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Letting Go

 

My wife and I have decluttered a lot over the years, most expansively during moves from one state to another—after 21 years in our Michigan house to Colorado, after four years in our Colorado apartment to Wisconsin —and we've done it often during our condo years here. It's been relatively painless, donating unused items to various libraries or charities, deciding which recently accumulated items should replace which items acquired long ago, letting the household slowly clutter again. But once you've pared down easily dispensable belongings, you face items that hold special significance, stuff harder to simply discard, such as, for writers, their writing. Lately I've noticed other writers wrestling with this dilemma.

 

In "How to Practice," Ann Patchett describes disposing what accumulated in her house, emptying "closets and drawers [. . .] filled with things we never touched and [. . .] had completely forgotten we owned." She provides a vivid picture of the superfluous contents of their home (like the "thirty-five dish towels crammed" in a kitchen drawer). Her details, likely familiar to most homeowners, certainly resonated with me. Eventually she encounters things more difficult to discard.

 

Because they had "sensed a vacuum in my house and rushed in to fill it," Patchett's mother "gave me a large box of letters and stories I'd written in school. She'd been quietly saving them" and her sister "dropped off a strikingly similar stack of my early work." Patchett "didn't want to see those stories again" but she keeps what they gave her. She also keeps a Hermes 3000 manual typewriter she hasn't used since she was twenty-three, partly because: "The stories my mother and my sister had returned to me: they were all typed on the Hermes. My mother and my stepfather, my darling Lucy, college, graduate school, all those stories—they made up the history of that typewriter." For her, the typewriter "represented both the person I had wanted to be and the person I am." Not letting go of something isn't a question of continued relevance or utility—it's something more intimate and essential to our definition of ourselves.

 

Online, Rebecca McClanahan similarly details efforts "to slough off another layer of the past," and seems more determined than Patchett to let physical relics of her writing go. Each spring she discards notebooks "containing, among other things, descriptions, responses to readings, quotes, unsent letters, drafts of poems and stories and essays, maps, sketches, song lyrics, lists of joys and fears, scraps of dreams and nightmares, and occasional waves of the emotional tsunamis of life." Having already discarded forty notebooks, she's now letting go of twenty more. Responding to a reader's comments, she mentions that, though she once possessed "thousands of ancestral letters and documents" useful in creating what she hopes is "an artful book"—probably The Tribal Knot, her family memoir—she "was ready to let them pass into other hands," just as she is willing to let her journals go. Perhaps those other hands will preserve them a little longer.

 

I remembered McClanahan's remarks while reading John McPhee's recent article "Tabula Rasa, Vol. 2", commenting about pieces he didn't write. "Tabula Rasa, Volume One," his previous clearing of old files, partly triggered my writing this blog. I've recently noted a trend among some writers of a certain age. Joan Didion's Let Me Tell You What I Mean, Vivian Gornick's Taking a Long Look and Unfinished Business, Gretel Ehrlich's Unsolaced, Patricia Hampl's The Art of a Wasted Day, and McPhee's own Draft #4 and The Patch all share a valedictory air by gathering previously uncollected or unpublished material. I appreciate the urge to somehow send things out into the world rather than keep them stored in a file cabinet, computer, or digital cloud.

 

Having just watched Hemingway on PBS, I'm aware that some writers have much of their drafting and composing preserved. My book on E. B. White depended on the archives he donated to Cornell University. But not all writers are asked or are willing to do that. Responding to comments on her Facebook post, McClanahan mentions tearing out pages to give to people who might value them, a compromise with preserving them herself. She argues that "just because we needed to write something doesn't mean we have to save it. If it is/was essential and necessary to write, it now lives inside us." That's an optimistic way to look at it, something I'll think about as I leaf through all the writing I've held on to, before, one way or another, finally, inevitably, letting it go.

