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.”

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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.”

 

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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.”

 

 

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A refinery

 

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

 

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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!

 

To inspire your creative practice, soak up another’s

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“Those who have taken up homesteading – whether in the late nineteenth century, in midcentury, or in more recent periods – have all been acting out particular versions of larger experiments in American cultural dissent and spiritual creativity.”

 

I wake up early, not so usual for me, and when I raise the blinds it’s always sunny here on the dry side of the Columbia River Gorge in Washington.

I put on a thick woolen sweater with a Native American design in sepia and acorn hues, owned by the artist who lives and works here. I grab my cereal and juice, head outside, and eat my shredded wheat looking at Mt. Hood.

We just sold our home of 23 years, where we raised two sons. Wanting to get our minds off of what we left behind, we flew across the country to an artist’s studio and retreat in the Pacific Northwest. New terrain and evidence of an artist hard at work teaching, learning, sharing, and making are reviving my creative spirit.

These things inspire:

  • a weaver’s loom
  • artwork on all the walls, mostly nature based
  • marigolds drying in a basket
  • a display of cloth swatches dyed from goldenrod, Queen Anne’s lace, turmeric, eucalyptus, horsetail, walnut, and blackberries
  • a fragrant garden with mint, basil, tomatoes, squash and other goodies
  • a handmade bread oven
  • poppies everywhere in gold and fiery red
  • jars filled with mysterious things, such as dried flower petals and I don’t know what
  • thick, blush-pink pear slices put by in glass jars
  • a catalog of enticing classes like Wooden Spoon Carving, Flower Farm Dyes, Ikat Weaving, and Columbia Plateau Beadwork

 

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It’s chilly in the morning, often windy, always sunny.

 

Other people’s book collections take us down unforeseen paths, and sometimes the more off the beaten path, the better. There are many books to sample here. At the moment, I’m delving into At Home in Nature: Modern Homesteading and Spiritual Practice in America, by Rebecca Kneale Gould, learning about John Burroughs, Henry David Thoreau, Helen and Scott Nearing, and lesser known American homesteaders – an intriguing slice of American history. It’s perhaps more scholarly than I’d prefer, but I’m enjoying it.

Some other books that live here:

which “aesthetics” do you mean? ten definitions, by Leonard Koren

Coming to Stay: A Columbia River Journey, by Mary Dodds Schlick

A Dyer’s Garden: From Plant to Pot, Growing Dyes for Natural Fibers, by Rita Buchanan

Pacific Feast: A Cook’s Guide to West Coast Foraging and Cuisine, by Jennifer Hahn

Art of the Northern Tlingit, by Aldona Jonaitis

The Textiles of Guatemala, by Regis Bertrand and Danielle Magne

Native Arts of the Columbia River Plateau: The Doris Swayze Bounds Collection, edited by Susan E. Harless

In Zanesville, a novel by Jo Ann Beard (I loved her memoir, The Boys of My Youth.)

Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay: Reflections on Art, Family & Survival, by Christopher Benfey

Recommended by my son, which I packed in my suitcase:

The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food, by Dan Barber

Other books I brought with me:

The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker (book club reading)

The Artist’s Rule: Nurturing Your Creative Soul with Monastic Wisdom, by Christine Valters Paintner

No Experience Required! Watercolor, by Carol Cooper

I’ll likely read just a couple of these but it’s nice to be able to choose.

 

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View from the backyard. (I zoomed in on Mt. Hood.)

 

 

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A homemade bread oven. At the moment, a burn ban prohibits its use.

 

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I think these sunflowers would be a relatively easy watercolor project for a beginner like me.

 

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Marigold blossoms drying

 

Climbing a small mountain is another way to get your mind off things. I have more stores of endurance than I thought and limbs that are plenty sore, but the climb gave me a sense of accomplishment.

 

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View of Mt. Hood from Little Huckleberry Mountain in Gifford Pinchot National Forest

 

We saw three of the Cascade mountains once we made it to the top…

 

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Mt. Adams

 

….which I could not have done without the encouragement of my husband.

