Mountain, desert, iceberg adrift…and Books Can Save a Life, 2018

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Antarctic mountain, 2017. (Photo by J. Hallinan)

 

Adrift, and a timely new edition of a little-known book

One year ago, my husband left for a two-week expedition to Antarctica. He traveled with 90 other tourists aboard a former research vessel and ice breaker. It was the trip of a lifetime, and he was among the sixteen or so tourists who ventured out kayaking. I asked him to bring back some sounds of Antarctica, and he did.

Finally, in November, I created an audio essay, “Adrift,” from some of those recordings, and it was published as part of my “From Where I Stand” series on Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built + Natural Environment. The audio essay is six minutes long, and I hope you’ll take a few moments and listen. I would appreciate comments, thoughts, and feedback here or on Terrain.org. If you’re intrigued, please check out the other poems, articles, letters, and features on Terrain.org, an outstanding online journal.

I gave my audio essay the title “Adrift” for a variety of reasons. For one thing, this past summer a massive iceberg broke off from the Antarctic mainland, alarming climate scientists and environmentalists. The rogue iceberg has since been floating away from mainland Antarctica’s Larsen C ice shelf. “Adrift” also came to mind because our country is more seriously adrift than ever in regards to acknowledging climate change and taking action.

 

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Encounter with an Antarctic glacier

 

This past Christmas, our older son who is the avid reader brought home the novel Ice by Anna Kavan. I’d been seeing the 50th Anniversary Edition online, but I’d never heard of the book or the author. Curious, I read the novel in an evening. It embodies the lost feeling of being adrift in the worst possible way. It’s difficult to summarize Ice, except to say that it is a singular, dystopian masterpiece that is eerily of our time, even though it was written in the 1960s. Reading it at this particular moment is especially resonant, given the recent bomb cyclone and deep freeze in the eastern half of the United States. In the novel, ice and bone-chilling cold encroach on the world due to an unnamed environmental or nuclear disaster. Ice is, in part, the story of an ecocatastrophe.  (This is the apt word of a New York Times reviewer, not mine). 

It is also the story of a man searching for a woman; he finds her but then loses her. He finds her again but then is somehow apart from her. And on and on, his search continues, as in a dream from which he can’t awaken. Reviewers say that his endless, obsessive search is in part a metaphor for the author’s struggle with drug addiction.

In the novel’s foreword, Jonathan Lethem writes that Ice has a nightmarish quality, with a disjointed, endless loop of a narrative similar to the style of Kazuo Ishiguro, and I know what he means: the tone and narrative reminded me of Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled. It’s a disturbing novel by a relatively unknown author who has not gotten the attention she deserves, an arresting but bleak story. There is, though, a note of redemption on the last pages.

 

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A dark story with an unconventional narrative that may frustrate some readers. If you like this type of fiction, it’s well worth reading.

 

Books Can Save a Life, 2018

In a sense, my husband and I have been adrift, too, but in a more positive way. If you’ve been following Books Can Save a Life, you know that in October we left our dear, long-time upstate New York home and embarked on a cross country journey by car and train, stopping at several National Parks and scenic places in search of adventure and a new home.

In November, we landed in Portland, Oregon and in December we found the place that we’ll be calling home, at least for the next year: the high desert of Bend, Oregon. We’ve signed a year’s lease on an adorable bungalow in Bend’s historic district, known as Old Bend. Our intention is to spend the year immersing in nature – a face of nature that is novel and new for us, embodied in the dry climate east of the Cascade mountains.

We’d also like to see if we can learn to live more sustainably, in a more ecologically responsible way.

For example, we’ve chosen to live in a neighborhood where we can walk to the grocery store, the library, church, coffee shops, and restaurants. At the moment, we own one car, not two. We may take classes in permaculture and we’re looking into Oregon’s Master Naturalist and Master Gardener programs. Joe has signed up to renew his Wilderness First Responder Certification.

On Books Can Save a Life, books will continue to be the unifying thread, but I hope also to write about our lifestyle changes and their challenges. Concurrently, I’ll continue to highlight environmental and nature writers such as Barry Lopez, Wendell Berry, Terry Tempest Williams, Bill McKibben, and other modern-day prophets who are deeply connected to the natural world.

As always, I hope to feature other important, topical fiction and nonfiction as well. Jaron Lanier was one of the writers new to me in 2017 who impressed me the most, with his vision of a humanitarian information/technology economy. These are challenging times, and I’d like to focus on novelists and nonfiction writers like Lanier who give us visions of a more humane world.

 

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A different kitchen window, a new view. This day, we awoke to lots of sunshine.

 

Originally, I began writing Books Can Save a Life to extend my author platform in preparation for publishing a memoir about mental illness in my family. Now, I have a rather ungainly memoir draft that needs cutting and that’s offering me plenty of opportunities for further creativity and deepening. (In other words, it needs revising. :))

As time goes on I’m more convinced that memoirs are making a difference. To that end, on Books Can Save a Life I’ll continue to occasionally tell you about memoirs that I think are exceptional, as well as books and writers concerned with maintaining and deepening creative practices like writing and art.

In the meantime, here are a few glimpses of our new home:

 

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Our former backyard in New York had two large beech trees and a hemlock tree. I think we must have been unconsciously looking for the same thing: now we have three huge ponderosa pines.

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Lightly frosted ponderosa pine. When it snows here, the sky is silvery-white, not the dark gray of places we’re used to. Of course, we haven’t been here long, so we’re not sure what is typical!

 

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A Charlie Brown tree

 

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Raised beds waiting to be reclaimed

 

Pinecones

A lifetime supply

 

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Old Bend bungalows are painted in deep, earthy colors.

 

Pumice

The Cascade Mountains were formed from volcanic activity in the Pacific Ring of Fire. The home we’re renting, and many of the homes in Old Bend, have foundations made from pumice, and pillars and chimneys fashioned from basalt, which formed from rapidly cooling lava.

 

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A view from Mount Bachelor, where Joe and I went snowshoeing amidst the downhill skiers. This snow-capped mountain is one of the Three Sisters (I think!). The volunteer rangers who were our guides told us about the volcanic history of the Cascades. They also mentioned that Bend will be a major disaster relief center when the Cascadia earthquake happens sometime in the next fifty years. People here say “when,” and not “if” when they talk about the Cascadia quake.

