Lab Girl

lab-girl “Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.”  – Hope Jahren, Lab Girl

“After scientists broke open the coat of a lotus seed (Nelumbo nucifera) and coddled the embryo into growth, they kept the empty husk. When they radiocarbon-dated this discarded outer shell, they discovered that their seedling had been waiting for them within a peat bog in China for no less than two thousand years. This tiny seed had stubbornly kept up the hope of its own future while entire human civilizations rose and fell. And then one day this little plant’s yearning finally burst forth within a laboratory.”

“Science has taught me that everything is more complicated than we first assume, and that being able to derive happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life.”

Lab Girl is an extraordinary memoir, and Hope Jahren is an important new voice who breaks new ground in literary autobiography. We just don’t hear from enough scientists and researchers, and certainly we don’t hear from enough women in science who have struggled and prevailed at making careers in difficult, often male-dominated fields.

Lab Girl is for the lay person who loves plants, trees, and nature, and for the lay person who thinks plants, trees, and nature are boring and who wants to be dazzled, moved, changed, and reconnected with the holiness and mystery of life.

hopeLab Girl is for women in science and research, and women thinking of careers in science and research. But men in science and research will love the book, too.

Lab Girl is for anyone making a career and building a family in the face of a serious mental illness, and for those who want to better understand people with mental illness.

Lab Girl is for those who care about the environment and climate change, and who want to connect with someone of like mind whose passion and energy are contagious. Because, as Hope says, we won’t have any trees left in six hundred years if we keep on our current path.

Lab Girl is for anyone who has important work to do and wants to be inspired and emboldened by someone not afraid to be different and go her own way.

I have Katie at Doing Dewey to thank for letting me know about this book. I’ve included several passages from the memoir because I couldn’t decide between them. They make me want to read Lab Girl all over again. I’m sure I will, since I’m working on a memoir of my own. For those of you who are memoir writers, this one is both inspiring and a great memoir model.

Women, and men, doing important work in science simply don’t get enough attention in our culture, which is especially saturated by superficial drivel at the moment. Lab Girl is the antidote. When I was a clinical librarian at UR Medicine, I was always impressed and mystified by the grad students and faculty, the women especially, who had lives so different from mine, who spent hours and hours in labs and out in the field researching esoteric topics that had the potential to change lives.

We should know more about them, the important work they are doing, and how they navigate the challenge of carving out rich, fulfilling personal lives as well. There is a deep vein of fascinating life stories in science that appeal to experts and lay people alike, and I hope Lab Girl will inspire many more memoirs of this kind.

The excerpt below is a good example of the organizing metaphor in Lab Girl: the rich and evocative parallels between plant life and human life. Hope alternates between chapters about plant life and her own life, which makes for a satisfying structure:

“Every species on Earth – past or present – from the single-celled microbe to the biggest dinosaur, daisies, trees, people – must accomplish the same five things in order to persist: grow, reproduce, rebuild, store resources, and defend itself….It seemed outrageous to hope that fertility, resources, time, desire, and love could all come together in the right way, and yet most women did eventually walk that path.”

Below are a few more quotes. Read the memoir!

“On some deep level, the realization that I could do good science was accompanied by the knowledge that I had formally and terminally missed my chance to become like any of the women that I had ever known.”

The boldface in the next quote is mine; I think it is an important point:

“A true scientist doesn’t perform prescribed experiments; she develops her own and thus generates wholly new knowledge. This transition between doing what you’re told and telling yourself what to do generally occurs midway through a dissertation. In many ways, it is the most difficult and terrifying thing that a student can do, and being unable or unwilling to do it is much of what weeds people out of Ph.D. programs.” 

“Public and private organizations all over the world have studied the mechanics of sexism within science and have concluded that they are complex and multifactorial. In my own small experience, sexism has been something very simple: the cumulative weight of constantly being told that you can’t possibly be what you are.”

“I’m good at science because I’m not good at listening. I have been told that I am intelligent, and I have been told that I am simple-minded. I have been told that I am trying to do too much, and I have been told that what I have done amounts to very little. I have been told that I can’t do what I want to do because I am a woman, and I have been told that I have only been allowed to do what I have done because I am a woman. I have been told that I can have eternal life, and I have been told that I will burn myself out into an early death. I have been admonished for being too feminine and I have been distrusted for being too masculine. I have been warned that I am far too sensitive and I have been accused of being heartlessly callous. But I was told all of these things by people who can’t understand the present or see the future any better than I can. Such recurrent pronouncements have forced me to accept that because I am a female scientist, nobody knows what the hell I am, and it has given me the delicious freedom to make it up as I go along. I don’t take advice from my colleagues, and I try not to give it. When I am pressed, I resort to these two sentences: You shouldn’t take this job too seriously. Except for when you should.”