 

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Mt. Rainier 

 

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Atop Little Huckleberry Mountain, on the ruins of an old fire lookout. Elevation: 4,781 feet.

 

An artist’s tools and artifacts. Books that belong to another. Climbing a small mountain. How do you feed your creative spirit? Can you recommend any books? Are you traveling this summer or working on a creative project?

This Life Is in Your Hands

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“Food for Mama was equal to love, and, though she might withhold it when fasting, she usually meted it out to Papa and me straight from her heart. The preparing, cooking, and storing of food made up the pulse of her days. I’d wake in the mornings to the sound of Mama grinding grain. Clamped to the kitchen counter, that steel mill from Hatch’s was her magic tool, transforming inedible whole grains into vital ingredients as she stood beside it, hair pulled back, working the crank. The groats went in a funnel in the top, to be ground by opposing metal wheels attached to the crank, and depending on the setting, meal or flour streamed or puffed from the spout into a bowl.” This Life Is in Your Hands, by Melissa Coleman

Melissa Coleman’s parents were key figures in the back-to-the-land movement of the 1960s and 1970s, disciples and neighbors of Helen and Scott Nearing, who were activists and advocates of simple living. Scott Nearing wrote the classic Living the Good Life: How to Live Sanely and Simply in a Troubled World in 1954.

Coleman’s memoir, This Life Is in Your Hands, is about her childhood years with her two younger sisters on the Maine farmland her parents, Sue and Eliot Coleman, bought from the Nearings. It’s an ode to people in love with the land and a certain way of life; it’s also an elegy for a family and a time forever lost: when Melissa was seven, tragedy struck and her family splintered.

As I read the memoir, it dawned on me that I recognized the name Eliot Coleman, and that, in fact, I have one of his books, Four-Season Harvest, which I bought when I became interested in year-round gardening. From the standpoint of American history, This Life Is in Your Hands is a fascinating look at the back-to-the-land movement. Regarded suspiciously as radical hippies by many in mainstream America, the Colemans and others like them pioneered an important movement flourishing on new fronts today.

Eliot Coleman criticized the ravages wrought by industrialized farming. He advocated small-scale, biological farming, which emphasizes high quality soil that eliminates the need for pesticides, and a return to ancient farming practices. When Melissa Coleman was a young child, Eliot went on research forays to Europe, where he observed French farmers cultivating gardens all year round. He began to import their age-old farming wisdom to America and has been influential in the organic farming movement ever since.

There is much to admire in This Life Is in Your Hands as a memoir, and there are limitations, too. Melissa Coleman’s writing is uneven, and her storytelling skills fall short in some readers eyes. But at her best she is exquisitely poetic about daily life on their plot of land.

“The cookstove was our most important possession, without which we would either starve or freeze to death. To my young imagination it looked like a black animal with four stout legs under a square body, a flat top with lids that opened to the fire, and one long tail of a chimney that curved through the wall to puff smoke outside. It had three mouths, a small one to make little fires for cooking, a bigger one for overnight fires, and the biggest of all for the oven, with white enamel around a temperature dial ranging from “cool” to “very hot” and the brand name, “Kalamazoo.” When the bread was done, Mama opened the oven door and the loaves came out golden brown and steaming, to be placed on the counter to cool.”

Of course, Melissa must also tell how this edenic existence fell apart. The lifestyle entailed constant, backbreaking work, and the Colemans did not have electricity or indoor plumbing. The children were allowed to run free on the farm, and the constant work meant they weren’t attended to closely, which contributed to a tragedy: the accidental death of Melissa’s sister.