 

 

Notes: McClanahan, Rebecca. Facebook Post, April 16, 2021

McPhee, John. "Tabula Rasa: Volume Two," The New Yorker, April 19, 2021

Patchett, Ann. "How to Practice," The New Yorker, March 1, 2021 (March 8, 2021 Issue)

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Reg Saner

 

A very long time ago I published this brief review of Reg Saner's essay collection Reaching Keet Seet: Ruin's Echo and the Anasazi in the Spring 1999 first issue of Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction:

 

"These essays on the Four Corners area of the Southwest vividly recount Reg Saner's travels among Anasazi ruins and give readers both a sense of place and a sense of connection across time, space, and culture. Investigating such Anasazi sites as Mesa Verde, Hovenweep, and Keet Seel, observing the summer solstice in Chaco Canyon, he reflects on Anasazi relationships to the natural world and to other cultures past and present (ancient Hebrews and modern Hopis). Throughout the book, in lyrical, insightful prose, he examines the compelling sense of spiritual presence that the Anasazi inspire as well as his own attraction to their abandoned ruins. He feels that 'through Anasazi vestiges we perhaps pay our respects to what's missing in us, thus honoring . . . a people able to live out lives undivided from themselves.'"

 

Reg's book had been published the year before; my essay about the Anasazi had been published in North Dakota Quarterly in 1991, although my wanderings with my then-future wife happened ten years earlier. I'd been haunted by Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon but only the 500th anniversary of Columbus' first voyage to the New World and encounters with its indigenous peoples had prompted me to complete the essay for publication.

 

My connection with Reg Saner was a complicated one. At my colleague Susan Schiller's encouragement, I'd emceed an environmental conference in Estes Park, Colorado, where I met Elizabeth Dodd, who knew and admired Reg Saner, who also spoke there. Years earlier, at the Bread Loaf Conference in Vermont, I had met his former student David Gessner, who mentioned him in his own Colorado book. When writers you admire recommend a writer they admire, you have to read that writer.

 

I was more than a little daunted by Reaching Keet Seel—a work about the Anasazi by a more lyrical, learned, observant, and thoughtful writer than I felt I had been. I didn't think my essay had anywhere near the scale and the depth of what he had written.

 

And then, over time, we moved to Colorado, not far from where Reg lived in Boulder. He met me one day at the canyon where David Gessner had lived in graduate school, the locale at the heart of David's book Under the Devil's Thumb. We talked about that canyon and Reg invited me to join him on a day hike into the Front Range, up to Arapahoe Peak. He offered to take my photo against that backdrop and let me take his. His photo of me is still on my website. A week or two later, when my wife had Labor Day weekend off from her new job, I took her to the same place, now unexpectedly snowy, to show her what Reg had shown me.

 

The truth is that, because Reg lived close to wilderness in the near-outskirts of Boulder and had written lively and vibrant essays about walking his mesa, I never walked that part of Boulder—or for that matter, anywhere else in Colorado—without thinking of walking with Reg or about what he had written about his walks in the Southwest. I spent two weeks as an artist-in-residence at Rocky Mountain National Park and reread Reg's essays while I was there, often setting off to explore the landscape as alertly as I imagined him doing.

 

Last week David Gessner reported on Facebook that Reg Saner died on April 19, at the age of 93. I hadn't been in touch with him in a very long time, but his death struck me harder than most of the deaths of creative people I've learned about in the past year or two. He'd been a generous man and an honest and attentive writer. I wondered where I'd stored his books—The Four-Cornered Falcon, Reaching Keet Seet, The Dawn Collector—and found them on nearby shelves, among other books I value most, as if after all this time I still needed them there, close at hand.

 

I examined the pages in Reaching Keet Seel where I'd turned down the corners to see if I could find what I hoped to recall the first time I read them. In "The Pleasure of Ruin": "Trying to see things as the Anasazi saw them may be like drinking the water of a mirage." In "Hovenweep": "As one of this planet's talking creatures, I've a stake in any loss of beauty and intelligence among us." I again wander rugged landscapes and Anasazi ruins with Reg Saner—feel again all I gained from reading him and, especially, from knowing him.

 

Notes:

 

Root, Robert. "Anasazi," North Dakota Quarterly, 59:4 (Fall 1991), 145-154. Reprinted in Landscapes with Figures: The Nonfiction of Place (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007: 185-195) and Postscripts: Retrospections on Time and Place (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2012: 83-95).

 

Root, Robert L., Jr. Review, "Reader to Reader: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Field of Vision, About This Life, Thistle Journal and Other Essays, and Reaching Keet Seel," Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction 1:1 (Spring 1999): 171-73.

