty, resourceful people," he appreciated "Thoreau's effort to provide some of the necessities of life with his own hands"—the physical labor constructing his cabin, chopping firewood, fetching pond water, and hoeing beans—but he didn't understand Thoreau's taking "pains to distinguish between the necessities of life and the luxuries, between enough and too much." He was excited by "Thoreau's desire to lead a meaningful life" and thrilled by his effort to explain what he lived for. His high school teacher was certainly right about Sanders' "adolescent mind, brimming with questions." He too imagined life having "a purpose beyond mere survival and the passing on of genes, beyond piling up possessions, beyond auditioning for paradise"—(what a great phrase)—but he didn't know what its purpose might be.


He quotes Thoreau's best-known passage: "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary." That first reading of Walden encouraged Sanders to emulate "Thoreau's determination to observe and enjoy the marvels of Earth, to be fully awake and alive, right here, right now."


In the interval since that first reading, "fifty years and many rereadings later," Sanders acknowledges that Walden has become both "less bewildering, since I have made my share of difficult choices and suffered my share of losses, and also more challenging, since I have come to recognize more clearly my own limitations as well as those of the book." He recognizes that both he and Thoreau moved beyond Walden in their lives and their writing but acknowledges that the first reading was a formative experience for him and that "the example of Thoreau's life and the challenge of his thought remain potent influences for me, as they have been potent influences for generations of readers." Considering the age in which we live, the kinds of lifestyles that multitudes of us have acquiesced to almost automatically, he asserts that "we need more than ever to ask the questions posed in Walden": What is life for? What are the necessities of a good life? What is our place in nature? How should we spend our days? These are vital questions.


The broader assertion Sanders makes in the essay is this: "Great books read us as surely as we read them, revealing by the aspects of our character and personal history they illuminate, who we are." He confesses telling his students that, even if Walden doesn't speak to their condition, other books will—they will, in essence, read them, reveal who they are. Who we are is not always something we know well and he hopes that, whatever the book may be, it will be "giving voice to what you have felt but have not been able to say, asking your deeper questions, stirring you to more intense life." It's what reading Thoreau did for him and what it's done for a good many other readers, myself among them.



Note: "The Infinite Extent of Our Relations" in The Way of Imagination: Essays (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2020: 71-86), was originally published as "Hooks Baited with Darkness" in Daedalus, 143:1 (Winter 2014): 115-122. Downloadable at


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