Coleman’s portrayal of her parents, Sue and Eliot, is mostly compassionate, but confusing, to me. From the beginning it’s drummed into us that Sue didn’t have the inner confidence and drive of her husband, Eliot. We’re told he was extraordinary, while Sue is depicted as lacking, and some of this judgement seems unfair to Sue. Understandably, Melissa suffered greatly when Sue fell apart and abandoned her role as a mother after the tragedy. But for a long time their farm and family flourished thanks to Sue’s efforts, not just Eliot’s. She gardened, cooked, cleaned, preserved food, hauled water, and gave birth to two of her children at home–one of those times she was home alone.

Sue suffered from bouts of depression and postpartum depression, but she was caring for three young children while adhering to superhuman lifestyle standards and married to an impossibly driven man. At one point, before the tragedy, Eliot procured a rental car and told Sue to leave with the children, that the marriage was over. It’s not clear to me why this was warranted–Sue’s worst sin seems to be what some might call neediness–unless Melissa left information out to protect her mother. I found Eliot’s actions harsh. The situation hints at sexism and unrecognized mental illness. Despite the sexual revolution and women’s lib, there were plenty of sexist marriages in the 1960s and 1970s. Like any young mother in her situation, Sue needed more support, although as readers, we may not know the whole story.

The Nearings apparently remained somewhat aloof after the tragedy. Helen Nearing, in fact, had not been pleased when Sue became pregnant the first time, telling her she should have waited because it was unrealistic to take on both motherhood and the farm.

The author’s conclusions about the meaning and fallout from her family’s grand experiment and tragedy struck me as pat. But telling the whole, accurate truth in these fraught family stories, from the point of view of the child and then as an adult with hindsight, is difficult. Memoir has pitfalls, but I think this one is an important and intriguing story on many levels.

Eliot and his third wife, Barbara Damrosch, currently own and operate Four Season Farm in Harborside, Maine, on the site of the original farm Melissa wrote about in her memoir. Today, many small organic farmers are flourishing in central Maine, some owned by apprentices who worked for the Nearings and the Colemans.

“Our staple was a yeast-free flatbread called a chapati, which Mama learned to make from David Hatch, who learned in India. Mama let me help mix the flour from the grain mill with water and salt to make a pliable dough, then kneaded it to bring out the gluten and let it set for an hour before making round gold balls of dough that she flattened with a rolling pin into thin, but not too thin, pancakes. She prepared the cookstove ahead so there was a bed of red hot coals in the firebox, and heated a greaseless twelve-by-sixteen-inch cast-iron skillet to sear both sides of the chapati and trap the steam inside. The chapati was then placed on a bent clothes hanger over hot coals inside the firebox, where it would blow up into a steamy balloon. Once it was removed from the flame, the air in the middle was released and the balloon flattened to form a perfect tortilla-like vehicle, warm or cold, for whatever you chose to put on or inside it.”

Here is a short video about Helen and Scott Nearing; Eliot Coleman appears in the opening:

http://external.bangordailynews.com/projects/2014/04/goodlife/?chapter=root&utm_source=bangordailynews&utm_campaign=refer

Have you read This Life Is in Your Hands or other books about sustainable living?

 

The Handmaid’s Tale. Read it now.

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“I avoid looking down at my body, not so much because it’s shameful or immodest but because I don’t want to see it. I don’t want to look at something that determines me so completely.”  – The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

I belong to an amazing book club of ten women, and we just finished reading and discussing The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. It was my first exposure to this iconic dystopian novel about the theocratic Republic of Gilead (formerly the United States), where fertile women have been enslaved for purposes of reproduction due to dramatically declining birth rates.

Atwood has said that every aspect of extreme female oppression depicted in the novel has actually happened. The ghosts of New England puritanism and witch hunts haunt The Handmaid’s Tale: the novel takes place in Cambridge near a university (Harvard) that has been shut down. There are also strains of American slavery, the Bible, and the Third Reich, among other periods.

NOW is the perfect time to read The Handmaid’s Tale if you haven’t already. It has been getting a lot of attention because of the new Hulu series starring Elizabeth Moss and, of course, because of the unsettling political era unfolding in the U.S. As Emily Nussbaum in The New Yorker put it, “Our President is a Playboy-brash predator; his Vice-President is pure Gilead.”