 

Saner, Reg. "Over the Rainbow, My Kind of Place," Landscapes with Figures: The Nonfiction of Place. Ed. Robert Root. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007: 220-228).

 

Saner, Reg. "Mesa Walk," Landscapes with Figures: The Nonfiction of Place. Ed. Robert Root. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007: 220-228). Originally published in The Georgia Review (Vol. 55, No. 2 (Summer 2001), pp. 290-311) and reprinted in The Dawn Collector: On My Way to the Natural World (Santa Fe: Center for American Places, 2005: 66-93).

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Once a Word Processor . . .

 

When I was a high school senior, I took the Beginning Typing course for students, mostly girls, hoping to become office workers. I hadn't done well in shop classes training mechanics but typing also counted as "occupational education." To get me enough graduation credits, counselors placed me in other courses usually taken sophomore year, including Latin I, adding to my two years of German as a foreign language concentration, and Basic Art, as well as English and History, required subjects no one could major in.

 

Every chair was filled in the typing class, every manual typewriter occupied. Another boy was in the room, a good-looking, athletic sophomore, and around twenty sophomore girls, one of them his girlfriend. Mr. Myers, our elderly instructor, instructed us about where to place our fingers, how to hold our hands, and how to concentrate on the text we were copying rather than watching the keyboard or the page being created. Surprisingly, I did well in the class.

 

I had hunted and pecked often on my mother's typewriter or my own, but Mr. Myers made a typist out of me. I adapted his methods to my portable's keyboard, worrying little about perfect accuracy and accepting the need for corrective strikeovers. In college I was more conscientious when submitting assignments to professors or columns and articles to school paper editors, retyping whole pages when errors were too troublesome. In grad school my electric typewriter with dual ribbons allowing easy error correction made me less self-conscious about my typing.

 

Then technology began to challenge my typing skills. The university department where I taught required ditto masters for course handouts, which couldn't be corrected by strikeovers and needed full replacements. Eventually we were assigned computers, Apple IIe models with floppy disk drives. Our faculty training session was in a former typing lab now filled with computers. Typewriters required pulling the carriage return lever at the end of each line to start another line one space lower; computers automatically moved on to the next line, line after line, until you needed a new indented paragraph. That took some adjustment—at least one colleague hit the return button regularly, as if on his typewriter, and hated the choppy look of his paragraphs. Somehow, eventually, the new approach made sense to me. I said out loud, "Oh, my god, I get it." My colleague glared at me.

 

That moment might have been forty years ago. If I ever think of myself as a typist, it's force of habit. I'm a word processor now, though my MacBook Pro keyboard—I think they still call them "keys"—looks much like my old Smith-Corona, except that it's flatter and smaller and has an interactive bar across the top that changes with whatever program I'm using. I often hit some unnamed key that makes a panel appear asking "What can I help you with? Go ahead, I'm listening." I stop what I'm writing to turn off the list it displays before it can talk to me. Like those unexpected ads that show up on Facebook, I don't know what the internet thinks it knows about me and what it thinks I'll fall for.

 

My fingers aren't as nimble as they once were, and the keys aren't so individual that I can get through a paragraph without error but often—not always—the word processing program will correct my spelling without my notice. Lately, it's decided where I should put commas and hyphens and highlights the locations—it wants a comma after "nimble" above. When I write email the program tries to add additional words for a cliché it's sure I intend, to make me sound more like everyone else. Now I not only have to edit myself, I have to edit the word-processing program's revisions.

 

Word processing is frequently more aggravating than typing ever was. I can't trust my fingering as much as I once did; I check my transcription more often to correct what the program won't. Many errors are those I'd never make on a typewriter—the letter "m" instead of a comma, a comma instead of a period, a sudden rush of capital letters, an unintended return command mid-sentence or even mid-word, an unintended deletion of a paragraph. Unlike my old typewriter, my laptop doesn't seem to be completely on my side.

 

This morning, in response to the clatter and thumping of the roof repair around me, I wrote a journal entry by hand. I don't journal often but when I do, I don't think I'm processing words. I think I'm . . . what would you call it? Composing? Recording? Maybe I was simply writing. Just the words and me working thoughtfully together. I was glad I took the opportunity to do it.