Have you read Lab Girl? Do you have memoir favorites to recommend?

My Last Continent

my-last-cont“Sometimes I wonder whether some other force is at hand–something equally obscured, warning us that none of us should be in Antarctica at all.

I tell them I was here when the massive cruise ship found herself trapped and sinking in a windswept cove of pack ice. I tell them that the ship was too big and too fragile to be so far south, and that my ship, the Cormorant, was the closest one and still a full day’s travel away. I tell them that, below the Antarctic Circle, the phrase search and rescue has little practical meaning. There is simply no one around to rescue you.

I tell them that 715 passengers and crew died that day. I don’t tell them that 2 of those who died were rescuers, whose fates tragically intertwined. Most want to hear about the victims, not the rescuers. I don’t tell them that we are one and the same.”   My Last Continent, by Midge Raymond

My husband is going to Antarctica in January. It’s been a lifelong dream but, as he points out, even though he’s traveled more than I have, I’ve been to more continents. So I think he may be partly motivated because he’s trying to catch up with me. We get competitive about traveling in our family but, given their extensive travel for work, our sons are leaving us far behind when it comes to the number of countries visited.

Anyway, now that the time is drawing near, I thought I’d better pay more attention to my husband’s upcoming trip. When I learned about the recently published novel, My Last Continent, I had to pick it up, though it doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in the safety of Antarctic cruises, because it’s about a disastrous one.

On the other hand, I comfort myself that my husband will be traveling with a vastly experienced crew, on a polar research vessel expressly made for the perils of Antarctic waters. The Akademik Sergey Vavilov is one of only two polar expedition cruise vessels that conduct active scientific research in the months between the Antarctic and high Arctic seasons.

The trip is sponsored by a local travel/adventure group, Pack, Paddle & Ski.  Rochester is lucky to have this amazing organization, which leads trips around the world and has raised thousands of dollars for charity.

I don’t tend to like fiction with a message, but My Last Continent by Midge Raymond is a beautifully written love story and a what-would-happen-if novel.

As if we don’t have enough to worry about given climate change, My Last Continent highlights an issue I wasn’t aware of. In addition to polar research vessels that take tourists to Antarctica, there are now oversized luxury cruise ships that travel to both northern and southern extremes. Because the polar ice is melting, such ships can go where they have never gone before.

The problem is, these large ships are too fragile for treacherous polar waters, and they carry way too many passengers. Should the ship get into trouble, it’s not likely all the passengers could be rescued. For one thing, there is no one around – polar waters are isolated and too far away from other ships.

This is what happens in My Last Continent. I learned this on the first page, though not the details of who survives and who doesn’t, and I was of course compelled to read on to see how it all played out.

Another problem is that these cruise ships are highly disruptive to fragile wildlife populations.

There is beautiful writing here; it is not simply a disaster tale. Midge Raymond takes us deep into the heart of Antarctica: its weather and terrain and, most of all, it’s wildlife. At the same time, it is a portrait of two complex characters–explorers and naturalists who are in love with this forbidding land as much as they are with each other.

If you like books about adventure and travel to the wildest reaches of nature, and if you are concerned about planet Earth, I think you’ll love My Last Continent. This is Midge Raymond’s first full-length work of fiction. I look forward to reading more. Midge Raymond is also the founder of Ashland Creek Press.

Here is a Daily Beast essay she wrote about cruise ships in the polar regions: “Cruise Ships in the Arctic Take Titanic Risks.” It is truly frightening.

And one more quote from My Last Continent:

“It is not uncommon in Antarctica to see what does not exist–to see the mountains levitate in the distance, to see the rising tower of a city on the horizon. When the sea is colder than the air, a layer forms that creates a polar mirage. The more layers, the more refracted the light: Mountains are born from the sea; cliffs turn into castles. Such mirages usually last only moments, until the air layers mix, and then they disappear…..Such visions have a name–fata morgana…..”

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Any books about Antarctica to recommend? Which wild and faraway places would you like to visit someday? Let us know in the comments.

 

 

My Favorite Things

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Asja and Sebree. If you’d like to hear a story about them, click on this link.

I’m all over the map with this My Favorite Things post – literally. Here are a few of my favorite things you might enjoy reading, watching, or listening to:

Orcas and making audio essays: This one is my own creation, I confess. “The Ancient Ones” is a new audio essay  in my From Where I Stand series on Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built + Natural Environments. Have a listen – I’d love to share six and a half minutes of my fabulous Olympic Peninsula vacation with you, where I fell in love with Asja and Sebree. I’d appreciate comments and feedback here or on the Terrain.org site.