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All the books are in place in our new home, of course.

 

Next up: Our older son recommended Ice, which was my final read of 2017. I’m giving equal time to our younger son, whose Christmas gift to us was Let My People Go Surfing by Yvon Chouinard. It’s a tremendously inspiring book (even though I have no interest in starting a business), my first read of 2018, originally meant to be a manual for Patagonia employees. I know that sounds boring, but it’s not. It’s been translated into ten language. A new edition was published in 2016.

 

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Happy New Year to all, and let me know what you’re reading!

Winter Solstice, 2017

Nestle

“Nestle, as we later named her, was a baby sparrow that had been kicked out of the nest because of a deformity of one of her legs…She found refuge in a house of humans totally ignorant of her special needs. There were so many reasons she should not have survived and yet she did.” – Kathleen J. Maloney, artist. This stunning Christmas card, printed from a woodblock creation by Kathy, was waiting for me in Portland when we completed our cross country travels.

 

In search of a new home, my husband and I sold our house of many years in Rochester, New York and on October 14 began a road trip that took us south to St. Petersburg, Florida, west to California, then north to Portland, Oregon.

 

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Washington DC, Union Station

 

We arrived in Portland on Thanksgiving eve but, sadly, a week and a half later, someone in our extended family passed away, and so we flew back east for the funeral and family time. On the return trip west, we took a three-day Amtrak train along the north coast, the only coast we hadn’t yet explored. We spent hours looking out our sleeper car window and sitting in the observation car as we passed through landscapes new to us: North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, and eastern Washington.

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Martinsville, W. Virginia

We traveled over 10,000 miles by car and train, covered 30 states, visited four national parks (actually, five, but it was dark when our train passed through Montana’s Glacier National Park), plus the place where artist Georgia O’Keeffe lived and worked, Ghost Ranch Education and Retreat Center in New Mexico. We saw Savannah, St. Petersburg, Mobile, New Orleans, Tucson, Sedona, and San Francisco where our son lives, in addition to several smaller cities, and we had a fun afternoon layover in Chicago.

The first stop on our long journey was one of the best: Audubon, New Jersey, where we visited with my good friend and college roommate of many years ago, Kathy – an accomplished artist – and her husband, Steve. They entertained us with the beautiful story of Nestle, a wounded baby sparrow they adopted this past summer and nursed back to health and life. I wrote about it in my post, Sparrow, Art, Life.

Kathy gave us a tour of the creative spaces in their home, including her studio and basement workshop, where Steve makes custom frames for her art work. I loved talking about creativity and the creative life with her – a few hours of conversation was for me a powerful dose of inspiration.

I was thrilled when, thanks to auspicious timing, a stunning Christmas card printed from the wood block art of Nestle that Kathy made was waiting for us at journey’s end.

Kathy’s work is so connected to nature, and so has my writing been of late. During our travels, we saw wild beauty but, at times, also an unbridled pillaging of the earth that reveals an ugly inhumanity toward people and communities as well. This has been so since humans have walked the earth, but now we are almost out of time if we are to avoid climate change disaster and inhabit the earth in a new way. The situation is much graver because people in positions of power are working against this very thing.

 

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Chicago landscape

 

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. Now that we have raised our children, my husband and I are planning our next great endeavor, which we hope will be closely tied to nature and changing the status quo.

More about that in future posts. In the meantime, here are snippets from Kathy and Steve’s story of welcoming Nestle into their family and launching her into life. As Kathy said, never before had they experienced such a bond with a different species.

“Baby birds eat every 20 minutes or so and we took turns feeding her water-soaked dry cat food. We even gave her water through a tiny medicine dropper, which apparently was one of our many mistakes, and yet she didn’t drown.”

 

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“Just as amazing as her physical development was the level of trust she showed in us. We were, after all, her surrogate family. Steve even was able to give her a sparrow massage ever so gently along her back and we watched her relax into the palm of his hand and close her eyes. At night, she would nestle into the crook of his arm and just sit, totally at ease.”

 

“We carried the cage outside and placed it in the meditation garden under the bird feeders. After several days we realized she just wanted to be outside and we opened the cage so she could join her fellow sparrows. Eventually she flew off but returned at the end of the day and spent the night back in the safety of her cage in the house.”

“The most amazing thing began to happen during that last week. As we carried the cage outside in the mornings she would begin to flap her wings excitedly. We realized she was aware that she was going outside to join the backyard birds!”

“If she heard our voices, she would come close, even landing on my arm at one point. Then, one night she didn’t come back to the garden at dusk and all we could do was hope she would be safe. The last time I saw her that week one-on-one she was two feet away perched on top of the wooden fence in my herb garden. As always, I told her to ‘be safe, little one’ and then she flew off.”

 

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Kathy and Steve’s gardens in late fall, where occasionally they are still treated to a glimpse of Nestle.

 

“The gift that she brought to us that hot summer night was the gift of hope and the realization that we are all more closely related to one another on this sometimes crazy, always amazing planet.”

What a wonderful story, and I’m so glad Kathy and Steve shared it.

The Open Gate

If you are still looking for a special, one-of-a-kind holiday gift, or if you would like a truly unique book of poems for the new year, I highly recommend Emily Hancock’s just-published volume, The Open Gate. I “met” Emily online when we took a class from poet and writer Kim Stafford. Her poems are exquisite and nature infused. The volume was typeset and printed by Gaspereau Press in Nova Scotia. The covers were created and printed at St. Brigid Press, which Emily owns and operates.

The editor of Appalachian Journal says of Emily’s poems:

Emily Hancock’s poetry is as inviting as this book’s title: The Open Gate swings wide and asks us to “step through” and see the world through her remarkable eyes. Her poems are full of birdsongs and shifting light through trees in the Blue Ridge. They show us what we didn’t see right in front of us. Her poems are meditative and hopeful—and dazzling.”

You can order The Open Gate at this link. Scroll down at the link to watch Emily give a short talk and reading from her collection of poems.

