When the ancient forest embraces you

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The H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest

 

embrace: to hold (someone) closely in one’s arms. From Middle English, encircle, surround, enclose; Old French, embracer, based on Latin ‘in’ ‘arm.’ (English Oxford Living Dictionaries)

Last week I had a writer’s residency in the 16,000-acre H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest. West of the Oregon Cascades, the Andrews is the most studied forest in North American and perhaps the world. Much of the forest is old growth, and some of it is ancient – between 500 and 700 years old.

Over 100 research projects are ongoing there, many of them so long-term the original researchers won’t live to see the outcomes. Walking through the forest, you’re liable to encounter a team of scientists digging in the soil to find out what it reveals about decades past. Or a massive Douglas Fir wired with sensors and instruments downloading data 24/7, such as leaf wetness and relative humidity.  Listening to the forest canopy breathe may help us respond and adapt to climate change.

A fantastic thing about the Andrews Forest, which is supported by Oregon State University and the US Forest Service, is that the scientists and researchers there value partnerships with the those of us in the humanities.  The Long-Term Ecological Reflections Program, co-founded by Kathleen Dean Moore, invites writers, photographers, musicians, artists and philosophers to “reflect on the meaning and significance of the ancient forest ecosystem as the forest – and its relation to human culture – evolves over time.”

Writing, art and music produced by guest artists at the Andrews become part of the Andrews Forest Log, which will be compiled for two hundred years.

 

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Infinite colors and layers upon layers

 

Although I didn’t get a chance to do so during my stay, often writers and artists can tag along with scientists as they go about their research. My wish is to return to the Andrews so that I can go out with the spotted owl team – we’ll see.

I shared the beautiful Green House, trimmed in forest timber, with a talented writer (my son’s age!) and all-around beautiful person who has already in her young life drafted a novel and written and directed a play. Georgina and I were lucky that our stay overlapped for a couple of days with a working visit by photographer David Paul Bayles.

We spent an evening with David talking art and life. After you see David’s photos, you’ll never look at trees the same way – and you’ll understand why he refers to his photographs as magical realism. David spends hours in the forest shooting one photograph, followed by many more hours editing in his studio to achieve his singular technique.

“The forest is my cathedral and trees are my teachers,” David said. “I feel most at home and most comforted by them.” Take a look at his Old Growth Dialogue, photos from the Andrews Forest. On his website you can also order his book, Urban Forest: Images of Trees in the Human Landscape.

 

 

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“One of my meditations is from a guided journey I was led on years ago. I enter a very large tree through the needles near the ground and I course upward through veins and into my own curving, organic gallery space where the walls are always flowing and the art is always changing.” David Paul Bayles

 

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As for books and reading: at Andrews, I finished The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America, a biography. I also read Barbara Kingsolver’s newest novel, Unsheltered, which will be published in mid-October. (A friend gave me an Advanced Reader’s Copy.)

I was anticipating synergies between the two books: Teddy Roosevelt fully embraced Darwin’s new theory of evolution, and Kingsolver’s novel tells the story of a 19th century instructor shunned for teaching his young students about Darwin’s theory.

I loved the Roosevelt biography but Unsheltered wasn’t for me.

I chose to read the biography because in my Oregon Master Naturalist class, one of the naturalist teachers literally hugged the volume as she referred to it as her bible. I don’t usually read biographies, especially of US presidents, but this one is fabulous. Author and historian Douglas Brinkley tells the story of Roosevelt’s passion for the natural world and how he set aside millions of acres in perpetuity for the public to enjoy. At 800 pages, it is a reading odyssey, but it’s well worth it if you’re interested in TR as an undeterred trailblazer of US conservation.

In the early 1900s, Roosevelt wrote in a letter that he thought the vast majority of the educated American public had come to accept the theory of evolution. I wonder how that compares with today?

 

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More than a foot wide

 

I read all of Barbara Kingsolver’s fiction – I loved The Poisonwood Bible, Flight Behavior, and The Lacuna – but I was disappointed in Unsheltered. The intertwined tales of two 19th century devotees of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and a modern-day family in crisis underwhelmed me.

UnshelteredKingsolver sometimes uses her characters as mouthpieces for her themes and political beliefs, and she does this whole-heartedly in Unsheltered. The dialogue is preachy and tiresome, especially between the modern-day out-of-work journalist and her professor husband. Granted, the two are intellectuals, but I found their conversations (even in bed!) heavy-handed and unbelievable.

I’m just starting Richard Powers’ latest novel, The Overstory, which has gotten excellent reviews. David Paul Bayles is reading it too, and he told us that the forest depicted in the novel is the HJ Andrews Forest!

I’ve heard this is a complex, multi-layered book. I’ll let you know what I think.

 

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Though not mentioned by name, the forest depicted in Powers’ novel is the HJ Andrews Experimental Forest. Awesome cover design, don’t you agree?

For the next few weeks, I’ll be working on a new “From Where I Stand” audio essay based on my stay at the Andrews Forest.

I don’t want to give away the theme of my essay, but here’s a clue: yesterday, a newly released report warned of a planetary climate crisis as early as 2040.

Oh, but some of us in this country don’t believe in science, do we?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Forest fire

 

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A nurse log

 

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The small forest treasures we can easily overlook. These are bird’s nest fungi.

 

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The rainy season arrives. Average annual rainfall in the Andrews Forest: over 7 feet.

 

Many thanks to the H.J. Andrews Forest folks for generously supporting opportunities for science and the humanities to meet and for enabling artists of all kinds to enjoy this special place.

Have you been reading good eco-fiction or nonfiction nature writing? Tell us about it.

 

One Thousand White Women

One Thousand“We curse the U.S. government, we curse the Army, we curse the savagery of mankind, white and Indian alike. We curse God in his heaven. Do not underestimate the power of a mother’s vengeance.”  One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd by Jim Fergus

It is the mothers, not the warriors, who create a people and guide their destiny.” Luther Standing Bear, Oglala Lakota Chief (December 1868 – February 20, 1939)

Somehow it seems fitting and poignant that, just days after watching the sad, exhausting debacle of the Brett Kavanaugh hearing, and having seen the #MeToo movement play out during the last year, I’m writing about Jim Fergus’s historical fiction, One Thousand White Women, first published in 1998. More about the hearing and #MeToo later, but first, the book.

J. Will Dodd, (fictitious) editor of a Chicago magazine, has always been curious about his great grandmother, May Dodd, an ancestral family embarrassment who supposedly died in an insane asylum in 1876. Dodd’s research leads him to a Northern Cheyenne reservation, where he is given access to May’s journals, which tell her story, and the larger story of a group of white women sent on an extraordinary journey.

When she was a young woman, May Dodd left her wealthy family to live, unmarried, with a man beneath her station. They had two children. To get his scandalous embarrassment of a daughter out of the way, May’s father took her children and committed May to an insane asylum, where she met other supposedly mentally unfit women who didn’t conform to contemporary norms deemed appropriate for females.