Books about famous bookstores: I’ve only been to Paris once, and I regret that I didn’t stop by the famous Shakespeare and Company bookstore. I don’t know what I was thinking! Someday, I’ll have to remedy that. Now, there is a book about this famous shop, where some of the greatest writers of the 20th century spent their days, and even slept. See Shakespeare and Company: A History of the Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart, by Jeanette Winterson.

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Chunksters, or Giant Translated Novels: I love this LitHub article, “Ten Giant Translated Novels that Make a Mockery of Subway Reading.”   Many thanks to my blogging friend Vishy for letting us know about this.

It’s a great little list if you want to take on some ambitious reading, which I like to do from time to time. Do any of these over-the-top books appeal to you? Which one(s)?

I want to begin Knausgaard’s My Struggle series one of these days (my son loves it), that’s what I keep saying, but I’m dismayed to find his last volume in the series is 900 pages!

a-true-novelI’m fascinated by the sound of A True Novel by Minae Mizumura set in postwar Japan because it has been compared to Wuthering Heights.

Giacomo Leopardi’s 2500-page Zibaldone may be worth dipping into, though not reading straight through, because of my Italian heritage. “Zibaldone” is what this great poet and thinker called his gigantic notebook, and these are his collected writings. I’m curious about it – there are SEVEN translators, including Ann Goldstein, who translated Elena Ferrante’s novels.

Several of the others appeal to me, too. Do any appeal to you enough to take one on?

Geeky things like an old video about the first Kodak Colorama made from a photo taken under water: For years and years, a giant Kodak photograph, known as a Colorama, hung over the crowds passing through Grand Central Station in New York. I was in those crowds; little did I know that in a few years I’d be living upstate in Rochester and working for Kodak.

Rochester is still steeped in the mythology, lore, and beauty of photography, despite Kodak’s decline. The Rochester Institute of Technology, where my son studied photography, is one of the top photo schools in the country. Fabulous photographers and photography teachers are plentiful here, as are photo galleries, photo equipment retailers, and photography experts. The George Eastman House is one of the world’s largest repositories of photos and films.

Neil Montanus was one of the elite Kodak photographers who documented America and baby boomers coming of age for Kodak advertising. I found this vintage video on the site of Jim Montanus, his son. If you’re fascinated by how things are invented and how they work, you might enjoy this.

 

People who make things: I think the trend of calling people “makers” is a little weird and pretentious, but I do love the movement back to “old soul crafts and lost arts,” in the words of one of the artisans in this delightful little video. I guarantee it will lift your spirits, especially your creative spirit. The With Love Project will soon be made into a book – I would buy it. After you watch this, tell us in the comments who your favorite maker is in the video. I’m partial to the shoe maker/designer, myself.

 

 

What do you think about anything on this list? Might you read any of the chunksters on the LitHub list? Are you especially enchanted by any of the makers in the With Love Project? 

My Favorite Things

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Our backyard pond. If you’d like to listen to a story about this special place, please click on this link: “Water Bewitched.”

 

Not long ago, I wrote about podcasts being one of my favorite things and how I was in the midst of creating one myself. My audio essay about home, “Water Bewitched,” is now finished and up on Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built + Natural Environments.

(Technically, it isn’t a podcast because you can’t subscribe to get new episodes. You can, however, subscribe to Terrain.org, in which case the next essay in my audio series will be emailed to you.)

It’s been a difficult week here in the US, and if the news has been getting to you like it has me, I hope you’ll take a restorative six minutes and listen to my little story. It’s the first in a series called From Where I Stand, in which I’ll explore our connection to the places we call home.

Please let me know what you think in the comments here or on the Terrain.org site, and share the link with your friends.

I’m honored to have my work on Terrain.org, which has great fiction, nonfiction, poetry, videos, interviews, articles, and other fabulous content.

IMG_2983Speaking of podcasts, I recently discovered a great book podcast, WSIRN, which stands for What Should I Read Next, with Anne Bogel. You can subscribe to it on iTunes.  I love this series, especially What Should I Read Next Podcast #28, which features Browsers Bookshop owner Andrea Y. Griffith.

Some of you may recall that I wandered into Andrea’s bookstore when we were vacationing in the Pacific Northwest. Olympia is lucky to have Andrea and such a finely curated bookstore. On the podcast, Andrea talks about how she came to own Browsers Bookshop, what she’s been reading that she loves, what she’s read that she hasn’t loved (I whole-heartedly agree with her choice on the latter), and what’s she’s craving to read.

And last, but certainly not least, there is this. I wish Choir!Choir!Choir! would come to my town.

What are you reading or listening to this summer? Any 5-star recommendations?