 

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Once a Typist . . .

 

I'd published two editions of a textbook titled Wordsmithery, so when I saw a photo of a typewriter in a catalogue touting innovation and read its label—The Wordsmith's Manual Typewriter—I had to learn how a typewriter might be specifically designed for a wordsmith. I read the description slowly once, then read it more slowly a second time.

 

The ad claimed that the manual typewriter (as opposed, perhaps, to the word processor, electric typewriter, ball point pen, or quill) "recalls the thoughtful, well-written correspondence" (as opposed, say, to essay, memoir, novel, novella, poem, play, or song lyric) "of yesteryear"—a flagrant bit of misdirection. Like ads showing such authors as Hemingway, Steinbeck, Orwell, and Plath with fingers poised above a typewriter keyboard, perhaps a cigarette dangling from their lips, their shirtsleeves rolled up and collar unbuttoned, as if unaware of the camera and the photographer, it was a tenuous link. ("This is a writer trying to look like a writer when he knows full well he is being photographed," E. B. White once wrote on a photograph of himself.)

 

The language felt tongue-in-cheek, wryly presenting liabilities as advantages, as when it referenced "the steady click-clacking cadence that encourages the patient, considered sentiment of a wordsmith who thinks before writing"—the way, say, writing in silence with a quill pen by candlelight never did. (If only Shakespeare, Dante, Cervantes, or Montaigne had typed!) A student of mine, eager to use a new typewriter and aware that "you can see tears in Plath's manuscript for Ariel because she punched the keys so hard," said she wanted to hear her own keys: "My apartment is quiet. It will be good to add those click click clicks." A week later, instead of "a click click click," she reported, "It makes a CLACK CLACK" and discouraged patient, considered sentiment.

 

I smiled at the claim that the machine "faithfully reproduces the eclectic [!?] printed impressions of its forebears" such as "variable kerning" (adjusting spaces between characters), "subtly ghosted letters" (creating shadows behind characters), "and nuanced baseline shifts" (uneven lines), thus "imparting unique, personal character to every letter or verse of poetry." Would readers really be charmed by the tendency of your letter "e" to stick and barely strike the paper or your "m" to smudge the spaces between the stems of the letter? Those features never charmed me.

 

The first typewriter I ever used was my mother's boxy black Royal. She must have shown me how to push the keys, spell out words in type, scroll in paper, advance the platen at the end of a line with the return lever. From the time, around the age of eight, that Bobby Hall and I spent an afternoon composing one-paragraph adventure stories on it, I was hooked on composing on the typewriter. I felt like a writer because my words were in typeface, just like the stories in books.

 

But it was slow work. I didn't give every key an equally "firm, purposeful stroke" and some letters were faint, others dark, almost smudged. If I misspelled words, I scrolled the paper up and erased the error, rubbing the page until it was sometimes transparent or worn through. The lines were often uneven after I scrolled the paper back to where I tried to replace a word. No matter how slowly I typed, forefinger by forefinger, clink, clunk, clack, it was frustrating never to have a single page error free, as in books. When I acquired them decades later, I never wished to be, once again, "devoid of technological crutches such as spell-check and deletion."

 

My parents found me substitutes for my mother's Royal: a Louis Marx toy typewriter on which to print a pretend newspaper, which I never did; a lightweight Smith-Corona portable, on which I wrote a 97-page novel in high school and all of my undergraduate college assignments. In graduate school, I bought a Smith-Corona Selectric, an electric typewriter with a rotating ball of type and a double ribbon with a second white ink strand to erase mistakes that let me throw out bottles of liquid White-Out. Leafing through my Selectric-produced dissertation, I felt that transcription technology and I had come as far as we would ever need to go.

 

I'm not tempted to purchase the Wordsmith's Manual Typewriter, but I remember my typewriters well. "Processing words" about them now on my laptop keyboard lets me almost reinhabit the boy who typed his adventure paragraphs on his mother's Royal, the teenager who clacked away at his novel on his portable, the grad student laboring at his dissertation on his Selectric. For better or for worse, each of them is still somewhere inside of me, prompted by the Wordsmith's Manual Typewriter to remind me that they haven't really gone away.