This part of the story is true: in the 1850s, a Cheyenne chief, recognizing his people would not prevail against their white conquerors, proposed to the US government that his tribe be given one thousand white women to marry in exchange for one thousand horses. The Cheyenne culture was matrilineal, and the chief felt such marriages could be a way to peacefully unite the two cultures. His proposal horrified the US government, and he was turned down.

But the author Jim Fergus concocted a “what if” story. What if one thousand white women had indeed been traded to the Cheyenne?

Fergus set his fictitious story in 1875, the year before Custer’s Last Stand, and so readers mindful of history sense a looming thundercloud of doom. May Dodd gladly exchanges imprisonment in an asylum for marriage to a “savage,” hoping eventually for her freedom and reunification with her children. May is a maverick, markedly unconventional. If you peruse reader reviews on Goodreads, you’ll see that many readers find her character unbelievable for her time.

Another criticism of the novel is the voice of May Dodd. For some readers, she sounds too modern, too irreverent, not at all like a Victorian woman abruptly shipped off to the Wild West to marry a Cheyenne chief:

“Frankly, from the way I have been treated by the so-called ‘civilized’ people in my life, I rather look forward to residency among the savages.” 

Some readers of literary fiction don’t generally read popular, trade list fiction, which is how I would categorize this novel. Sometimes the prose can be pedestrian and clichéd instead of fresh and nuanced, and the story can be more plot-driven while the characters may not be especially well rounded or complex.

I did find this to be the case with One Thousand White Women at first, but ultimately I was captured by the author’s compelling premise. Deeper into the story, I began to wonder about May Dodd. While at first she seemed unrealistic, maybe that’s because unconventional or transgressive females of her time haven’t been written about. May’s thoughts and words didn’t always ring true to me. But eventually, an unusual and arresting narrative unfolded, overshadowing any writing deficits.

Jim Fergus has lived in the West most of his life. He knows it well, he is an accomplished historical researcher and, as far as I can tell, he is intimately familiar with and has a deep respect for Native American culture. Astonishingly to me, May Dodd and her female companions assimilate into Cheyenne culture within a matter of months.

I questioned this. Surely, women wouldn’t have acted that way. Would white Christian women so quickly embrace a culture so different? Would they stomach polygamy? Paganism?  Frigid South Dakota winters living in teepees? Would May Dodd really become friends with her Cheyenne husband’s other wives and grow to love Chief Little Wolf? One Thousand White Women explores and shatters cultural “rules” of race, marriage, religion, and gender in a way that resonates with our contemporary times.

“It must have been a dream, for my husband was now in the tent with me, he was still dancing softly, noiselessly, his moccasined feet rising and falling gracefully, soundlessly, he spun softly around the fire, shaking his gourd rattle, which made no sound, danced like a spirit being around me where I lay sleeping. I began to become aroused, felt a tingling in my stomach, an erotic tickle between my thighs, the immutable pull of desire as he displayed to me.”

Fergus’s evocative depiction of Cheyenne culture and bone-deep spiritual connection to nature, a connection May Dodd and the other women readily embrace, is remarkable. A series of entrancing scenes depict May’s new life: She rises at dawn on a silent morning after a snowfall and walks to the frozen pond for her daily immersion; she relishes her Cheyenne family listening to stories and playing games around a fire in their tent on a dark winter evening. Cast out by her white family, May is welcomed by her Cheyenne family.

“How strange to recall that six months ago we departed Fort Laramie as anxious white women entering the wilderness for the first time; and now, perhaps equally anxious, we leave as squaws returning home. I realized anew as we rode into the cold wind on this morning that my own commitment had been sealed forever by the heart that beats in my belly, that I could not have remained even if I so wished.”

May and the other women and the Cheyenne know that come spring all remaining Native Americans on the frontier must turn themselves in to the US government. They will be moved to reservations, forced to give up their freedom and way of life forever.

An American tragedy plays out in the final pages.

Here are the words of John G. Bourke, a soldier who actually lived during that time and who has a major part in One Thousand White Women. This quote is not from the novel, but from John’s memoir, which was published in 1891:

“The youngster wrapped his blanket about him and stood like a statue of bronze, waiting for the fatal bullet. The American Indian knows how to die with as much stoicism as the East Indian. I leveled my pistol…” John G. Bourke,  On the Border with Crook

I was thinking about May’s commitment to an insane asylum for her transgressions of having children outside of marriage with a man of no wealth. I’ve been working on a memoir about my mother, who was in a psychiatric hospital for a short time. Yes, she had a serous mental illness, but I’ve come to realize as I’ve worked on several drafts that some of her “symptoms” were normal, understandable reactions to sexism and misogyny, and prejudice against women likely contributed to her illness.

When I watched the confounding Kavanaugh hearing – another American tragedy – Dr. Blasey telling her story to all those male senators and the world, Brett Kavanaugh and Lindsay Graham ranting, the women who had been sexually assaulted confronting Jeff Flake in the elevator –  I thought about how dangerous it was to be a woman in 1875 and 1982, and how dangerous it is still in 2018.

One Thousand White Women was originally published in 1998 and has been popular with book clubs. Have you read it by any chance, and what did you think? Where do you think women stand now in light of #MeToo?

 

Love and Ruin

LoveandRuin “We’d come all the way through the mine-filled Channel and now were sitting below the high yellow-green cliffs of Normandy surrounded by more ships than I had ever seen in my life or even knew existed. Thousands upon thousands of them made up the armada, massive destroyers and transport vessels and battleships. Small snub-nosed boats and cement barges and Ducks carried troops to the beaches, which were alive with pure chaos. Once they made the beach, there were two hundred yards or more of open ground to survive and then the cliffs. Overhead, the sky was a thick gray veil strung through with thousands of planes.”

There had never been anything like it, nor would there ever be.”  – Love and Ruin, by Paula McLain

I didn’t know that Martha Gellhorn, war correspondent and Ernest Hemingway’s third wife, was the only reporter with the Allied troops when they landed at Normandy on D-Day, and the only woman among 160,000 soldiers. At a time when female journalists were not permitted on the battlefield, Martha stowed away on a hospital ship the night before the landing. Ernest Hemingway and other male reporters tried their utmost to gain access to the battlefield that day; where they failed, Gellhorn succeeded magnificently. Her story has been beautifully re-created by Paula McLain in Love and Ruin.

I’m not typically a fan of fictionalized versions of real people’s lives, but I trust McLain because I’ve enjoyed her other novels: Circling the Sun, about Beryl Markham, and The Paris Wife, which depicts Hemingway’s relationship with his first wife, Hadley.

I’d assumed that by the time he met his third wife, Ernest Hemingway was well on his way to burning out, but that is not the case. Hemingway was at his peak and the most famous living writer in the world when he and Martha Gellhorn began a passionate love affair while he was married to his second wife, Pauline.