The Eagle Tree

 

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Browsers Bookshop in Olympia.

We spent part of our recent Pacific Northwest vacation in Olympia.

I know exactly one person who lives there, but she doesn’t know me – the artist Nikki McClure, whose work I admire.

We were exploring the center of town, when I spotted Browsers Bookshop, and of course we had to go in. About three minutes later, Nikki McClure walked in. She was there to sign copies of her most recent book, Waiting for High Tide.

But it gets weirder than that. After I finished browsing and had chosen a couple of books, I introduced myself to the bookstore owner, Andrea Y. Griffith. Turns out, Andrea knew my name. We are both former medical librarians, and apparently a few years back I edited an article she wrote for a Medical Library Association conference.

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Nikki McClure’s latest book

I love Andrea’s bookstore, which has been in business since 1935. Andrea and her husband recently bought the shop and are reviving it. She’s doing a terrific job. I enjoyed browsing the store; I saw many new and intriguing titles I’m unfamiliar with, and she had an excellent selection of titles about the Pacific Northwest and nature, as well as other categories. I could tell immediately that the book selections are carefully curated – that’s of course what you can expect from a librarian.

I encourage you to read a bit about what Browers Bookshop is all about here.

IMG_2994I purchased the young adult book The Eagle Tree by Ned Hayes, who is from Olympia, as well as another book I’ll tell you about in my next post. The artwork on the cover of The Eagle Tree pulled me in, and since I’d been awed by the massive and venerable old trees we were seeing in Olympic National Park, I thought the book would be a good traveling companion.

It’s about a 14-year-old boy, March Wong, who is on the autism spectrum and obsessed with trees. Written in first person from the viewpoint of March, the novel often reads like encyclopedia entries because that is how March expresses himself, so you have to be fascinated by trees to bond with this book. I took to it immediately, as have many other readers, although there are some readers on Goodreads who disliked it for this reason.

I loved learning about the ecosystem of trees and watching March become willing and able to connect to other people as he tries to save the Eagle Tree, a monolithic Ponderosa Pine, from being cut down. Even though the tone can be factual and didactic, it’s really more expressive and lyrical than anything else, which is a tribute to Ned Hayes’ fine writing. I highly recommend this book to young adults, and their parents.

I was impressed when I saw that an author’s talk sponsored by Browsers Bookshop featured local actors performing scenes from The Eagle Tree. This is an independent bookstore that goes above and beyond to enrich the community and promote local authors.

Here is some of what March Wong has to say:

“I do not like this idea that we have begun to kill off—at great velocity and accelerating speed—all of the things that sustain us. I didn’t like it at all when I first thought of it, but most people around me do not seem that disturbed by it, even though the knowledge of this is obvious and readily available to anyone who looks up trees on the Internet. At least, no one seems bothered, because no one has taken action to amend it. So they must not care. That is the only explanation I can think of for the lack of reaction to this fact.”

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In Olympic National Forest

“Most of the trees are already dying. All across North America from Mexico to Alaska, forests are dying. Seventy thousand square miles of forest—that’s as much land as all of the state of Washington—that much forest has died since I was born. What if I am growing up in a world that will not have trees anymore by the time I am my grandfather’s age?”

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This is a nurse log. March Wong in The Eagle Tree will tell you what that is.

“There is an ocean of light around us. We are surrounded by it, we swim in it, we move through it every day.”

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Reminds me of the flowing creek nearby

 

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Nature’s sculpture. Dungeness Spit is littered with driftwood.

 

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What you can make from a tree. This is in Sequim, Washington.

My Favorite Things

….on the Olympic Peninsula….

We’re on vacation exploring the magnificent beauty of the Olympic Peninsula and getting to know Port Townsend, Sequim, Port Angeles, and Olympic National Park.

The airbnb  where we’re staying is on a cliff overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The octagonal structure in the photo below is where I’m writing this blog post.

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Our temporary home is a former barn that has been beautifully converted into a comfortable dwelling filled with Native American, Mexican, and Americana art, quilts, and rugs. I spent more than a few hours on airbnb looking for a place to stay, and my research paid off.

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There are lush gardens on the property and a tree farm across the road along with a view of the magnificent snow-covered Olympic Mountains. Sea in the backyard, mountains in the front yard.

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I love the weathered colors and textures of this old structure. It is a workshop/studio filled with fabrics – I believe one of the owners is a textile artist, and several of her quilts grace the walls where we’re staying.

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Below is the interior of the little octagonal retreat, which comes equipped with a heater and bookshelves. All you need is a mug of hot coffee or tea to feel right at home. You can see a reflection of the view in the top half of the photo.