Next: I’ll tell you where we have decided to make our home and what the focus of Books Can Save a Life will be in the coming months. On this brief, dark solstice day, I wish all of you, my faithful and delightful readers and friends, happy holidays aglow with the spirit of the season, and all good things in the new year!

 

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Marshall Field’s, Chicago

 

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Journey’s end: Portland Union Station

 

 

The hour of land

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A lone soul at Emerald Pools, Zion National Park. “Wilderness is an antidote to the war within ourselves.” The Hour of Land, Terry Tempest Williams

 

Two glorious, sun-filled November days in Utah’s Zion National Park stand out when I look back on the cross county trip we completed on Thanksgiving eve. Visiting late in the season turned out to be perfect – the weather was warm and the park wasn’t crowded with tourists.

 

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Zion National Park. “This is land that should not be sold.” – The Hour of Land, Terry Tempest Williams

 

We went to four national parks in all: Zion, Carlsbad Caverns, the Grand Canyon, and Bryce Canyon. Zion was my favorite, while my husband’s was Bryce Canyon.

I found it frustrating that, while we took in some of our country’s most spectacular public lands, our current administration seemed to be dismantling the Environmental Protection Agency and has been intent upon shrinking our national monuments. People and corporations with great wealth, power and influence are determining the fate of our most beautiful and sacred lands.

In one of the national park bookstores, I bought Terry Tempest Williams’ The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks. It was published in 2016 to celebrate the 100th birthday of the National Park Service. Andrea Wulf, the author of The Invention of Nature, which I wrote about in a previous post, loves this book and so do I.

Terry Tempest Williams is one of our foremost nature writers and an important defender of the natural world. Years ago, I read her memoir, Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place and never forgot it. Williams was sitting on her pregnant mother’s lap one day in the 1950s when she actually witnessed the test explosion of a nuclear bomb in the Utah desert. Williams’ mother, grandmother, and six aunts subsequently died of cancer. Her book showed me the possibilities of memoir, and how the places we come from are inseparable from our personal histories.

I’m about half-way through The Hour of Land, which is partly a personal account of Williams’ love affair with selected national parks; partly a history of the founding of these protected places; and partly a lyrical tribute to nature and a call to stop pillaging the earth.

 

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“This is the Hour of Land, when our mistakes and shortcomings must be placed in the perspective of time. The Hour of Land is where we remember what we have forgotten: We are not the only species who lives and dreams on the planet. There is something enduring that circulates in the heart of nature that deserves our respect and attention.”

 

I’ve especially enjoyed her essays about Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, “Keep promise,” and Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, “All this is what the wind knows.” Williams writes of how the Rockefeller family for years enjoyed the unparalleled beauty of their Wyoming ranch, then secretly bought thousands more acres and donated it all for the creation of Grand Teton National Park.

She surmises that Teddy Roosevelt would be appalled that his namesake national park has been surrounded and encroached upon by drilling and fracking in the Bakken shale oil fields which span several states and part of Canada. The fields represent “the biggest rush of oil and gas in American history,” according to Williams. Her memoir addresses not only how we are treating the land, but how our insatiable desire to mine its resources can be inhumane and undermine communities.

Ironically, Williams’ father and two brothers have made their living in oil and gas. She writes:

“My brother Dan was one of these men who came to work in the Bakken in 2014 to make money. He worked during the winter on the frack line, washing off the chemicals used to break up the strata below so the oil can seep up to the surface more easily. The brutality of the weather only approximated the brutality of the work. Sixty degrees below zero in howling winds is man against nature; but week after week morphing into months of solitary darkness and freezing nights alone cramped in the cab of a truck is crazy making. Like so many of the workers profiled in Jesse Moss’s revelatory documentary about the Bakken oil fields, The Overnighters, one of the roughnecks hoping to turn his life around by the big boom said, ‘I arrived broken and left shattered.’ What began as a dream becomes a matter of survival, and for some, as in the case of my brother, just barely.”

Before our cross country trip, I know nothing of the Bakken oil fields. Traveling west, we enjoyed the exquisite beauty of places like Zion, but we couldn’t avoid scenes of a brutal existence when we passed through oil and gas fields similar to those at Bakken, with rows of storage containers to house workers, six or seven to a container. According to Williams, typically the worker shifts are twelve days on followed by twelve days off.

During our travels, we met a woman who lives near one of the communities upended by unfettered drilling and fracking. She spoke of the invasion of thousands of workers from all over the country looking for limited housing; exorbitant rents; and roughnecks who frightened the locals. One man she knew always carried a gun, even when he emptied the trash in his backyard.

 

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We saw rows and rows of temporary housing as we traveled through oil and gas country.

 

Learning about all of this, I thought of two movies: Wind River, which came out this year, and the 2007 movie by Paul Thomas Anderson,  There Will Be Blood .

 

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A Zion elder. “Desert strategies are useful: In times of drought, pull your resources inward; when water is scarce, find moisture in seeds; to stay strong and supple, send a taproot down deep; run when required, hide when necessary; when hot go underground; do not fear darkness, it’s where one comes alive.”

 

But back to the beauty:

Last week I wrote about Molly Hashimoto’s book on watercolor painting, Colors of the West, and how each national park has its own palette. I especially liked Zion’s: the pink, russet, ochre and cream cliffs grab most of the attention, but I was also fascinated by the trees –  piñon, juniper, fir, spruce, maple, ash, cottonwood and aspen – and how their surprisingly delicate fall colors contrasted with the red-hued rocks.

 

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“Humility is born in wildness. We are not protecting grizzlies from extinction; they are protecting us from the extinction of experience as we engage with a world beyond ourselves. The very presence of a grizzly returns us to an ecology of awe. We tremble at what appears to be a dream yet stands before us on two legs and roars.”

 

On two consecutive days, we hiked to Zion’s Emerald Pools and to Weeping Rock, where we encountered the most peaceful and stunning natural places I’ve ever seen. Water compressed between layers of sandstone seeps out and gives rise to gentle, sparkling waterfalls (depending on the season) and lush hanging gardens.

Take a moment to enjoy one of the Emerald Pools:

 

 

And Weeping Rock:

 

Coming up: Our cross country trip took an unexpected turn, and what was waiting for me at journey’s end.