Martha Gellhorn was a ravishing beauty; she and Hemingway had a powerful mutual attraction. Martha had just published her first novel, and Hemingway mentored Martha to a degree unusual for male writers of his day. He encouraged her to dodge bullets, bombs, and mines with him as they covered the Spanish Civil War, Martha’s first immersion as a war correspondent. Hemingway has said that Gellhorn inspired him to write For Whom the Bell Tolls, which he dedicated to her. For a handful of years, Hemingway and Gellhorn enjoyed an extraordinary literary collaboration.

“….I loaded into a cement ambulance barge with a handful of doctors and medics, crashing through the surf around floating mines lit up by a flashing strobe. Soon I would know we’d landed on the American sector of Omaha Beach, but for the moment there was only horror and chaos. We bumped through severed limbs and the bloated forms of the drowned. Artillery fire shattered the air in every directions. Planes roared over us, so close my skull vibrated, but there wasn’t even time to wonder whose side they were on.”

I found Paula McLain’s depiction of Hemingway in Love and Ruin to be somewhat thin. For me, her rendering of Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley, in The Paris Wife was far more emotionally compelling than that of Hemingway and Gellhorn, but that didn’t take away from my enjoyment of Love and Ruin.

I think what interested Paula McLain (and me, too) is Martha’s larger-than-life risk-taking, how it matched Hemingway’s, and how their love for each other fueled their work. Ultimately, their relationship didn’t – and probably couldn’t – last, given Martha’s independent spirit and Hemingway’s sexism – he was a male of his time. Hemingway betrayed Martha terribly, in more ways than one, when she would not stay home by his side and have a child.

Near the beach, we flung ourselves out into the icy water and waded to shore. The surf came to my waist and tugged at my clothes. I stumbled, feeling chilled to my core, but I couldn’t be dragged down. I had to hold up my end of the stretcher and stay between the white-taped lines that marked the places that had been cleared of mines.

We picked up everyone, anyone, even Germans, and assembled them all on the beach for triage. They were young and scared and cold and hurt, and it didn’t really matter how they’d been wounded, or who they were before this precise moment of need. Every last one of them made me feel gutted, and there were hours of this. Blood-soaked bandages, flares sailing like red silk over the beach with a pop, tanks, and bodies. Men and more men. Men with boys’ faces. Boys spilling their lives into the tide….

It was the strangest and longest night of my life. Later I would learn that there were a hundred thousand men on that beach and only one woman, me. I was also the first journalist, male or female, to make it there and report back.”

After Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn continued to have a full, rich life. She wrote prolifically into her eighties, publishing novels, nonfiction, essays, and plays, and covered every major war during the second half of the twentieth century, including Viet Nam. Gellhorn, photojournalist Dickie Chapelle, and a handful of other brave women blazed a trail for the many more great female war correspondents to come.

Given that journalists are being called “enemies of the American people,” and many reporters are deeply concerned about the threats of violence they receive daily, I think it’s timely and fortunate that Paula McLain has celebrated Martha Gellhorn in her latest novel.

“The Women Who Covered Viet Nam”  is an excellent article written by war correspondent Elizabeth Becker, a good, short read if you’d like to know more about women reporters of that era. For a riveting story about a contemporary war correspondent who lost her life, read “Marie Colvin’s Private War” in Vanity Fair. Town & Country recently featured an article about Martha Gellhorn written by Paula McLain, with great historical photos.  Goodreads has a list of memoirs by women journalists.

Here, Paula McLain talks about Love and Ruin at Mentor Public Library, a suburb of Cleveland (my hometown!) where McLain currently lives:

 

 

Here, she talks about poetry and inspiration:

 

 

Have you read Love and Ruin, or any of McLain’s other novels? If so, what did you think? Let us know in the comments.

Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now

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“This book argues in ten ways that what has become suddenly normal — pervasive surveillance and constant, subtle manipulation — is unethical, cruel, dangerous, and inhumane. Dangerous? Oh, yes, because who knows who’s going to use that power, and for what?”  – Ten Arguments…. by Jaron Lanier

Inventor of virtual reality and Microsoft scientist Jaron Lanier, whom I’ve written about before (You Are Not a Gadget and Who Owns the Future?) encourages us to embrace the internet but warns that social media has become so toxic it is making us unhappy, degrading the social fabric, and threatening our democracy.

He suggests we delete our Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter accounts – not permanently, but long enough to break our addiction. When we’re ready, we can reconnect with social media in a wiser, more detached (less hysterical) way. We should be like cats, he says. When it comes to social media, the best attitude is: take it or leave it.

Specifically, Jaron Lanier would like to see young people who have never experienced life without social media make a complete break for six months. “Get to know yourself”  without the constant distraction and manipulation of social media, Lanier said in a recent interview. “Then, come back and re-engage.”

As for the rest of us, Lanier hopes some of us will disengage so that we can bring a different, more objective perspective to the conversation about the good and ill effects of social media.

The onus isn’t just on us, though; Lanier has been saying ever more urgently that we need a business model different from the current one, in which a few tremendously powerful companies serve advertisers and not us. I don’t think that is going to happen anytime soon. Geniuses that they are, Mark Zuckerberg and others are in over their heads and maybe not even sufficiently concerned. (Read this chilling op-ed, “The Expensive Education of Mark Zuckerberg and Silicon Valley.”

Reviewers have cited Lanier’s first argument as perhaps his most important:

“Argument #1: You are losing your free will

WELCOME TO THE CAGE THAT GOES EVERYWHERE WITH YOU

Something entirely new is happening in the world. Just in the last five or ten years, nearly everyone started to carry a little device called a smartphone on their person all the time that’s suitable for algorithmic behavior modification. A lot of us are also using related devices called smart speakers on our kitchen counters or in our car dashboards. We’re being tracked and measured constantly, and receiving engineered feedback all the time. We’re being hypnotized little by little by technicians we can’t see, for purposes we don’t know. We’re all lab animals now.

Algorithms gorge on data about you, every second. What kinds of links do you click on? What videos do you watch all the way through? How quickly are you moving from one thing to the next? Where are you when you do these things? Who are you connecting with in person and online? What facial expressions do you make? How does your skin tone change in different situations? What were you doing just before you decided to buy something or not? Whether to vote or not?”

Here are two provocative examples of social media manipulation Lanier cites:

“A lot of potential Hillary voters were infused with a not-great feeling about Hillary, or about voting at all. Were you one of them? If so, please think back. Were you seeing any information customized for you before the election? Did you use Twitter or Facebook? Did you do a lot of online searches? You were had. You were tricked. Your best intentions were turned against you.”

And….

“After a dramatic series of awful killings of unarmed black citizens by police in the United States, the initial reaction from sympathetic social media users was for the most part wise, stoic, and constructive. It must be said that we might not even have heard much about these killings, their prevalence, or their similarities without social media.

….But…..behind the scenes, a deeper, more influential power game was gearing up. The game that mattered most was out of sight, occurring in algorithmic machinery in huge hidden data centers around the world.