I decided to simultaneously watch the unfolding Hulu series, which added interesting contrasts and depths to my reading and viewing experiences.

I quote Emily Nussbaum below because I think our book club would agree that reading Handmaid inspired us to reflect on how it was for women in the Reagan era when the book was published. (We range in age from 40s to 60s.) I was thirty when The Handmaid’s Tale came out in 1985. I’d just moved out of New York City, where I’d watched the Trump Tower go up on Fifth Avenue directly across the street from my office. In fact, the book publisher I worked for moved to a humbler downtown neighborhood once Trump’s golden tower was in place and the rent became unaffordable.

“…for many readers of my generation, “The Handmaid’s Tale” is also a time machine back to the Reagan era, a mightily perverse period for sexual politics. Just a decade earlier, a woman could be denied a credit card without a man to co-sign, and yet, by 1985, when the novel was written, the media was declaring that feminism was over, dunzo, defunct—no longer necessary, now that women wore sneakers to jobs at law firms. At the same time, sexual danger was a national obsession, seen from two opposing angles, each claiming to protect women. On the right, there was the anti-abortion New Christian Right—led by figures like Phyllis Schlafly and the televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker—intent on restoring traditional marriage. On the left, there was the anti-porn movement….It was a peculiar era in which to be a teen-age girl, equally prudish and decadent: the era of Trump Tower and cocaine, AIDS and “Just Say No.” Emily Nussbaum, The New Yorker

While I read and watched The Handmaid’s Tale, I’d been working on a scene in my memoir that takes place in New York City in 1978.  I’d been trying to remember how I’d seen myself in the context of the times at twenty-three, but my memories were delivering up a great deal of ambivalence and little clarity. I knew I’d felt grateful for the second-wave feminists and the 1960s cultural pioneers and that I’d thought that women’s liberation had done its work. Yet carving out a career wasn’t proving to be easy; mostly I’d blamed myself for that. Reading Nussbaum’s essay helped me flesh out my scene and my thoughts by reminding me that the late seventies already heralded a backlash: Phyllis Schafly and Ronald Reagan were just around the corner.

Atwood’s book, of course, shows us that history can move in cycles. Freedoms won can be lost.

Nussbaum points out in her essay that the Hulu show has to keep going season after season, while the novel is a self-contained work. Because of this, the spirit of the TV show eventually departs from the claustrophobic bleakness of the book. Offred’s quest on television becomes escape and reunification with her daughter and lover. (Offred is a handmaid forced to have sex with her married Commander; should she become pregnant, the baby will be turned over to the Commander and his barren wife.) The TV series becomes more like a thriller, while in the book there seem to be few ways the women can work toward liberation. The TV show is more hopeful, but be warned that it is graphic and violent. I think both the book and the series are excellent, but I don’t know how long I will watch the series. Season after season, a series can lose power and focus. It could eventually pale next to Atwood’s book, which reads like a bomb going off.

Have you read The Handmaid’s Tale or are you watching the Hulu series? What do you think?

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“How easy it is to invent a humanity, for anyone.”

 

(On the heels of The Handmaid’s Tale, I happened to find out about a new documentary series on Netflix, “The Keepers.” My husband and I watched all seven episodes in two nights.“The Keepers” depicts a real-life dystopia for young women who attended a Catholic school in Baltimore beginning in the 1960s, the life-long ramifications of untold secrets, and the confounding process of recovering memories. Well-crafted documentaries remind me how truth can be stranger than fiction. It’s got me thinking about how story and dramatization, no matter what the medium or genre, can so powerfully reveal truths about the human spirit. It’s not easy to depict such depth of character in documentary. I’m still thinking about the good women–and the handful of good men–in “The Keepers.”)