 

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The Virgin River Narrows. As you hike along this river trail, the canyon narrows to a series of slot canyons with almost no clearance. (We did not hike that far in.) The hike is rugged, and sometimes requires wading through deep water. The posted instructions for what to do in case of a flash flood were helpful but unnerving.

 

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“This is what we can promise the future: a legacy of care. That we will be good stewards and not take too much or give back too little, that we will recognize wild nature for what it is, in all its magnificent and complex history – an unfathomable wealth that should be consciously saved, not ruthlessly spent. Privilege is what we inherit by our status as Homo sapiens living on this planet. This is the privilege of imagination. What we choose to do with our privilege as a species is up to each of us.”

Colors of the West

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Bryce Canyon, sunset. “When we enter the landscape to learn something, we are obligated to pay attention rather than constantly to pose questions. To approach the land as we would a person, by opening an intelligent conversation. And to stay in one place, to make of that one, long observation a fully dilated experience. We will always be rewarded if we give the land credit for more than we imagine, and if we imagine it as being more complex even than language. In these ways we begin to find a home, to sense how to fit a place.” – Barry Lopez, as quoted in Molly Hashimoto’s marvelous Colors of the West: An Artist’s Guide to Nature’s Palette

 

I found Molly Hashimoto’s luscious book in one of the national park bookstores I browsed on our road trip across the country. It was a great companion as we toured the Southwest, even though I did no painting or sketching – just hiking and exploring.

Molly teaches at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology, the North Cascades Institute, and Yellowstone Forever Institute.

 

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Molly devotes a chapter to each color: green, blue, gold, red, orange, and violet.

 

Molly Hashimoto had an epiphany that led to her artistic vision after encountering the work of Thomas Moran:

“This rendezvous with Moran compelled me to reconsider what it meant to be an artist – how to work, where ideas are generated, the purpose of art. I felt that I, too, had to create work in the field, to keep sketchbooks and journals to record my own experiences in the outdoors. Of course, I had a few doubts. After all, this awakening occurred in what I then felt was middle age, and I wondered if it wasn’t just a little late to be undertaking this new project. But enthusiasm won the day. And now I always tell my students it is never too late to start keeping sketchbooks.”

 

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Each national park, and every natural place, has a palette, says Molly Hashimoto. This is Rialto Beach in Olympic National Park. This watercolor painting appears in Molly’s “blue” chapter. “The deeper blue becomes, the more urgently it summons man towards the infinite…” – Wassily Kandinsky

 

I love Molly’s instructions for palettes of different landscapes:

Skies:

Clear: Use a very weak phthalo blue red shade. The zenith may be a redder, more intense blue, so try adding carbazole violet or cobalt blue to that part of the sky.

Dawn and sunset: Permanent alizarin crimson, hansa yellow, pyrrol orange, perylene red, carbazole violet, phthalo blue red shade, indanthrone blue and quinacridone burnt orange are all colors that may capture the varied shades seen at these hours.

Sea Stacks and Rocks:

Dark rocks seen in silhouette: Use phthalo blue red shade mixed with quinacridone burnt orange and carbazole violet. Or try ultramarine blue plus quinacridone burnt orange plus carbazole violet. 

 

Sedona

This is Sedona, Arizona and the view just down the street from the home of family members we visited on our cross country road trip. What a stunning palette of colors…..

 

Molly includes color instructions for trees and forests, rivers, creeks, tarns, and lakes, glaciers and snowfields, cliffs and rocks summer coastal prairies and meadows, sand, ocean water, and autumn hues.

 

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Red Rock Ranger District, Coconino National Forest, Sedona.

 

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Grand Canyon South Rim, late afternoon. It has many moods and an infinite number of palettes depending on the time of day, the season, the weather, and a host of other variables.

 

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Another view of the Grand Canyon, a different time of day. “Traveling and sketching in the off-season—when children and college students have returned to school and many people are back at work—feels so much more like the earlier artists’ and travelers’ experience of our national parks and monuments. The sense of discovery is keener when there are fewer people. And the visual thrill of brilliant fall colors is augmented by all our senses: the silence, the fragrance of dry leaves, the feeling of the chill morning air. Beyond that, we know that the shorter days mean that winter is coming, so we value these hours even more.” – Molly Hashimoto. (I agree. My husband and I explored these parks and places in November, which turned out to be gloriously warm with many sun-filled days. And not many people.)

 

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Bryce Canyon. “Ochres and siennas are colors made from earth compounds tinted with iron oxides and are found in some of the earliest art….”   Molly Hashimoto

 

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We met an artist and her husband. She was painting with oils.

 

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Life on the edge. This is a limber pine (pinus flexilis)

 

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The huge fireplace in El Tovar Lodge at the Grand Canyon. In the afternoon, after we’d hiked part of the South Rim, it got chilly and I appreciated this roaring fire. I sat on one of the comfy sofas and read a book.

 

Do you have a favorite national park? Do you keep a nature journal or sketchbook, or do you paint what you encounter in nature?

The spirits of Ghost Ranch

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These low, red hills fascinated Georgia O’Keeffe. Click on this link to see one of her paintings of this landscape. An O’Keeffe painting recently sold for $45 million.

Detours can be the best parts of a journey.

Our detour to Ghost Ranch Education and Retreat Center in northern New Mexico was a turning point in our trip, and a magical gateway to the American Southwest. I’d mentioned to my husband when we were driving through New Mexico that I wanted to see where Georgia O’Keeffe had lived and painted. Joe looked online and discovered that we could stay at Ghost Ranch.

At more than 20,000 acres, Ghost Ranch is a world-renowned center of paleontology, anthropology, and archeology, rich with fossil quarries that contain some of the most important dinosaur bones ever discovered. Georgia O’Keeffe painted many of her masterpieces here, and more than 100 movies have been filmed at Ghost Ranch (including Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and No Country for Old Men.)

 

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This juniper near O’Keeffe’s home, or one like it, inspired her painting, Gerald’s Tree.

 

Now owned by the Presbyterian Church, Ghost Ranch attracts thousands of visitors a year who come here for spiritual retreats, art and music classes, yoga, outdoor adventures and trail rides, or as a temporary refuge if you’re passing through, as my husband and I were.