Black activists and sympathizers were carefully catalogued and studied. What wording got them excited? What annoyed them? What little things, stories, videos, anything, kept them glued to BUMMER*? What would snowflake-ify them enough to isolate them, bit by bit, from the rest of society? What made them shift to be more targetable by behavior modification messages over time? The purpose was not to repress the movement but to earn money. The process was automatic, routine, sterile, and ruthless.

A slice of latent white supremacists and racists who had previously not been well identified, connected, or empowered was blindly, mechanically discovered and cultivated, initially only for automatic, unknowing commercial gain…..racism became organized over BUMMER to a degree it had not been in generations.”

(*BUMMER is a cumbersome Lanier acronym, “Behaviors of Users Modified, and Made into an Empire for Rent.)

“Quitting social media is the most finely targeted way to resist the insanity of our times.” – Jaron Lanier

 

“I hope, dearly, that our times will be remembered as a momentary glitch in a previously smooth progression toward a more democratic world.

But for the moment we face a terrifying, sudden crisis….. the general thinking was that once a country went democratic, it not only stayed that way but would become ever more democratic, because its people would demand that.

Unfortunately, that stopped being true, and only recently. Something is drawing young people away from democracy.”

I subscribe to The Poynter Institute’s newsletter, and in it a recent public opinion survey was cited that seems to bear this out: a plurality of Republicans, and even some Democrats and Independents, think Trump should be given the power to shut down certain media outlets. Forty-eight percent of Republicans in the survey believe “the news media is the enemy of the American people.”

Whether or not we agree with Jaron Lanier, I think engaged citizens need to cultivate a new kind of literacy: an awareness of how social media works and how non-human algorithms are changing our beliefs, behavior, and culture.

And, by the way, Lanier believes the President of the United States is addicted to Twitter.

When I was on a recent hike in the remote foothills of the high desert, someone pointed out the Facebook data center below us – one of the hidden data centers Lanier speaks of in an excerpt above. It is massive, windowless, and heavily guarded.

In a recent interview, Lanier spoke about the challenges that have crept up on us in the digital age: “The solution is to double down on being human,” he said.

If you’re not up for reading Ten Arguments…., you can find excellent interviews with Lanier about his book online.

(When I review a book, I often thank the author for writing it, usually on Twitter. I can’t thank Lanier in this way because he has no social media accounts.)

How do you feel about social media? We have a great discussion going in the comments. Please tell us what you think.

Next: Love and Ruin, by Paula McLain, a novel about the war correspondent Martha Gellhorn, Ernest Hemingway’s third wife (one of those notorious “enemies of the American people”)

Educated

Educated

 

“Everything I had worked for, all my years of study, had been to purchase for myself this one privilege: to see and experience more truths than those given to me by my father, and to use those truths to construct my own mind. I had come to believe that the ability to evaluate many ideas, many histories, many points of view, was at the heart of what it means to self-create. If I yielded now, I would lose more than an argument. I would lose custody of my own mind. This was the price I was being asked to pay, I understood that now. What my father wanted to cast from me wasn’t a demon: it was me.” Educated, by Tara Westover

 

Educated is, truly, an astounding memoir.

Tara Westover grew up on a remote mountain in Idaho, the youngest daughter in an extreme Mormon survivalist family cut off from mainstream society. She and her siblings, born at home, had no birth certificates, so in the eyes of the US government they did not exist.

“There’s a sense of sovereignty that comes from life on a mountain, a perception of privacy and isolation, even of dominion. In that vast space you can sail unaccompanied for hours, afloat on pine and brush and rock. It’s a tranquillity born of sheer immensity; it calms with its very magnitude, which renders the merely human of no consequence.”

Tara and her siblings did not attend public school because public education was a government plot to lure children away from God. Tara wasn’t home schooled, either: When they weren’t stockpiling food and amassing an arsenal, Tara’s father salvaged metal in his junkyard while Tara’s mother, an uncertified midwife, practiced healing and herbalism as an alternative to established medical care.  The family avoided professional medical care altogether, no matter how serious their injuries – and some of them were catastrophic. For one thing, Tara’s older brother was violent, and she often bore the brunt of his terrifying outbursts.

Tara’s family lived according to the dictates of her paranoid father as they prepared for the Days of Abomination. (In addition to religious fanaticism, there is, of course, mental illness at work here.) Someday, the Feds would come for them as they had for the family at Ruby Ridge. The Westovers had to be ready to defend themselves.

(I had to refresh my memory as to what Ruby Ridge was about, hence my link in case you want a refresher, too.) Some historians and sociologists believe overkill by law enforcement at Ruby Ridge led to the beginning of the militia movement in the US and a growing belief in conspiracy theories.

Tara needed to escape from her family, and college was a way to do that, but could she be accepted anywhere when she’d been denied an education? At sixteen, Tara taught herself just enough grammar, math, and science to pass the ACT. Off she went to Brigham Young University where, for the first time, she learned about slavery, the civil rights movement, the Holocaust, and other major events in US and world history.

Ten years after entering Brigham Young, with enormous effort and persistence, Tara completed a Ph.D. in history at Cambridge University in England. Along the way, she constructed a new “self,” almost from scratch. A reckoning with her family was inevitable.

“The thing about having a mental breakdown is that no matter how obvious it is that you’re having one, it is somehow not obvious to you. I’m fine, you think. So what if I watched TV for twenty-four straight hours yesterday. I’m not falling apart. I’m just lazy. Why it’s better to think yourself lazy than think yourself in distress, I’m not sure. But it was better. More than better: it was vital.”

Here, she writes about her relationship with her mother:

“I knew what unspoken pact I would be making as I walked through the door. I could have my mother’s love, but there were terms, the same terms they had offered me three years before; that I trade my reality for theirs, that I take my own understanding and bury it, leave it to rot in the earth.

My mother’s message amounted to an ultimatum: I could see her and my father, or I would never see her again. She has never recanted.”

The quality of Tara’s writing and her psychological insights are enough to recommend this memoir, but there is much more to her complex story. In separating from her family, Tara, the budding historian, explored the conflict between obligation to family and culture and the need to individuate. This layer of Tara’s journey is fascinating. In her memoir, she charted her own breaking away while, in her thesis, she explored four intellectual movements from the 19th century – including Mormonism – and how they “struggled with the question of family obligation.”

“My dissertation gave a different shape to history, one that was neither Mormon nor anti-Mormon, neither spiritual nor profane. It didn’t treat Mormonism as the objective of human history, but neither did it discount the contribution Mormonism had made in grappling with the questions of the age. Instead, it treated the Mormon ideology as a chapter in the larger human story. In my account, history did not set Mormons apart from the rest of the human family; it bound them to it.”