 

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Reverberations

 

When you read certain kinds of books—essays and memoirs and ecological travel narratives, for example—a bonus might sometimes be extensions to the text that arise, perhaps personal memories of some sort, sometimes intimate, sometimes remote, but perhaps memories of other texts, setting off different reverberations.

 

That happened to me recently, reading New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert's new book. I admired her earlier books, Field Notes for a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change (2006) and especially The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (2014), a Pulitzer Prize winner that every intelligent person should read; it's a vital account of where we are and where we're heading. Some of the books I've read since were likely chosen in hopes of evoking what I felt in Kolbert's books.

 

At the moment I'm reading Under a White Sky: The Nature of The Future, once again impressed by the levels of information, intelligence, and expression she displays, but also startled to find myself stalling after the first section to pursue a path through other books that it called to mind. The section, titled "Down the River," focuses its first chapter on the Chicago end of the Mississippi and its second chapter—which triggered reverberations in my reading memory—on the Louisiana end.

 

For uncounted centuries the Mississippi River has found alternative routes to the Gulf of Mexico; for fewer centuries European-American immigrants to Louisiana have labored to thwart those alternatives. The Atchafalaya River to the west, running parallel to the Mississippi, could one day divert it entirely. When Kolbert focuses on the Atchafalaya in her second chapter, she remembers first reading about it in the opening section of The Control of Nature by John McPhee, which she calls "a classic piece" and "a morality tale of a darkly comic cast." Finishing her chapter, I went immediately to my bookshelves for McPhee's book, which I'd read some thirty years earlier.

 

"Atchafalaya," McPhee's long first section, explains the earliest geology and ecology of the lower Mississippi region and its history through French, British, and American occupation, particularly the tendency of the river to flood the lands around it, including the persistent city of New Orleans. Because of ever-rising levees surrounding it and the tendency of its land to subside, the city is now lower than the river. McPhee recounts flood after flood and futile efforts to counteract the possibilities of future floods. I remember being haunted by that book when I attended a conference in New Orleans and visited above-ground graves that they might one day sink or float away. Rereading McPhee revived many of those memories.

 

Earlier in that second chapter Kolbert flies over Plaquemines Parish, the southernmost tip of Louisiana. On a map, she writes, it "appears as a thick, muscular arm thrust into the Gulf of Mexico, with the river running, like a vein, down its center," but from the air, "What little land there is clings to the river in two skinny strips." The parish has the distinction, she claims, "of being among the fastest-disappearing places on earth." A map in the book distinguishes between locations underwater and locations above ground, a clear contrast with the online Google map. Kolbert visits Isle de Jean Charles, "fifty miles southwest of New Orleans and a few decades ahead of it," and explains why it is disappearing. Her account of it sends me back to my bookcase for another book, published around the time when an earlier version of Kolbert's chapter appeared in The New Yorker.

 

In Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore, Elizabeth Rush walks a narrow, single-lane road on "the highest and most stubborn spine of land" out onto Isle de Jean Charles, now "two miles long and a quarter mile wide" but once ten times larger less only fifty years earlier. It's a vivid and unnerving stretch of narrative. Kolbert blurbed the book, asserting that, "Sea level rise is not some distant problem in some distant place" and crediting Rush with having written "a compelling piece of reporting, by turns bleak and beautiful." My review of the book quoted Rush's contention that "our particular brand of western knowledge has lulled us into thinking that we are separate from nature," and argued that her "travels along the new American shore confirm that we're not separate at all."

 

Conditions are worse for the Louisiana Coast in Kolbert's viewing than in McPhee's reporting thirty years earlier. Climate change, rising seas and land subsidence continue, as will futile efforts to control nature along the Mississippi River. Returning now to later chapters in Under a White Sky, I'll follow Kolbert to the Mojave Desert and Iceland and Australia. I'll learn a lot, I know, but I also wonder what further reverberations she'll set off in my reading memory.

 

Notes:

 

Kolbert, Elizabeth. Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future. NY: Crown, 2021.

 

McPhee, John. "Atchafalaya," The Control of Nature, NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1989; 3-92.

 

Root, Robert. Review, "Keeping Connected to the Natural World," River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative. Reviews of Lab Girl by Hope Jahren and Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore by Elizabeth Rush

 

Rush, Elizabeth. Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore. Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2019.