 

Lincoln in the Bardo

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“I assisted in washing him and dressing him, and then laid him on the bed, when Mr. Lincoln came in. I never saw a man so bowed down with grief. He came to the bed, lifted the cover from the face of his child, gazed at it long and lovingly, and earnestly, muttering, ‘My poor boy, he was too good for this earth. God has called him home. I know that he is much better off in heaven, but then we loved him so. It is hard, hard to have him die!'”   – Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Lincoln in the title refers to Abraham Lincoln, and the bardo is, in Tibetan tradition, the suspended state between lives when the soul is separate from the body. Abraham Lincoln’s son, Willie, has entered the bardo upon death from typhoid, where he meets all manner of discontented souls who are similarly suspended, unable to let go of their former lives and move on to whatever comes next. In this bardo, whatever obsessed the person or remained unresolved at the time of death looms large (literally).

After Willie’s funeral, a stricken Abraham Lincoln came to the cemetery alone in the night to assuage his grief, according to historical sources. In this extraordinary novel, at the cemetery, Lincoln is unable to see the panoply of ghost-souls around him desperately trying to persuade the young Willie to move on because, in Saunders’ conception of the bardo, children who remain suffer a terrible fate.

It is the early stages of the Civil War, which weighs heavily on the President. Three years of staggering bloodshed loom and over half a million deaths, mostly sons of other grieving parents.

During this one chaotic evening, all of the restless souls, living and dead, are changed.

“The gentleman had much on his mind. He did not wish to live. Not really. It was, just now, too hard. There was so much to do, he was not doing it well and, if done poorly, all would go to ruin. Perhaps, in time (he told himself) it would get better, and might even be good again. He did not really believe it. It has hard. Hard for him.”

Lincoln in the Bardo is not an ordinary novel by any means, but Saunders is no ordinary writer. (See my post about his collection of short stories which I loved, Tenth of December.) Bardo reads like a play, and I believe plans are already in the making to produce a play. If so, I predict it will be every bit as popular as Hamilton. 

George Saunders is a consummate writer of short stories, and he has often said in interviews that novels aren’t his thing – he’s tried without success to write three or four. And then, Lincoln in the Bardo, came along.

It took me a few pages to acclimate to this strange story, which is essentially a collection of formally cited historical sources, a few brilliantly conceived fictional sources, and lots of dialogue by a grand chorus of characters. It’s a quick read and vintage Saunders: funny, heartbreaking, with piercing, essential truths about life. When I reached the end, I went back to page one to begin again, so I could pick up on what I missed. I missed a lot, there is so much nuance in every scene.

You must read Lincoln in the Bardo. Besides, everyone is talking about it, and you want to be in on the conversation too, don’t you? If you love it, I recommend you follow it with Tenth of December.

“And there was nothing left for me to do, but go. Though the things of the world were strong with me still. Such as, for example: a gaggle of children trudging through a side-blown December flurry; a friendly match-share beneath some collision-tilted streetlight; a frozen clock, bird-visited within its high tower; cold water from a tin jug; toweling off one’s clinging shirt post–June rain. Pearls, rags, buttons, rug-tuft, beer-froth. Someone’s kind wishes for you; someone remembering to write; someone noticing that you are not at all at ease.”

Here, George Saunders talks with Stephen Colbert: (Fair warning, there is some talk of Trump here and the cultural divide.)

 

 

Have you read Lincoln in the Bardo or any of George Saunders’ extraordinary short stories? What did you think? Let us know in the comments.

The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey

the-oregon-trail “I turned left after the bridge over the Snake and headed east along the trail country. The basalt cliffs along the river gleamed in the sunlight, and the austerity of landscape reminded me of the austerity of mission.

Journey is all, and we did it, we made it, we got there. We had followed the Platte to the Sweetwater, the Sweetwater to South Pass, and then we slid the wagon down Dempsey Ridge to the indescribable beauty along the Bear. Broken wheels and a thousand miles of fences couldn’t stop us.