Early this morning my husband saw two bald eagles perched on a tall, dead tree nearby. It had rained in the night, and the pond visible in the first photo was filled to overflowing.

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I’d started reading Braiding Sweetgrass back home, and I’m continuing to read it slowly, a chapter at a time. A good companion is Wintergreen: Rambles in a Ravaged Land by Robert Michael Pyle, who writes of the extensive logging that has stripped the Willapa Hills of southwestern Washington, where he has lived for thirty years.

I had the pleasure of meeting the author at the Wild Arts festival in Portland last fall. Note that there is an introduction by David Guterson in this edition. Robert Michael Pyle is a generous Santa Claus of a man who teaches every year at Fishtrap, a retreat for writers who are passionate about the West.

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More later. I’ll tell you about a wonderful indie bookshop I visited, its dynamic owner, the person I happened to run into there in a moment of serendipity, and the books I bought.

Have you been to the Olympic Peninsula? If so, what are your favorite spots? Can you recommend books or authors connected with this part of the world?

 

 

Braiding Sweetgrass

Braiding Sweetgrass cover

“Hold out your hands and let me lay upon them a sheaf of freshly picked sweetgrass, loose and flowing, like newly washed hair… Hold the bundle up to your nose. Find the fragrance of honeyed vanilla over the scent of river water and black earth and you understand its scientific name: Hierochloe odorata, meaning the fragrant, holy grass. In our language it is called wiingaashk, the sweet-smelling hair of Mother Earth. Breathe it in and you start to remember things you didn’t know you had forgotten.”   Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass

I’ve been working on my first podcast in a nature series, and as part of my research I visited Ganondagan, a cultural center and historic site that was the home of the Seneca Nation of the Iroquois Confederacy. It has an intriguing array of programs, from animal tracking to music to meditation to dance. Last Sunday, I heard Robin Wall Kimmerer speak about her book, Braiding Sweetgrass, which I highly recommend to anyone who cares about nature, the land, and saving the earth.

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Robin Wall Kimmerer leads us in a song to save the earth at Ganondagan

I first heard of Kimmerer via Elizabeth Gilbert, who found the inspiration for her book, The Signature of All Things, when she read Gathering Moss by Kimmerer.

I’m about a quarter of the way through Braiding Sweetgrass. I’m loving the poetry of her writing as I take in the simple but profound indigenous wisdom Kimmerer is eager to pass on. It’s wisdom we as a culture have long overlooked and which may save us all, if we pay attention. Braiding Sweetgrass is a book to read slowly and savor.

Kimmerer is a botanist, a professor of environmental biology, and a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. She is descended from the Anishinabekwe of the New England region; in the forced Native American migration her people settled in Oklahoma.

There, her grandfather, by law, had to leave the reservation when he was nine years old to attend public school. At that point, their language and most of their indigenous wisdom was lost.

Kimmerer has spent a good part of her adulthood reclaiming both as she also pursues the life of a botanist and university professor.

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Making sweet grass medicine. © Ad Meskens / Wikimedia Commons

Here Kimmerer expresses what she aimed for in writing Braiding Sweetgrass:

“I offer…a braid of stories meant to heal our relationship with the world. This braid is woven from three strands: indigenous ways of knowing, scientific knowledge, and the story of an Anishinabekwe scientist trying to bring them together in service to what matters most. It is an intertwining of science, spirit, and story – old stories and new ones that can be medicine for our broken relationship with earth, a pharmacopoeia of healing stories that allow us to imagine a different relationship, in which people and land are good medicine for each other.” 

I’ve still many pages to go, so I’ll write more once I finish the book. I’ll leave you with this:

“In the settler mind, land was property, real estate, capital or natural resources. But to our people, it was everything: identity, the connection to our ancestors, the home of our nonhuman kinfolk, our pharmacy, our library, the source of all that sustained us….It belonged to itself; it was a gift, not a commodity, so it could never be sold.”

Indigenous Peoples

My Favorite Things

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Our backyard water garden, where I’ve been hanging out making a podcast.

 

Podcasting!

I’ve been dusting off my out-of-date media production skills and taking a podcasting class online with Creative Nonfiction magazine. It’s been fun, aggravating and, at times, all-consuming. Last night I put the finishing touches on “Water Bewitched,” the first in my nature series entitled “From Where I Stand.”

Fingers crossed, there is an eco-literary site interested in my series. (I think I maybe made up the term eco-literary. Don’t know. There is something called eco-fiction, so…) We’ll see if they like my first one.

Quite some time has passed since I did media production for Kodak, and decades ago I received a master’s degree from the Newhouse School at Syracuse University. Since then, technology has reinvented itself. Now, anyone can be creative with media, but the learning curve can be steep and complex, at first.