 

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Solace

 

In her afterword to her new book Gretel Ehrlich tells us, "The writing of Unsolaced began in the spring of 2017 as a bookend to The Solace of Open Spaces, which was published in 1984. The fuel for writing Solace had come from the loss of a loved one and the discovery that my heart's home would always be Wyoming, a home on the range for a wanderer. Little did I realize that as I finished this new book, another similar kind of loss was at hand." As a bookend, Unsolaced: Along the Way to All That Is gives us a powerful perspective on the writing that came between the two books and also on the landscapes she traveled over nearly four decades. She doesn't say much about that potential similar loss but having alluded to her husband's brain cancer, anyone who has read her earlier book senses what she's feeling.

 

I read The Solace of Open Spaces, her first collection of essays, and each of her subsequent books about place as they were published. Her third nonfiction book—she's published fiction and poetry as well—was A Match to the Heart, where she recounts being struck by lightning while walking across her ranch on a clear day. The very idea that she could eventually write a book about it suggests something of her resiliency. Somehow, she not only survived but recovered, and has spent the decades since adventuring around the world. Later books take her to Greenland (This Cold Heaven), around the Arctic Circle (In the Empire of Ice and The Future of Ice), China and Tibet (Questions of Heaven), and Japan in the wake of a devastating tsunami (Facing the Wave). She's had an eventful life.

 

Unsolaced takes us into many of those locales with fresh imagery and narrative, not so much revisiting earlier writing as reflecting further on the places and experiences that occupied chapters of her personal and professional lives. As she moves forward in her chronology, she revives in me not only the memories of those earlier books but also my own awareness of her as a distinctive individual.

 

Decades ago, determined to write creative nonfiction in addition to the academic articles, conference papers, and criticism I'd been generating, I occasionally enrolled in workshops led by writers whose work I knew. The Environmental Writing Institute, a weeklong workshop led by Gretel Ehrlich, took place at the Teller Wildlife Refuge, a Montana ranch on the edge of the Bitterroot Mountains. We workshopped our writing in the morning, wandered in the mountains in the afternoon, and hung out in the evenings. About a dozen eager outdoor writers were in the group, gathering in a barn where swallows continually flew in and out. We all had read The Solace of Open Spaces; Islands, the Universe, Home; and A Match to the Heart.

 

On late morning breaks we strolled out into mountain sunshine, hoping Gretel would join us for conversation. Often, we formed a circle around her and talked about writing, hers and others'. We might have marveled at how well she had recovered from that lightning strike. The sky was mostly clear and bright. Suddenly a clap of thunder exploded close by; everyone instinctively stepped back away from Gretel, as if she would draw lightning to her again. As we sheepishly tried to recover our positions, Gretel laughed, undaunted by the thunder and amused by our sensing the potential for lightning in her presence. Happily, she wasn't offended.

 

Ehrlich's return in Unsolaced to locales from earlier books makes readers familiar with her writing aware of how climate change has accelerated the alteration of those landscapes, especially when she and fellow travelers risk crossing crumbling ice and shrinking shorelines in the Arctic and also when she encounters the changes in prairie grasslands from settlement and industry. She tells us in her afterword, "Finally, the sharp lessons of impermanence I learned while writing Solace still hold true: that loss constitutes an odd kind of fullness, and despair empties out into an unquenchable appetite for life." That awareness of loss and appreciation of life are vitally present throughout the book.

 

I don't remember now what work-in-progress I brought to that workshop, but recall that no one, especially Gretel, was much impressed with it. Still, at the end of each day, I journaled about my walks in the mountains, and eventually composed my earliest polyptychal essay, "Knowing Where You've Been." I reread it recently, after reading Unsolaced. It doesn't mention Gretel Ehrlich, but I'm sure her influence emanates from its pages—it may well hover over the best of the environmental writing I've done since that workshop.

 

Notes: "Knowing Where You've Been," Ascent 27:3 (Spring 2003): 45-55; "Knowing Where You've Been (The Bitterroot Mountains, Montana)," Postscripts: Retrospections on Time and Place. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2012: 97-107.

 

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Reciprocity

 

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.

 

Notes:

 

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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