The impossible is doable as long as you have a great brother and good trail friends. Uncertainty is all. Crazyass passion is the staple of life and persistence its nourishing force. Without them, you cannot cross the trail.”    The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey, by Rinker Buck

Things have been mighty serious here on the blog the past few months, so it’s time for a book that is guaranteed to make you feel good, satisfy your armchair travel cravings, and restore your faith in humanity. The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey by Rinker Buck is a perfect delight, especially if you love American history, travel, nature, a dash of memoir, and immersive, challenging expeditions.

Rinker Buck, a former reporter for the Hartford Courant, and his brother, Nick, crossed the 2,000-mile Oregon Trail in a covered wagon a couple of years ago, along with Nick’s dog, Olive Oyl, and a team of three mules: Jake, Beck and Bute.

They probably wouldn’t have made it if they hadn’t been experienced drivers of mule and horse teams. Even given their expertise, wagon transport presented scary and nearly insurmountable challenges along sometimes very hostile terrain. I don’t have a technical bent, so I wouldn’t have thought I’d be fascinated by the interpersonal dynamics between three mules and their drivers or the intricacies of harnesses and wagon paraphernalia. But Rinker Buck is an excellent writer, and he conveys beautifully how you have to get these important details right for such an undertaking, and the disasters that can happen if they go wrong.

Rinker Buck is funny and self-effacing, too. He gives just enough personal and family history to explain why two guys well past middle age might be inspired to take on the Oregon Trail. There are at least three levels of story braided together: Rinker and Nick’s personal, psychic journeys; the challenges and unexpected blessings of the landscape and people they met along the way; and vivid historical portraits of the colorful trailblazers who pioneered the trail in the mid 1800s.

 

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The Oregon Trail spans Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho, and Oregon. Up to 45,000 pioneers died along the trail.

 

I was especially taken with the story of Narcissa and Marcus Whitman, an upstate New York couple who were among the first pioneers to successfully maneuver the trail. Narcissa was a missionary and Marcus a doctor. Both wanted to head west, and they married essentially for convenience and companionship so they could travel together.

Along the way, Narcissa fell in love with Marcus, and she wrote eloquent letters to family describing their adventures. Narcissa gave permission for the letters to be published in the local newspaper, and soon her latest installments were being read by people across the country. Readers were mesmerized, and the Whitman success inspired the great wave of pioneers who came after.

The Oregon Trail is a great read if you like a blend of travel, history, nature and adventure, and Rinker Buck is a wise, funny, unsentimental writer who doesn’t take himself too seriously.

If you have similar “epic journey” books to recommend I’d love to hear about them in the comments. 

The Underground Railroad

the-underground-railroad“She never got Royal to tell her about the men and women who made the underground railroad. The ones who excavated a million tons of rock and dirt, toiled in the belly of the earth for the deliverance of slaves like her. Who stood with all those other souls who took runaways into their homes, fed them, carried them north on their backs, died for them. The station masters and conductors and sympathizers. Who are you after you finish something this magnificent – in constructing it you have also journeyed through it, to the other side. On one end there was who you were before you went underground, and on the other end a new person steps out into the light. The up-top world must be so ordinary compared to the miracle beneath, the miracle you made with your sweat and blood. The secret triumph you keep in your heart. – Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

Continuing my post-election reading and holiday gift suggestions, I just finished The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, which won this year’s National Book Award and many say is destined to become an American classic.

The Underground Railroad was an Oprah Book Club selection. In fact, Oprah Winfrey was so excited about the novel that she persuaded the publisher to release it over a month early so she could feature it as her next book club choice.

As Oprah says, there is “no better book for our times,” given the Black Lives Matter movement and our divisive political landscape.

Cora is a young, orphaned slave whose entire life has been spent on a Georgia plantation. She decides to run and is hunted by Ridgeway, a slave catcher, as she makes her way north.