There are about eight of us in the class from around the country and Australia who have been immersed in scripting and audio production, under the guidance of a devoted and patient reporter/teacher who works for an NPR affiliate. It’s been fascinating to see everyone’s projects as they progress. Occasionally, we meet together via Google Hangout to learn the audio editing software, trouble shoot technical difficulties, and give each other creative support.

During this, our final week, we’ll work on finishing touches and draft pitch letters for placing the podcasts.

Podcasting has taken off these past few years to become a HUGELY popular medium. The debut of the NPR podcast, Serial, was groundbreaking. This free podcast tells a true story in weekly installments. My friends and my son who listened to the first season became so hooked, they could hardly wait for each Thursday’s new episode. Sarah Koenig, the writer/producer, pioneered this new way of telling a story through sound. She’s immensely talented.

I confess I have not listened to Serial, which is in its third season, because I know I’d be hooked too, and I didn’t want it to take up lots of my time. That said, now that I’ve produced my first humble 6-minute podcast, I’ll be listening to Serial, out of curiosity and for inspiration. I highly recommend you check out Serial if you want to hear the powerful storytelling potential of podcasting.

Here are more noteworthy podcasts that I like. There are literally thousands, though, so if you’re interested, see what you can find by simply exploring online:

  • I highly recommend StoryCorps, if you haven’t heard it already. It is a public service dedicated to sharing and preserving humanity’s stories. These unscripted conversations are fascinating. If you live in certain big cities, like San Francisco or Chicago, you can reserve time in the StoryCorps booth to record your own conversation with a friend or loved one.
  • Radiolab is another high quality podcast that evolves around curiosity. These are longer programs that explore something fascinating or mysterious about…just about anything. Heady and intellectual.
  • This American Life is currently the most popular podcast in the US – that’s what they say, anyway. This is fine journalism. You can hear This American Life on your local NPR radio station, and you can subscribe to the shortened version as a podcast.
  • You can post your own podcast on SoundCloud, or you can browse to find podcasts of interest.
  • On Being with Krista Tippett is one of my favorite, favorite podcasts. It’s on public radio, too, in addition to being a syndicated podcast. A spiritual conversation that explores what it is to be human.
  • If you have a creative practice or you’re interested in the creative process, Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the excellent book Big Magic, produces a series I love, called Magic Lessons.
  • Check out The Moth Podcast, based on the fine Moth Radio Hour on public radio.
  • Oops, almost forgot Tiny Desk Concerts, another NPR creation.  Fabulous, and we are lucky to know one of the talented co-producers!

There are lots more!

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Water irises in our backyard pond

Barry Lopez brings us I, Snow Leopard

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Male snow leopard

Photo by Tambako The Jaguar Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license

“I, SNOW LEOPARD is both a lyric and an elegy. It is easy to imagine its lines being loudly hailed in whatever country the poem finds itself in. It’s publication comes at a time when people everywhere have begun to wonder what a voice like this, suppressed for centuries, wishes to say now, in this moment when the Snow Leopard’s human brothers and sisters find themselves side by side with him. Imperiled.”   Barry Lopez

Barry Lopez

 

Barry Lopez came to Rochester this week to receive “The Art of Fact” award for literary nonfiction presented by The College at Brockport Writers Forum and M&T Bank.

If you’ve been following my blog, you know that Barry Lopez is one of my heroes, not quite at the level of Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama, but close. (See my blog’s header quote.)

Lopez is one of the very best nature writers, and if you love animals and wildlife, you’ll love his nonfiction books, essays, and short stories. He has travelled to 90 countries and has a tremendous respect for the animal world and the many indigenous peoples he’s come to know.

I, Snow LeopardLopez came to Rochester to receive his award and to deliver to us the poem “I, Snow Leopard” by Jidi Majia. 

I wasn’t familiar with either the poet or the poem, but Lopez said that when he found out “I, Snow Leopard” had been published in Asia and Europe, but not in the United States, he had to set things right.

He felt that it was vitally important that the American people hear the words of the snow leopard in this poem. So he saw to its publication here, and wrote the foreword to the English edition.

Jidi Majia, a member of the indigenous Nuosu (Yi) people who live in the mountains of southwestern China, has won numerous literary awards.  As far as I could tell from what I found online, few of his poems have been translated into English.

Majia’s poem is written in the words of a snow leopard, which is viewed by the Nuosu as a wisdom keeper, a being with “biological authority,” according to Lopez.

He told us that when he first began traveling the world and exploring, in his thirties, he viewed wild animals in an amateur, superficial, childlike way, until he learned to embrace the much more refined view held by native peoples.