I’m quoting a lot of text here, but I want to show you how Tara writes of her maturing as an intellectual and how she found her calling as a scholar:

“I remembered attending one of Dr. Kerry’s lectures, which he had begun by writing, ‘Who writes history?’ on the blackboard. I remembered how strange the question had seemed to me then. My idea of a historian was not human; it was of someone like my father, more prophet than man, whose visions of the past, like those of the future, could not be questioned, or even augmented. Now, as I passed through King’s College, in the shadow of the enormous chapel, my old diffidence seemed almost funny. Who writes history? I thought. I do.”

And this:

“I had decided to study not history, but historians. I suppose my interest came from the sense of groundlessness I’d felt since learning about the Holocaust and the civil rights movement–since realizing that what a person knows about the past is limited, and will always be limited, to what they are told by others. I knew what it was to have a misconception corrected–a misconception of such magnitude that shifting it shifted the world. Now I needed to understand how the great gatekeepers of history had come to terms with their own ignorance and partiality. I thought if I could accept that what they had written was not absolute but was the result of a biased process of conversation and revision, maybe I could reconcile myself with the fact that the history most people agreed upon was not the history I had been taught.” 

Memoir is about the personal and specific and how transformation manifests in a life. If done well, the story becomes both universal and familiar to the reader. Tara writes eloquently about a key moment in her journey of change. Who hasn’t recognized the split between our younger self and the older, wiser person we’ve become?

“Until that moment she [my sixteen-year-old self] had always been there. No matter how much I appeared to have changed – how illustrious my education, how altered my appearance – I was still her. At best I was two people, a fractured mind. She was inside, and emerged whenever I crossed the threshold of my father’s house.

That night I called on her and she didn’t answer. She left me. She stayed in the mirror. The decisions I made after that moment were not the ones she would have made. They were the choices of a changed person, a new self.

You could call this selfhood many things. Transformation. Metamorphosis. Falsity. Betrayal. 

I call it an education.”

 

Have you read Education by Tara Westover? What do you think? Which memoirs have you read that you feel are extraordinary?

 

Great Tide Rising

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The Oculus, World Trade Center, next to the Freedom Tower. The Oculus structure, said to resemble a bird or a dinosaur, symbolizes rebirth from the ashes. In her book, Kathleen Dean Moore writes that we are shutting down the Cenozoic era. What will arise in its place?

 

“He was a huge man – I’d guess six-five. Shaved head. Big black overcoat reaching below his knees. Big black dress shoes with rubber soles….

This is my chance, I said to myself, to relate to an oilman in a personal way, and perhaps even learn a little about his heart.

‘So,’ I said, “Do you have children?’

He knew where I was going with that. He turned to face me straight on. ‘Don’t you ever,’ he said, ‘ever. Ever. Ever.’ He paused. ‘Ever underestimate the power of the fossil fuel industry.'”  –  Great Tide Rising: Toward Clarity and Moral Courage in a Time of Climate Change, by Kathleen Dean Moore

GreatTideRisingThis is the scary, provocative, grieving, truthful, and energizing book to read if you want to come to grips with climate change and decide what, if anything, you are going to do about it.

Great Tide Rising is not filled with climate science and facts about global warming and how to “solve” it with know-how and technology. In her book, Kathleen Dean Moore, an acclaimed nature essayist, philosopher, and environmental leader, frames climate change and habitat destruction as moral and ethical questions, guiding readers toward possible answers. Two of the gravest moral questions we face are:

Why is it wrong to wreck the world?

What is our obligation to our children, our children’s children, and the future?

Moore writes:

“I object…to the language of the sixth extinction and will not use it. The current extinction is something morally different from the first five. For all their horror, for all their calamitous power, the early extinctions were natural Earth processes, what the insurance industry calls ‘acts of God,’ beyond human control or culpability. This current great wave of dying is the direct result of human decisions, knowing and intentional, or willfully and wantonly reckless. That’s a difference of moral significance. It changes a calamity into a cosmic crime, a perversion of human power….To call this just the sixth in a long series of extinction cycles is what philosophers call a ‘category mistake’; it’s not the same thing. Extinctions one through five call us to awe. Number six calls us to rage – rage against the dying.”

For me, Great Tide Rising is a kind of primer, or bible, for our time. A bible in the sense that it contains Moore’s eloquent, clarifying language, as well as the wisdom of our greatest environmental prophets, including Aldo Leopold, Edward Abbey, Joanna Macy, and even the poet Mary Oliver.

A bible, too, because it urges us to bear witness to that which must change, and then to act. By “act,” Moore does not mean switching to eco-friendly light bulbs; she means for us to seek a larger purpose and vision for our lives in light of the disaster we face. Great Tide Rising is a kind of bible because it can be turned to often for wisdom and guidance as we head into a treacherous future.

“It’s a… stunning thing that we face climatic changes that will undermine the lives of our children – and very few people are talking about it….most likely it’s a variety of what American intellectual Lewis Mumford called a ‘magnificent bribe.’ The bargain is that each member of the community may claim every material advantage, every intellectual and emotional stimulus he may desire, in quantities hardly available hitherto even for a restricted minority: food, housing, swift transportation, instantaneous communication, medical care, entertainment, education’ – on the condition, I would say, that they never ask where it came from, or at what cost in human suffering, at what cost to the future, or to what long-term effect. That’s the deal: If they ask, they have to turn away from their glittering lives.”

Great Tide Rising refers not just to sea level rise, but to the growing groundswell of people questioning our way of life and committed to a profound shift in thinking. Joanna Macy calls this The Great Turning. In Macy’s words:

“The Great Turning is a name for the essential adventure of our time: the shift from the industrial growth society to a life-sustaining civilization…A revolution is under way because people are realizing that our needs can be met without destroying our world….Future generations, if there is a livable world for them, will look back at the epochal transition we are making to a life-sustaining society. And they may well call this the time of the Great Turning. It is happening now.”

Macy, Kathleen Dean Moore, and other environmental leaders do not know if humans and other life forms will survive what is to come, even if we take massive action. The deal is, we are to bear witness and act regardless of the outcome.

For Great Tide Rising, Moore interviewed Mary Evelyn Tucker, a professor at Yale Divinity School and the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, who spoke of the human instinct to create. Her words compose one of the most beautiful and hopeful passages in the book:

“Humans desire, more than anything else, to be creative, and we desire to participate in the creative processes, in the future and in life – that’s what having children is about. But we can be life-generating in a variety of ways – creative, participatory, oriented toward something larger than ourselves….

Our work is to align ourselves with evolutionary processes instead of standing in their way or derailing them. So our human role is to deepen our consciousness in resonance with the fourteen-billion-year creative event in which we find ourselves. Our challenge is to construct livable cities and to cultivate healthy foods in ways congruent with Earth’s patterns. We need the variety of ecological understanding so we can align ourselves with the creative forces of the universe.

Something is changing; an era is changing. If we are shutting down the Cenozoic era…the great work is to imagine how the new era can unfold. Our work in the world is not just a stopgap to extinction….We are part of the Great Work, as Thomas Berry would say, of laying the foundation of a new cultural era.”