Ghost Ranch is said to be haunted by spirits. It sure felt that way the night Joe and I arrived, in the dark, after driving up, up, and up on a twisting, turning road with many scary drop-offs. The welcome center had closed, and the staff had left our room key. We found our way in the dark and silence to the dorm, a no-frills adobe structure that had been staff quarters on this exclusive retreat for the wealthy in the 1920s and 1930s.

You had to be invited to come to Ghost Ranch. Georgia O’Keeffe was famous by the time she finagled an invitation. Others who came were Charles Lindbergh’s family and the Robert Wood Johnson family, founders of Johnson & Johnson. The R.W. Johnson former home is now the library at Ghost Ranch. The Lindbergh’s wanted a secret, private escape, as this was after their infant son had been kidnapped. Charles flew over Ghost Ranch and developed its first aerial view map.

 

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Cerro Pedernal (flint hill), O’Keeffe’s favorite mountain, which she painted several times. Her ashes are scattered here.

 

All was darkness as Joe and I made our way to our room, except for the stars. The Milky Way cut a huge swath in the sky.

Ghost Ranch is said to be haunted by the spirits of the nomadic Native Americans that roamed here for thousands of years. Maybe, also, by the restless spirits of the cattle rustler brothers who, back in the day, hid stolen cattle in this box canyon and along the Chama River. Eventually, the two brothers had a falling out and one killed the other. The local townspeople came for the remaining brother and hung him from a tree that still stands on the property.

 

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Ghost Ranch has a herd of sheep descended from those brought by the Spanish hundreds of years ago. Their wool is sent to a local woolen mill.

 

Our first morning at Ghost Ranch, my husband and I awoke to fluffy clouds that gave way to warm sunshine, which bathed a landscape of unusual rock formations and stunning mountains. The land glowed in hues of vermilion, ochre, gold, cream, and dusty brown.

 

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A typical fireplace. This is in the home of the cattle rustlers who originally inhabited Ghost Ranch land. It is now a museum.

 

The staff and guides at Ghost Ranch were welcoming and knowledgeable. While Joe hiked up to the cliff chimneys, I took a guided tour of the ranch and a trip into the hillsides, where we saw many features of the terrain that Georgia O’Keeffe painted. Wendy, our tour guide, was an expert on O’Keeffe’s art and life. She had samples of the artist’s paintings that she showed us alongside the actual landscape subjects that so fascinated O’Keeffe. Georgia had her automobile outfitted as a portable studio and painted in the desert all day long. When it got too hot, she rested underneath her car.

 

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This is the casita that Georgia O’Keeffe lived in her first summer at Ghost Ranch. O’Keeffe’s world famous photographer husband, Alfred Stieglitz, never visited Ghost Ranch during the summers his wife stayed there. He remained in New York, where he was occupied with his career and his mistress. He and Georgia wrote 25,000 pages of letters to each other. Their relationship is a fascinating study of passionate love and how two great artists supported each other in their work.

 

I also attended a church service in the chapel, where I met a retired chaplain and a minister who were from my home town. The couple had rented out their Cleveland condo and were spending the year living and volunteering at Ghost Ranch.

Joe and I loved the home-cooked meals –  breakfast, lunch, and dinner – in the Ghost Ranch dining hall, where you could meet and mingle with other guests who had come to take classes and watch the sun set in the evenings.

 

Georgia

This is an excellent biography of O’Keeffe by Roxana Robinson, a novelist whose fiction has been compared to the work of John Cheever.

 

We were at Ghost Ranch just short of two days and didn’t have time to explore all its riches.

 

AbiquiChurch

The Catholic church in the nearby town of Abiquiu. O’Keeffe had a home built on Ghost Ranch and then another in Abiquiu, which is now a museum.

 

So we hope to return someday.

 

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Cliff chimneys at Ghost Ranch

 

 

 

The Invention of Nature

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“Humboldt talked of ‘mankind’s mischief…which disturbs nature’s order’. There were moments in this life when he was so pessimistic that he painted a bleak future of humankind’s eventual expansion into space, when humans would spread their lethal mix of vice, greed, violence and ignorance across other planets. The human species could turn even those distant stars barren and leave them ‘ravaged’, Humboldt wrote as early as 1801, just as they were already doing with earth….”

“Maybe now is the moment for us and for the environmental movement to reclaim Alexander von Humboldt as our hero.”   – The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf

I didn’t have the camera or the skills to do justice to the landscape we drove through late one afternoon and into the evening on our cross-country journey. Mile after mile of drilling, fracking, and water pillaging, as far as the eye could see. We found our way into this surreal place unawares, and emerged a few hours later, shaken and sober.

 

Flame:Derrick

 

Living in the Finger Lakes region, I’ve been spoiled: citizens came together to successfully outlaw fracking. Scenes such as these are not unfamiliar to me, though. I grew up in Cleveland and saw heavy industry smokestacks often. But I have never seen anything on this scale before. Hundreds of gas flares marked the landscape as if there were some dire emergency – which I believe there is.

We arrived at our rather desolate, but welcome, motel room and, as timing would have it, that evening I finished reading The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf, about a man who, over 200 years ago, predicted that humans would wreak havoc on the environment. 

The Invention of NatureThe German scientist and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt has been largely forgotten, even though he was an international “rock star” of his time, and even though many parks, lakes, mountains, towns, and counties in the US are named after him. Andrea Wulf’s biography, published in 2015, has resurrected his legacy and spirit. Her book won the James Wright Award for Nature Writing, the Royal Geographical Society Ness Award, and many others, and it was named a best book of the year by many newspapers and publications.

It’s a wonderful read, especially if you love well written biographies with themes of history, nature, travel, and adventure.  Here’s how Humboldt’s story opens:

“They were crawling on hands and knees along a high narrow ridge that was in places only two inches wide. The path, if you could call it that, was layered with sand and loose stones that shifted whenever touched. Down to the left was a steep cliff encrusted with ice that glinted when the sun broke through the thick clouds. The view to the right, with a 1,000-foot drop, wasn’t much better. Here the dark, almost perpendicular walls were covered with rocks that protruded like knife blades.