A poem is a door anyone can walk through, Lopez said, and this poem is the mysterious and elusive snow leopard’s expression of grief and a warning to human kind:  “Do not hunt me any longer.”  Human violence toward animals puts everyone in peril, animals and humanity alike.

Before Lopez began, he said he wasn’t worthy to read “I, Snow Leopard,” but he’d try. He said that, as far as he knew, we’d be the very first American audience to hear the poem.

We listened to this exclusive reading in the soaring space that is the chapel in Rochester’s Temple B’rith Kodesh. “I, Snow Leopard” is beautiful, haunting, simply expressed and accessible even to listeners not accustomed to hearing poetry.

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Photo by Bernard Landgraf. CC BY-SA 3.0

 

After the reading Lopez answered questions and spoke informally and earnestly. As we listened, the audience seemed to be hanging on his words.  Here are some direct quotes I managed to scribble in my notebook:

“Each soul is essential to the warp and weft of the universe.”

“I want to see people come alive.”

“We know what to do and we have to do it now.”

Fixing our world “will take people of great courage. People like you. Because Washington is not doing it.”

“We should be holding hands.”

“The only thing that really matters is to be in love.”

I wrote down the following words, too, but I don’t recall if they are from the poem or if they are Barry Lopez’s words. I believe they are both:

“There is no other place for any of us to go.”

“I, Snow Leopard” is available on Amazon. Barry Lopez told me it is also to be published in a future issue of Orion Magazine.

Of Wolves and MenIf you’d like to read Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams, his nonfiction work about the Far North that won the National Book Award, is a great book to start with. I haven’t yet read Of Wolves and Men, but when I saw the mesmerizing cover photo of a wolf on display at the reading, I added it to my to-read list.

Lopez writes fiction, too. I especially liked his subversive collection of short stories, Resistance, which he wrote shortly after 9/11, about surveillance and “parties of interest” to the government.

If you want to know more about the fascinating snow leopard, Peter Matthiessen’s memoir, The Snow Leopard, is a great read.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, with Ben Stiller and Sean Penn, is one of my favorite movies. Watch it. You might spot a snow leopard.

A Woman in the Polar Night

Polar Night“Meanwhile the world out of doors falls into deepest night. The mountains are no more than white shadows, the sea no more than a black shadow – until that too dissolves away. And then everything is dead.

In this pitch darkness we cannot move far from the hut. I make the smallest possible turns around the hut – all that is left of my walks. When it is not snowing we spend hours outside the hut chopping and sawing wood by the light of the hurricane lamp….

The wind that, rising and falling, lasts for days, is in fact our last link with the reality of the world…”  Christiane Ritter, A Woman in the Polar Night

A Woman in the Polar Night is an astounding memoir by Austrian artist Christiane Ritter who, in 1933, joined her scientist and hunter-trapper husband, Hermann, on the remote island of Spitsbergen 400 miles off the coast of Norway.

If you love memoirs of travel, adventure and, especially, nature, I highly recommend A Woman in the Polar Night. This is an extraordinary book written in poetic, painterly prose by a woman with a fearless spirit who was profoundly moved and changed by her year in the Arctic.

Christiane writes brilliantly about the beauty of Spitsbergen and also its terror. She thrived on Spitsbergen, but during both the darkest and the brightest stretches of her polar immersion she approached the edges of madness. As anyone might.

She writes of a terrifying two weeks spent alone in a fierce snowstorm. The hut was buried completely except for the stovepipe attached to the roof. Christiane’s husband and their companion, Karl, had gone on a hunting trip, and she was left alone with the darkness, snow, and raging wind.

She survived the storm and isolation. But when a full moon finally broke the long darkness, Christiane became moonstruck:

“It is full moon. No European can have any idea of what this means on the smooth frozen surface of the earth. It is as though we were dissolving in moonlight…. One’s entire consciousness is penetrated by the brightness; it is as though we were being drawn into the moon itself…..

Neither the walls of the hut nor the roof of snow can dispel my fancy that I am moonlight myself.”

Fearing Christiane had rar, a strangeness that befalls some who winter in polar regions, Hermann and Karl kept Christiane in the hut, so she wouldn’t succumb to ishavet kaller – meaning “the Arctic calls” – which can drive a person to throw herself into the sea.

“Surrounded by this boundless deadness and rigidity of everything physical, one’s living senses begin slowly to go their own way. More frequently and more brightly as the winter is prolonged, a strange light spreads before the inner eye, a remote and yet familiar vision. It is as though here, in this apartness, we develop a particularly sharp awareness of the mighty laws of the spirit, of the unfathomable gulf between human magnitudes and eternal truth. Outside of time, everything is annihilated. The imprisoned senses circle in the past, in a scene without spatial dimensions, a play in which time stands still.