I have only touched on highlights of Great Tide Rising. There is so much more, including a special appeal for grandparents to act on behalf of their grandchildren and future generations.

 

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Times Square and a mantra for our time, maybe one that needs to change.  I brought Great Tide Rising on a trip to New York City last week and read it in the evenings. I visited the photography studio where my son works and, walking around Manhattan, I saw many promo posters for The Americans (a favorite series) with photos taken by Pari, my son’s employer. This is why I will always love great cities, especially New York, where I once lived: they nurture and embody the human desire to be creative that Mary Evelyn Tucker speaks of in Great Tide Rising.

 

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I found this stunning High Victorian Gothic library in the West Village. Jefferson Market Library, part of the New York Public Library System, was once a women’s prison. It is now a quiet, beautiful city space. Perhaps cities will save us. Some environmentalists predict that more people will live in cities, leaving vast tracts of nature to heal and regenerate.

 

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The library is tucked in alongside Jefferson Market Park. I enjoy seeking out small secret gardens in urban places. When Michael Bloomberg was mayor of New York, thousands of acres of parkland were added, nearly 2000 parks were redesigned or upgraded, and a million trees were planted.

 

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A view from the High Line, a repurposed elevated rail line nearly two miles long on the lower West Side. An enchanting garden, especially at dusk, that did not exist when I lived in New York. My son and I walked the High Line, between Tenth and Twelfth avenues, on the way to dinner. Green spaces like this one could be part of the future livable city Mary Evelyn Tucker speaks of in Great Tide Rising.

 

This post is written in memory of David Buckel, a civil rights lawyer and environmentalist who took his own life in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park in April. He self-immolated with fossil fuel to protest its use and left a note: “Most humans on the planet now breathe air made unhealthy by fossil fuels, and many die early deaths as a result — my early death by fossil fuel reflects what we are doing to ourselves. I hope it is an honorable death that might serve others.”

The Nordic Theory of Everything

NordicTheory“What Americans need, so that they can stop struggling so hard to be super-achievers, is simple: affordable high-quality health care, day care, education, living wages, and paid vacation….It’s not that Americans don’t realize that they need to relax, as Ariana Huffington seems to think. It’s that they can’t afford to.”     – The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life, by Anu Partanen

Anu Partanen, a Finnish journalist, moved to the United States to marry an American writer and eventually became an American citizen. In The Nordic Theory of Everything, she depicts how much harder it is to get by in America than her native Finland and suggests we’d be better off borrowing some of the more progressive policies of Nordic countries.

I was curious to know what the Nordic Theory of Everything is, just as I’ve always wanted to know more about the culture of my Swedish grandparents – my mormor and morfar, as my cousins and I called them when we were young.

Several years ago, I enjoyed On the Viking Trail: Travels in Scandinavian America by Don Lago, which looks at how Scandinavian values have influenced American culture. I hadn’t known, for example, that community well being and service to others are hallmark ethics of Swedes, which informed Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, and other political leaders of Swedish descent. Reading Lago’s book left me wanting to delve deeper into the Scandinavian personality, and Partanen’s book was what I was looking for.

Anu Partanen derived her title from the Swedish theory of love as coined by the Swedish scholar and historian Lars Trägårdh:

“The core idea is that authentic love and friendship are possible only between individuals who are independent and equal….For the citizens of the Nordic countries, the most important values in life are individual self-sufficiency and independence in relation to other members of the community. If you’re a fan of American individualism and personal freedom, this might strike you as all-American thinking.

A person who must depend on his or her fellow citizens is, like it or not, put in a position of being subservient and unequal…..the overarching ambition of Nordic societies during the course of the twentieth century, and into the twenty-first, has not been to socialize the economy at all, as is often mistakenly assumed. Rather the goal has been to free the individual from all forms of dependency within the family and in civil society: the poor from charity, wives from husbands, adult children from parents, and elderly parents from their children. The express purpose of this freedom is to allow all those human relationships to be unencumbered by ulterior motives and needs, and thus to be entirely free, completely authentic, and driven purely by love.”

I’d never been exposed to this line of thinking, and it was, for me, the heart of this book. The theory strikes me as utopian and unrealistic in its purest form, but I agree it would make sense for us to move closer to something like this, especially because so many Americans can no longer afford adequate health care, education, child care, and elder care. Women are still, on average, paid less than men, and many women would be better off with a stronger social safety net, especially single mothers, victims of domestic violence, and those working in low-paying service industries.

I’m quoting Anu Partanen’s more provocative passages, but throughout the book her tone is even-handed. You might think she is squarely in the liberal camp, but her language is not partisan; current politics in America isn’t mentioned, and Partanen has good things to say about the past policies of both Democrats and Republicans.

“…authentic love and friendship are possible only between individuals who are independent and equal.”

She’s been criticized for underestimating how difficult it would be to adopt policies that have been successful in the smaller, less diverse Scandinavian countries, but my guess is Partanen understands there would be challenges and intends for her book to inspire the conversations we need to be having.

Here are a few more passages:

“…. no one should be penalized in advance by the unlucky accident of having parents who might, for whatever reason, have less than robust finances. Similarly, a wife should not be put in a position of being financially overdependent on her husband. Or vice versa, for that matter. And people should be able to make choices related to their employment without worrying whether they will still be able to receive, say, treatment for cancer.”

***

“….the brutal reality in America today is that being a special superachiever is, more and more, the only way anyone can ensure a reasonably successful life for themselves – regardless of their core values. …The United States is remarkable among the advanced nations for the way it forces its people into lives so stressful they may have to turn against even their own values.”

***

“The harshness of American life helps explain the presence in the United States of a dubious, even predatory, wing of the self-help industry, which profits by selling unlikely promises to the unlucky. It’s telling that self-help gurus hardly exist in the Nordic countries…..Wishful thinking can take a nation only so far. Ultimately hope has to be generated by the actual presence of opportunity. And if it’s really there, it doesn’t require constant psychological energy and enthusiasm, or a constant stream of heroic tales of survival against all the odds, to sustain.”

I’ll close with the words of Lars Trägårdh:

“….social mobility without social investments is simply not possible. So if you start to give up on public schools and a collective system for enabling individual social mobility, you’re going to end up with inequality, gated communities, collapse of trust, and dysfunctional political systems. All these things you see now in the United States.”

What do you think?