Alexander Humboldt and his three companions moved in single file, slowly inching forward….It was 23 June 1802, and they were climbing Chimborazo, a beautiful dome-shaped inactive volcano in the Andes that rose to almost 21,000 feet, some 100 miles to the south of Quito in today’s Ecuador.”

As a young man, Humboldt spent five years exploring South America and, later in life, about a year traveling through Siberia. For much of the rest of his years, he conducted research and scientific experiments, lectured, taught, and wrote books about his findings. His books were unlike any seen before, with his discoveries about climate and the natural world. Nearly bankrupting himself, he hired botanical illustrators, naturalists, and researchers to assist him in creating magnificent volumes that were much in demand and translated into many languages.

Humboldt is incredibly important because he concluded that nature was a vast, interconnected global force, and that human impact locally could have ramifications globally.

He had the radical notion that nature did not exist to serve humanity. His work and ideas influenced Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and others. I like that Wulf devotes entire chapters to Darwin, Thoreau, Muir and a few others, so we can see how they carried Humboldt’s ideas forward in understanding nature and climate.

“… [John] Muir experienced the natural world in a new way….he now began to see connections. Everything was important in this grand big tangle of life. There existed no unconnected ‘fragment’, [John] Muir thought. Tiny organisms were as much part of this web as humankind. “Why ought man to value himself as more than an infinitely small unit of the one great unit of creation?’ Muir asked. “The cosmos,’ he said, using Humboldt’s term, would be incomplete without man but also without ‘the smallest transmicroscopic creature.’”

I love this description of Humboldt’s privately sponsored lectures, which women were allowed to attend. (At that time, women could not attend university lectures or meetings of scientific societies.)

“By not charging any entry fee, Humboldt democratized science: his packed audiences ranged from the royal family to coachmen, from students to servants, from scholars to bricklayers – and half of those attending were women.

With his gentle voice Humboldt took his audiences on a journey through the heavens and deep sea, across the earth, up the highest mountains and then back to a tiny fleck of moss on a rock. He talked about poetry and astronomy but also about geology and landscape painting. Meteorology, the history of the earth, volcanoes and the distribution of plants were all part of his lectures. He roamed from fossils to the northern lights, and from magnetism to flora, fauna and the migration of the human race. The lectures were a portrait of a vivid kaleidoscope of correlations that spanned the entire universe.”

 

Truck

Humboldt wrote prolifically. His most influential books are:

Cosmos: Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe (Five Volumes)

Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent during the years 1799 – 1804

Views of Nature

Natural gas tanks

 

“The connection between knowledge, art and poetry, between science and emotions – the ‘deeply-seated bond’, as Humboldt called it – is more important than ever before. Humboldt was driven by a sense of wonder for the natural world – a sense of wonder that might help us today realize that we will protect only what we love.”

 

 

Refinery

A refinery

 

Our reward for making it through the landscape in these pictures was a full moon rising.

 

Moonrise

 

Days later in our journey, we passed by Humboldt Toiyabe National Forest in eastern Nevada.

Coming up next, places and images of great beauty and more luscious books, I promise!

 

New Orleans

Tea

A whimsical front yard in the Algiers neighborhood of New Orleans

Making our way across the country, we spent two days in New Orleans – Halloween Eve and Halloween night.

The revelry was, as you can imagine, over the top both evenings. There were lots of children trick or treating. In the French quarter, there were parades galore and every elaborate costume you could imagine. The nights were warm and pleasant, and we enjoyed walking and watching the spectacle.

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One morning, we took a ferry ride across the Mississippi River to the quiet neighborhood of Algiers.

LittleAlgiersHouse

The streets there are lined with quaint shotgun-style homes, many being renovated.

StairwayGarden

Letters

CarnegieLibrary

There is a Carnegie library in Algiers….

SeedLibrary

…with a seed library in an old card catalog.

We loved the garden district, too. Great little shops, and the homes were old and stately, with lots of character, plenty of wrought iron, and well-tended gardens.

Vintage

A vintage shop in the garden district and a pumpkin-hued dress perfect for a Halloween ball.

Cemetary

Lafayette Cemetery with 19th century tombs

Hop on the trolley with me in the garden district:

Back in the French Quarter, I inquired about dipping pens in Papier Plume on Royal Street. I don’t have the faintest idea how to use them, but it’s part of my art exploration project. I was able to try out writing with various pens and nibs. A wonderful staff person analyzed how I hold the pen – I’m left-handed –  and recommended a set of nibs. He gave me a quick lesson on making strokes of various widths, too. I bought a pen, three nibs and sepia ink, and I can’t wait to try them.

PapierPlume

I found a shop, Papier Plume, that sells journals, stationery, wax & seals, dipping & fountain pens, inkwells, and calligraphy sets.

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I bought this set, made in Venice, with three nibs and sepia ink.

CafeDuMonde

On Halloween night, we had beignets – warm, light as feathers, covered in powdered sugar – and café au lait at Café du Monde on Decatur Street.

Coming up: Next on our journey we encountered great beauty, as well as something quite the opposite.

Old Florida

SpanishMoss

Savannah, Georgia

BookLadyOn our road trip across the US (south to Florida, then west to Tucson, Arizona, then north to Portland, Oregon) we spent nearly two weeks visiting family in the St. Petersburg area. Along the way, we stopped in Savannah, Georgia, my first time in that lovely city. An afternoon wasn’t nearly long enough, but we did visit The Book Lady Bookstore on East Liberty Street.

They had a display devoted to the Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor, who lived most of her life in Milledgeville, Georgia, where she raised peacocks and wrote short stories and novels. Her shocking story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” is taught in many high school English classes. If you haven’t read it, it’s well worth your time, I promise you. I’ve never forgotten that story, although I’m not a fan of O’Connor’s novels – her protagonists, obsessed with working out their salvation, are too strange for me.

FlanneryOconnor

A Flannery O’Connor display at The Book Lady

But seeing the display called up memories and reminded me how much I enjoyed her collection of letters, The Habit of Being. Many years ago, when I lived in New York City, the assistant rector of the Episcopal church I attended taught a class on Flannery O’Connor. Fleming, our rector, who was from the South, led us in reading her stories and letters, and I was extra thrilled because The New Yorker writer, Joseph Mitchell,  a Southerner himself, was in the class, too.