Often I see the flowers and trees of the distant sun world, but I do not see them as I used to see them. They are glowing with color and piercingly beautiful. Their most secret meaning lives in their growth and their color.”

Dutch Whalers Spitzbergen.jpg

Dutch Whalers near Spitsbergen. By Abraham Storck – Stichting Rijksmuseum het Zuiderzeemuseum. 022296, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5040261

Christiane writes of bear-hunting with Hermann and Karl in a “gigantic wilderness of ice”:

“We are in the middle of the bear kingdom. All my fear of bears has vanished. As in a dream I go on through the splendid strange world.

How quiet it is here. The sun shines on a soundless scene. The magical hues of the soft shadows glow deeply. Everything belongs together here, even the bear tracks in the deep snow, which show with what peace of mind the animals have gone on their way. Everything breathes the same serenity. It is as though a current of the most holy and perfect peace were streaming through all the landscape.

I feel that I am close to the essence of all nature. I can see its paths interlacing and still running alongside each other in accordance with eternal laws. I divine the ultimate salvation before which all human reasoning dissolves into nothing.”

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Ptarmigan was part of Christiane’s Spitsbergen diet. The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

The memoir’s conclusion is triumphant and sad. Christiane must finally leave the island, forever changed and knowing she will never return. She doesn’t reveal she has an infant daughter at home in Austria until nearly the end of her memoir, a startling bit of information that for me highlighted what an unusual couple the Ritters were.

I was curious about what it was like for Christiane to return to civilization and wished for an epilogue (there is none), but on the other hand I wasn’t sure I wanted to know. On top of having to re-integrate into society, Christiane returned to Austria as Europe neared the onset of World War II.

I found a 1954 edition of Christiane’s memoir at the local library, illustrated with line drawings by the author. You may want to look for the University of Alaska Press edition, published in 2010, which includes a preface with biographical information about the Ritters. It may satisfy some of the inevitable curiosity you’ll have about how the lives of this remarkable couple played out.

Christiane wrote, “You must have gazed on the deadness of all things to grasp their livingness.”

It seems to me her memoir is a remarkable example of someone whose extreme adventure pushed her into completely letting go of her ego and recognizing that we don’t have dominion over nature; we are instead part of nature itself. I think the world would be a much better place if we could all come to know this.

What We're Fighting for NowSo it was especially sad to read the excellent book I picked up next, What We’re Fighting for Now Is Each Other: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Climate Justice by Wen Stephenson, which makes clear that humanity hasn’t learned what Christiane Ritter learned. This book is depressing but empowering at the same time.

Stephenson reports that many climate scientists now believe climate catastrophe is inevitable.

He explains the term “climate justice” and how it is different from climate activism and environmentalism. Many have come to realize that climate change is the moral and spiritual issue of our time, inseparable from social justice and equality. The poor and disadvantaged will suffer the most from climate disruptions, as we’ve already seen in places like New Orleans and in countries around the world.

Stephenson lives near Walden Pond in Massachusetts, and he looks at climate justice through the lens of Henry David Thoreau‘s principles of civil disobedience. He likens climate justice to the social justice struggles of abolitionism and civil rights.

Stephenson writes about how he came to leave his career in mainstream journalism to immerse in climate justice, and it’s fascinating to read his interviews with others devoted to the cause as they explain the spiritual and other motives that drive them.

Most are young, some got their start in the Occupy movement, others are evangelicals, Quakers, atheists, community organizers, and grandparents. Many of them have come to believe that the way to survive climate change is to build strong, local communities where people trust and look after each other.

I couldn’t get out of my mind a young woman Stephenson interviewed, Grace Ann Cagle, who said she’d much rather be on a farm having babies than on the front lines of climate justice. Grace took part in the Texas Tar Sands blockade. 

“She’d been up in the trees for about a week, in late September, 2012….Sure enough, TransCanada’s machines came up from the south.

‘They came over the creek….They had a feller buncher – it grabs the trees, cuts them, and throws them. And as they cross the creek, they’re coming like ten feet, twenty feet away from me, practically at the base of my tree – and I thought they were going to kill me….Why would they care about me? And so I jumped onto this traverse rope, and I’m dangling there, wearing all black with a mask on my face, screaming, Go away! Get out of here! They stopped their machines…..I spent like six hours dangling there, in a harness, because I could protect two trees at once….'” 

How sad that, since Christiane Ritter’s time, we’ve come to this.

Read A Woman in the Polar Night to be transported and to understand what we’re losing. Then, if you want to consider what your role might be in the greatest battle of our time, you could follow the memoir with What We’re Fighting for Now Is Each Other: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Climate Justice.

 

 

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