The book I still haven’t read

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Since my last post:

  • We learned that a manufacturer’s leaky septic tank has been releasing a plume of heavy metals and a cancer-causing chemical, contaminating some of the groundwater and soil in our former upstate New York town. Testing will determine the extent of the contamination. Fortunately, the affected water is not the drinking water. Ironically, my first audio essay on Terrain.org, “Water Bewitched,” celebrated our neighborhood’s life-giving underground streams and how great it was to raise a family there. I’m not celebrating now. 
  • We are purchasing a few acres of land, and so we plumbed the mysteries of central Oregon irrigation, which is being modernized for less water waste (because mountain snowpack, an important source of water, will decline with climate change) and to restore flow in area waterways. (Strange timing for us, as we mourned the polluted and possibly dangerous groundwater in our former hometown.) Thanks to irrigation upgrades here and other efforts, a local creek no longer dries up every summer and, as of 2016, steelhead trout and chinook salmon seem to be returning. We’ve had something of a tribute to salmon on this blog of late. For more salmon thoughts, see “The memoir I didn’t want to write about” and Turning Homeward.
  • Indoors, I started lavender, rosemary, chives, kale, and pearl onions from seeds. We reclaimed the raised beds in the backyard of the home we’re renting, and so far we’ve planted carrots, spinach, kale, miner’s lettuce, winter lettuce, and maché. Lately, it’s been fun to discover flowers blooming in our yard planted by former tenants.
  • I completed the first half of my Oregon Master Naturalist class. For our final essay, we reflected on whether, to save endangered species, we should “transplant” species back into habitats in officially designated wilderness areas. By law, federal wilderness is typically free of human intervention. In my essay, I wrote that carefully selected species transplants are worth a try. In my heart, though, I believe Naomi Klein, “Only mass social movements can save us now.” The question stimulated much discussion and a good share of angst. A classmate doubts moving species around will make a difference, and cited Stephen Hawking: “We must continue to go into space for the future of humanity. I don’t think we will survive another 1000 years without escaping beyond our fragile planet.” Someone else wrote that, given the sixth extinction, hard choices about which species to save are in order. Triage is required, as in medicine. He went on to say that human efforts will ultimately have no meaning and no importance. Wildlife experts, naturalists, climate scientists, and volunteers are grappling with these issues, while many of our government leaders pretend they don’t exist. The cognitive dissonance in our culture is deafening.

The cognitive dissonance in our culture is deafening.

  • I put The Sixth Extinction back on my shelf for another day. Sometimes, a book of this nature, no matter how critically acclaimed, is just too much information.

 

After I posted this, someone in my Oregon Master Naturalist class tweeted this must-read article, “A Moon Shot to Protect Earth’s Species.” If you do not know E. O. Wilson, look him up and try reading one of his books. He’s an author to know about. Click on the link here for one of his TED talks.

And this happened in the book world:

So many readers have loved and were inspired by Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, especially young Native Americans and members of other often marginalized groups. (Interestingly, every year this book is on the American Library Association’s list of banned and challenged books.) Many of these fans remain blissfully unaware of the scandal that has befallen the author. Those who know about Alexie’s recent troubles have been saddened and disillusioned. Books, their heroic characters, and the talented writers who create them can make a huge difference in a young person’s life. When these heroes fall, it can be devastating. I was impressed by a recent essay that calls out how we lionize and anoint a single spokesperson for a group, when we’d do better to spotlight a diversity of voices:  “Why Sherman Alexie’s Sexual Misconduct Seems Like a Betrayal.”

The Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association released its new Event Code of Conduct.   It is meant for booksellers, librarians, exhibitors, guests, attendees, and volunteers. The new code states, in part:

“Prohibitive behavior includes offensive verbal comments related to gender, gender identity and expression, age, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, ethnicity, and religion; deliberate intimidation, stalking, following, sustained disruption of talks or other events; unwelcome photography or recording, physical contact, or sexual attention.”

Books, their heroic characters, and the talented writers who create them can make a huge difference in a young person’s life. When these heroes fall, it can be devastating.

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With climate change, snowpack will decline in central Oregon. A view of two Sisters.

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We’ve been enjoying these for several days.

 

Turning Homeward

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Blossoms from a gardening class, “Flowers to Feed Your Soul,” alongside a small gem of a memoir by Adrienne Ross Scanlan.

 

“Sockeye. Chum. Coho. Chinook. Pink. Steelhead. When I moved to Seattle in the late 1980s, people talked of fish once seen in creeks that had long since been forced under strip malls and parking lots; they spoke of how many salmon they used to catch and how big those sockeye or Chinook were. The anadromous Pacific salmon and trout that had once dominated the rivers and streams of the Pacific Northwest – Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Northern California, British Columbia, and reaching into Alaska – seemed to be everywhere yet nowhere, appearing and then disappearing like an old family ghost, spoken of often but usually in the past tense. Like ghosts fading from human memory, the salmon’s return to their ancestral home seemed to become more tenuous with each passing year.” Turning Homeward: Restoring Hope and Nature in the Urban Wild, by Adrienne Ross Scanlan

Several readers of my post about the memoir You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me were moved by Sherman Alexie imagining the last salmon trying (and failing) to make its way past the newly built Grand Coulee Dam. Without wild salmon, he wrote, his Native American parents and his people had become spiritual orphans.

Here is another memoir haunted by salmon, written by a woman who moved from upstate New York to Seattle and wanted to cultivate a sense of belonging in her new surroundings. Adrienne Ross Scanlan sought connections with nature in order to form bonds with her new home.

As a citizen scientist, Scanlan ventured to hidden places in Seattle where streams and waterways had been diverted by urbanization – on the edge of McMansion housing developments and golf courses, underneath overpasses and inner city bridges – so she could help monitor salmon runs. Along with other volunteers, she restored habitats by salvaging native plants and removing invasive species.

She writes:

“Time and again, I would see this coming together of strangers engaged in restoring some small and often overlooked place. Time and again, my notions of how to save the world expanded beyond protests and boycotts, citizen lobbying, and picketing to also include these quieter sustained actions of repair. There was little time to talk before splitting off to our physical tasks, yet I still met bearded fish geeks and stout-bellied businessmen, veterans and vegetarians, Native Americans, recreational and commercial fishermen and fisherwomen, high school students needing community service credits, and parents and grandparents introducing their younger children to a world beyond electronic screens.”

Scanlan’s deepening connections to the natural world and to like-minded volunteer citizens bring her out of herself and offer solace as she copes with the death of her father. The salmon’s epic struggle to move upstream against all odds in order to procreate resonates as Adrienne meets the man she’ll spend her life with and they contemplate starting a family.

“…I’d have my new home, the one created when Jim and I moved in together. It wasn’t lost on me that now that I was finally ready to create a permanent home, Jim and I couldn’t afford to buy a house in Seattle’s hot, if not inflamed, real estate market. So we rented. We turned over soil in a backyard planting box long ignored by former tenants and an absentee landlord, put in compost, and planted seedlings of broccoli and tomatoes, raspberries and strawberries; we unpacked boxes, compared housewares, and cruised Ikea and Goodwill and yard sales for bookcases and bric-a-brac; we discussed whether one day we could afford to put an offer on our rented house with its double lot, incense cedar, wildly overgrown laurel and holly, and close proximity to good public schools. Then we compared our health insurance policies, and we realized that the window for adding me to Jim’s policy at the University of Washington would close in November. So we got a marriage license, called our best friends to be best man and matron of honor, and had a rushed wedding in our living room with a ceremony performed by a justice of the peace whom we never saw before and will never see again. And we waited to see if we’d been successful in creating the family we both want, just as I waited for another fish to head upstream…”

 

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Reading Turning Homeward was partly what inspired me to enroll in Oregon’s Master Naturalist Program, as a way to connect with our new home in central Oregon. For homework, we research and write short essays about endangered or “sensitive” critters like sagebrush sparrows, great grey owls, and western pond turtles. Now, I wonder about their well being whenever my husband and I are outdoors.  Here, a small herd of deer keeps an eye on me as I explore a piece of land that may become our new home. (By the way, many states have master naturalist programs.)