St. Petersburg

There are many things about Florida that I love, but I’m allergic to all the over-development and the acres of generic condos and shopping centers. There is plenty to do near the beautiful St. Pete waterfront though, and when our sons came down we enjoyed some of the shops and restaurants. (They enjoyed the music and night life, too.) We bought red snapper, grouper, and shrimp from a local fish market that had dozens of ice chests overflowing with fresh catches, and our sons did the cooking.

In Florida, I always look hard for bits of nature and local culture, so I was extra happy when we rented a sweet little apartment in a hidden alley in one of the older St. Petersburg neighborhoods. Some of the streets are cobblestone and lined SleepingPorchwith adorable Old Florida bungalows, many being renovated. Even though most of the windows of our airbnb were painted shut, we had air conditioning, and two large windows in the sleeping porch let in breezes from Tampa Bay two blocks away.

In the yard, I found lots of angel hair fern. We used to add this delicate bit of greenery to the roses we sold by the dozen in my family’s flower shop in Ohio.

This part of Florida reminds me of one of my favorite books growing up, The Yearling, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. Years later, I discovered, and loved, Marjorie’s memoir, Cross Creek. (There is a Cross Creek Cookery book, too.)

AngelHair

I love angel hair fern.

 
The ‘burbs

We had many happy visits with extended family in the St. Pete suburbs after we left our airbnb.  We walked in the neighborhood every day. It was warm and humid, with occasional light rain that felt wonderful.

 

SandhillCrane

A sandhill crane waits for a bus

 

Ibis

Ibis, following their leader

 

AfterRain

After the rain

 

BigLeaves

They grow them big,

 

Garden

My sister-in-law has a kitchen garden with herbs and veggies, including plenty of Thai basil.

 
We passed by this wind sculpture on our walk every day:

 

 
In the evenings, my niece, my sister-in-law and her mother, and I tried Chinese brush painting for the first time. We taught ourselves how to grind the ink, which is pressed into sticks and colorful rectangles, and mix it with water in an ink stone. Then we practiced brush strokes and painted our first, simple pictures. It was fun!

 

Chick

My attempt to paint a chick

 

RabbitBamboo

My sister-in-law’s mother made a beautiful rabbit and this beautiful bamboo.

 
The Panhandle

Eventually, it was time to say goodbye to family and move on to the Florida panhandle and points west along our Deep South route. We stayed in Destin, our final visit in Florida, which had a lovely beach that we had almost to ourselves. It was beside a sea turtle breeding ground and state park, and there was a hidden garden teeming with Monarch butterflies.

DestinBeach

Destin, Florida. There are military bases in nearby Pensacola, so we heard jets taking off from time to time.

 

Monarch

In a garden on the beach in Destin, there were hundreds of monarch butterflies.

 

Tracks

Places to go….

 

DestinSunrise

Sunrise, Destin, Florida. (Photo by J. Hallinan, who gets up much earlier than I do.)

 

TheYearling

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ classic coming-of-age story, set in backwoods Florida, 1930s

 

CrossCreek

Her memoir.

 

TheHabitofBeing

Flannery was a great writer of letters.

 

The Invention of Nature

This is what I’ve been reading on the road. It’s wonderful! More about it later…

Coming up: Mobile, Alabama and New Orleans

Traveling, immersing in nature, visiting bookstores. Do these experiences call up memories of books read long ago?

 

Sparrow, Art, Life

ArtistTable

An artist’s work table. The photo is the artist’s mother. The feathers are thought to be sparrow feathers. This past summer, Kathy (my college roommate and an accomplished artist) and her husband nursed and fed a one-legged baby sparrow ejected from its nest, helped her learn to fly, and acclimated her to the suburban “wild.” Kathy said she kept finding feathers in her yard, as if the birds were leaving small tokens of thanksgiving.

 

My husband and I and Books Can Save a Life have taken to the road!

We’ve left upstate New York, where we’ve lived for over thirty years, and are heading to one of our favorite cities, Portland, Oregon, via St. Petersburg, Florida, where we have family. The place we’ll ultimately call home is still to be determined, but in the meantime, we’re in search of happy adventures and detours.

I’m excited to share with you highlights of our auspicious first stop: Audubon, New Jersey, the home of my good friend and former college roommate, Kathy. She is an artist who specializes in printing, painting, and drawing. Here is a link to her IG site, @blueberry_hills. If you follow her, you’ll be treated to beautiful art along with her thoughts about the creative process and challenges particular to her project of the moment. Back in the day when we were roommates, Kathy was always working on an illustration, a painting, or illuminated calligraphy. Just being around the making of these beautiful pieces awakened my own creative spirit.

CreativityBooks

Books nourish an artist’s practice. I see familiar titles here on Kathy’s drawing table, and ones new to me that I look forward to reading.

 

I’m intrigued by the books and authors that inspire artists. Kathy keeps these close at hand on her drawing table. I’ve read and highly recommend these:

The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron

Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

The Art Spirit by Robert Henri

Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh

In Praise of Slowness by Carl Honorè

New to me are:

The Artisan Soul by Erwin McManus

The Wisdom to Know the Difference by Eileen Flanagan

Keep Calm and Carry On  (The title is based on a British motivational poster from World War II that was never actually used – it was for if and when Britain was invaded; the book is a collection of motivational quotes)

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Woodcut, ‘Welcome Home’/’Pineapple’

 

I decided to call this post “Sparrow, Art, Life” because a few weeks ago I wrote about Birds Art Life: A Year of Observation by Kyo Maclear. It seems to me that Kathy’s work, art and life blend together in a seamless way, and this can be so for the rest of us. Plus, a sparrow happened to come along that changed Kathy’s summer.

 

PineappleWoodcut

Detail of the woodblock Kathy carved to make the pineapple prints. The soft pine woodblock is a work of art, too, and woodblocks are often displayed as such. I deepened the color in this photo somewhat; the piece is beautiful – you can’t help wanting to touch the textured surface.