 

Through a difficult pregnancy and the premature birth of her daughter, Scanlan watches the salmon and learns resiliency.

“Her first spring, Arielle lay snuggled in fleece blankets in her incubator. Her second spring, I wheeled Arielle in her stroller around Green Lake to show her turtles. Turtles, cattails, red-winged blackbirds, daffodils – it was all the same to Arielle, all part of a big world she had yet to discover.

As Orwell wrote, ” …Spring is still Spring. The atom bombs are piling up in the factories, the police are prowling through the cities, the lies are streaming from the loudspeakers, but the earth is still going round the sun, and neither the dictators nor the bureaucrats, deeply as they disapprove of the process, are able to prevent it.”

 

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Turning Homeward cover illustration by Linda Feltner.  Adrienne Ross Scanlan writes, “My hope is that Turning Homeward contributes to a growing literature of what the historian William Cronon calls ‘care taking tales – tales of love and respect, of belonging and responsibility,’ created when humans are knowledgeable about and committed to the places they care about, whether the faraway wilderness or the nearby neighborhood. Some of my tales are of success, others of failure; some are of lessons learned, others of questions that linger. I hope that each one is a cairn along the trail toward home.”

 

Sherman Alexie writes of his family and his people becoming spiritual orphans without the wild salmon. In her memoir, Pacific salmon seem to be Adrienne Ross Scanlan’s spirit animal.

As wildlife becomes threatened and disappears, do we humans risk becoming spiritual orphans? Do you think we realize, as we go about our daily lives, the magnitude of what we stand to lose? Going forward, what do you think will happen?

The memoir I didn’t want to write about

YouDon'tHavetoSay“My name is Sherman Alexie and I was born from loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss.

And loss.”  

 – Sherman Alexie, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me

I was all set to write about Sherman Alexie’s newly published memoir, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, when I found out he has joined the ranks of those accused in the #MeToo movement.

I’d read a short while ago that children’s and young adult book publishing is the latest industry rocked by scandal, as women in publishing have come forward to tell of sexual assault and harassment by book editors, publishers, agents, and lauded authors who wield tremendous power in the literary world. Authors such as Sherman Alexie, a Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian who grew up in abject poverty on a reservation and who won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature in 2007 for his best-selling novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.

I was especially interested in this because I began my career in New York City, back in the day, in educational publishing for children and young adults. I experienced uncomfortable moments with a few men in the course of my work, but nothing like what has been recounted by women in the news recently. Now, looking back, what strikes me most is the pervasive gender inequality in the industry and how clueless I was about the serious sexual harassment and assault taking place in the workplace. (Granted, I worked in educational publishing, which was less glamorous and high stakes.) Women who experienced this were pressured into silence and isolation.

Men held nearly all of the power in book publishing – they were the ones who rose to become executive publishers and celebrated authors – while women, especially those in entry-level positions, were paid salaries difficult to get by on in New York. I don’t recall discussing this much with my female publishing friends and colleagues, except to complain about the low salaries. It was just the way things were.

So here’s a conundrum: In his memoir, Sherman Alexie writes about the rape culture on reservations. Combining prose and poetry, he writes beautifully and comically about his ambivalent relationship with his difficult, flawed, and heroic mother, Lillian, who was born of a rape and who was raped herself and subsequently gave birth to his half-sister, who later died in a house fire.

He writes of the Native American women in his personal life with ambivalence – he and his siblings were loved, protected (sometimes) and psychologically harmed by Lillian. But he writes of Native American women as a group with great empathy because of what they have endured on the reservation and in American culture. Sherman Alexie, in interviews, public appearances, and writing classes, mentors and encourages young writers, particularly Native American writers and women, to step up and take their rightful place in the world.

Yet now Sherman Alexie stands accused of inappropriate sexual overtures. He stands accused of appearing to encourage and value the writing of many a young woman, including Native American women, and of ultimately using his celebrity as a ruse to try and have sex with them. In addition to sexual harassment or abuse, he may be responsible for silencing, or at least shaking the confidence of, talented women writers. He has denied some of the allegations, while acknowledging that he has hurt people with his behavior.

On learning of this, my view of Sherman Alexie as a memoirist and as a human being has of course changed, and my thoughts about his work are complicated in ways I haven’t sorted out.

I would like to see Alexie’s career as a mentor and teacher curtailed, but I don’t think this means Alexie’s memoir should not be read.  Just as we shouldn’t remove from circulation the movies of Roman Polanski and Woody Allen, or cleanse our museums of Picasso’s paintings, or let the work of J.D. Salinger go out of print.

Maybe we need to critically view their work in a different light if we are to have any hope of making sense of this mess.

Here’s an excerpt from Sherman Alexie’s memoir:

“If some evil scientist had wanted to create a place where rape would become a primary element of a culture, then he would have built something very much like an Indian reservation. That scientist would have put sociopathic and capitalistic politicians, priests, and soldiers in absolute control of a dispossessed people – of a people stripped of their language, art, religion, history, land, and economy. And then, after decades of horrific physical, emotional, spiritual, and sexual torture, that scientist would have removed those torturing politicians, priests, and soldiers, and watched as an epically wounded people tried to rebuild their dignity. And, finally, that scientist would have taken notes as some of those wounded people turned their rage on other wounded people.

My family did not escape that mad scientist’s experiment.”

Maybe part of the solution is to work toward a culture of greater compassion. To not turn away or remain silent if a person or a group is being harmed. Because they, in turn, may harm others.

“In 1938, five years after construction began on the Grand Coulee Dam, a wild salmon made its way to the face of that monolith and could not pass. That was the last wild salmon that attempted to find a way around, over, or through the dam into the upper Columbia and Spokane rivers. That was the last wild salmon that remembered.

The Interior Salish, my people, had worshipped the wild salmon since our beginnings. That sacred fish had been our primary source of physical and spiritual sustenance for thousands of years.

My mother and father were members of the first generation of Interior Salish people who lived entirely without wild salmon.

My mother and father, without wild salmon, were spiritual orphans.”

Can you separate the work from the artist or writer? Or are the two intertwined and to be viewed as such? Have you read Sherman Alexie’s memoir or any of his many novels and poems?

 

 

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