 

Kathy and her husband told us the fascinating story of their becoming foster parents to a baby sparrow. She said it was quite something to become so surprisingly intimate with a member of another species. Over the span of four weeks the sparrow, which they named Nestle, bonded with them. Nestle got to feeling quite comfortable snuggling up on Steve’s lap and going to sleep.

 

WaterAbstract

Exploration of wind across water, reflected trees. Woodcut, Akua ink on 400 count cotton sateen (a really nice pillow case). I find this piece and its production intriguing, mysterious, and unpredictable, and Kathy does too. It requires several steps and layerings of ink. Kathy was planning to create another water print the week after I left. She estimated the printing process would take about two days.

 

Taking care of Nestle, encouraging her to fly, and acclimating her to the wild was intensive, time consuming, and required a bit of research. Kathy and Steve ended up not following much of the advice they found online, but in the end they were successful. The process of letting go was quite moving; at first Nestle returned every evening and wanted to sleep in her cage, but eventually she stopped coming back. Now, occasionally, they spot Nestle in the backyard. I wonder if she remembers her human parents.

 

WaterDetail

Detail, water woodcut

 

We talked about getting close to nature in this way. Maybe if all of us had opportunities to bond with a creature of another species, we’d have more appreciation for the earth and become more inclined to care for the environment. Kathy said Nestle has inspired a unique art project that she’ll be working on in the coming months. I can’t wait to see it.

I found Kathy and Steve’s story especially timely for me, because I’d just finished writing and producing another audio essay in my “From Where I Stand” series. It features the sounds of encounters with a humpback whale and Adelie penguins from my husband’s recent trip to the Antarctic. I hope to share a link to the audio essay here on Books Can Save a Life soon.

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Nestle the sparrow

 

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An artist’s garden. Kyo Maclear, in her book Birds Art Life, writes of artists and writers having a side practice, and certainly for Kathy it is gardening. I enjoyed seeing the flowers and meditation space she’s created over the years and hearing about her future garden plans.

 

Our visit with Kathy and Steve was too short. I loved hanging out in her studio and seeing her other creative spaces, and we could have talked for hours.

ArtistBooks

Another art studio book stack…..

 

I’ll write more in a few days from on the road.  Do you have especially loved books about art, life and creativity? What are they?

Men We Reaped

MenWeReaped.jpg“From 2000 to 2004, five Black young men I grew up with died, all violently, in seemingly unrelated deaths. The first was my brother, Joshua, in October 2000. The second was Ronald in December 2002. The third was C.J. in January 2004. The fourth was Demond in February 2004. The last was Roger in June 2004. That’s a brutal list, in its immediacy and its relentlessness, and it’s a list that silences people. It silenced me for a long time. To say this is difficult is understatement; telling this story is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. 

My hope is that learning something about our lives and the lives of the people in my community will mean that….I’ll understand a bit better why this epidemic happened, about how the history of racism and economic inequality and lapsed public and personal responsibility festered and turned sour and spread here. Hopefully, I’ll understand why my brother died while I live, and why I’ve been saddled with this rotten fucking story.”   Men We Reaped, by Jesmyn Ward

Our country is going through something.

Last night, Eminem caused the latest sensation when he debuted “The Storm” on the BET Awards.

All of this makes novelist and memoirist Jesmyn Ward more timely than ever, and she has indeed been in the news a lot lately. This week it was announced that she was awarded a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant. Her most recent novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing is on the short list for the 2017 National Book Award for fiction. The winner will be announced November 15. (Her first novel, Salvage the Bones, won the National Book Award in 2011.)

I just finished reading her beautiful and heartbreaking memoir, Men We Reaped, about the deaths of five young black men in her community. One of them was her 19-year-old brother, Joshua, another was her cousin.

This was an emotionally difficult read, and Ward has spoken of how it was nearly impossible for her to write. Like Salvage the Bones, her memoir opened my eyes to a part of America and a culture that I’m a stranger to. Ward has a powerful connection to her people and her home in rural Mississippi where she still lives, and she’s eloquent when it comes to expressing hard-won insights about both.

She chose an unusual and I think clever structure for her memoir: Moving forward in time from childhood to adulthood, she tells of growing up poor in DeLisle, Mississippi and paints vivid portraits of her nuclear and extended families and community. Ward weaves into this narrative another narrative that moves backward in time, recounting the lives and deaths of five young Black men, beginning with the most recent death and ending with her brother’s death. This chronology builds to an intense climax, and the two narrative strands illuminate and complement each other.

I found Ward’s depictions of her father and mother to be especially psychologically astute, filled with ambiguities and complexities. She blends her disappointment in their failings with love, compassion, and understanding. It’s apparent that she’s done the hard emotional work of coming to terms with her reality, so as the reader I trust her perspective – it has the ring of truth and authenticity. This kind of understanding must be gained before the writing even begins. Insight deepens with the writing, and each successive draft.

I appreciate that Ward is able to show how a person, and a people, can be brainwashed (see the excerpt below) by their history and culture into believing they are worthless. This sabotages lives; sometimes it’s just not possible for people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Men We Reaped breaks down barriers by allowing us to see the world through another’s eyes.

Sing, Unburied, SingIf you enjoy memoir, Men We Reaped is a good one. If you want to sample the National Book Award short list for fiction, Ward’s novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing, would be a great choice. I hope to get to it soon.

 

“We tried to outpace the thing that chased us, that said: You are nothing. We tried to ignore it, but sometimes we caught ourselves repeating what history said, mumbling along, brainwashed: I am nothing. We drank too much, smoked too much, were abusive to ourselves, to each other. We were bewildered. There is a great darkness bearing down on our lives, and no one acknowledges it.”

********

“I thought being unwanted and abandoned and persecuted was the legacy of the poor southern Black woman. But as an adult, I see my mother’s legacy anew. I see how all the burdens she bore, the burdens of her history and identity and of our country’s history and identity, enabled her to manifest her greatest gifts. My mother had the courage to look at four hungry children and find a way to fill them….And my mother’s example teaches me other things: This is how a transplanted people survived a holocaust and slavery. This is how Black people in the South organized to vote under the shadow of terrorism and the noose. This is how human beings sleep and wake and fight and survive.”

Have you read any of Jesmyn Ward’s books? Comments?

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