At first blush, The Underground Railroad reads like historical fiction, but as the story unfolds it becomes clear that Cora is caught in a dystopia with many dimensions, depending on which state she happens to be in. The underground railroad is a literal tunnel built beneath the ground with secret way stations. Each state that Cora passes through embodies a unique, nightmarish vision of slavery in America.

Colson Whitehead has said that he had the idea for this novel some sixteen years ago, but didn’t feel he had the chops as a writer to pull it off until his mid forties.

I think The Underground Railroad is a masterpiece but, scanning the reviews on Goodreads, I noticed that, while most readers gave it five stars, others were lukewarm or disappointed. A common complaint was that Cora is one-dimensional; readers had a hard time feeling an emotional connection with Cora and some of the other characters.

For me, this wasn’t a problem, maybe because I view the characters as mythic, and so my expectations were different. In her New York Times review, Michiko Kakutani says the novel is “almost hallucinatory,” and that is what I felt, too. Rather than at an emotional distance, I was trapped along with the desperate characters in The Underground Railroad and the people trying to help them. I have a much greater appreciation for the intergenerational strength and resilience of blacks in America and the enormous risks taken by abolitionists and later by activists in the civil rights movement.

Nonetheless, I can see how this novel may not appeal to some readers. I would say it’s well worth picking up: at the very least, you’ll be reading the novel everyone is talking about.

“Cora ran her hand along the wall of the tunnel, the ridges and pockets. Her fingers danced over valleys, rivers, the peaks of mountains, the contours of a new nation hidden beneath the old. Look outside as you speed through, and you’ll find the true face of America.”

I’m not fond of the network morning shows, but here is a quick introduction to Colson Whitehead and his novel:

Have you read The Underground Railroad? What did you think?

News of the World

news-of-the-world“Maybe life is just carrying news. Surviving to carry the news. Maybe we have just one message, and it is delivered to us when we are born and we are never sure what it says; it may have nothing to do with us personally but it must be carried by hand through a life, all the way, and at the end handed over, sealed.”  – Paulette Jiles, News of the World

I took a break to work on my memoir, and here I am again, with a series of posts to highlight books that I think will make great holiday giving and that speak in some way to our fraught post-election times.

Despite a few setbacks – an unexpected election outcome and the death of a beloved aunt – I managed to finish the memoir draft, though I still have to edit and trim the last fifty pages or so.

Then it’s on to the next draft, with more editing and cutting. The manuscript is 132,922 words. Somehow, I have to get it down to 90,000 words or so. Actually, I don’t find cutting that difficult, it’s the honing and rewriting that seem to never end.

Ann Lamott is famous for saying you have to be willing to write a “shitty first draft.” I think you have to be willing to write shitty second, third, and maybe fourth drafts, too.

I don’t know how many drafts Paulette Jiles wrote of News of the World, but if you are looking for a beautiful, deeply affecting work of fiction to give as a holiday gift or to add to your wish list, this is the perfect novel.

At about 200 pages, it is a gem I will definitely read again. I got my copy out of the library, but I wouldn’t mind adding the novel to my book collection. This was my introduction to Paulette Jiles, who is an exquisite writer.

It’s not often I’m so affected by a story. I immediately fell in love with Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a widower based on an actual historical figure, and the complicated character of Johanna Leonberger who, for the second time in her short life, is thrust out of one culture and into another.

The premise is based on a sad but true phenomenon: Virtually every Anglo, German-American, and Mexican child kidnapped by Native Americans did not want to return to their original families and cultures, not even those who were kept by Native Americans for a relatively short time.  When they were forced to return, almost all had great difficulty adjusting, and they forever felt like outsiders. Many tried to run away and return to their Native American families. Some starved themselves to death.

In News of the World, Captain Kidd has lived through three wars, fought in two of them, and makes an itinerate living reading newspapers from around the world for ten cents a ticket in the isolated towns of north Texas.

In exchange for a $50-dollar gold piece, Captain Kidd agrees to deliver unwilling ten-year-old Johanna back to her relatives. She had been four years with the Kiowa, who kidnapped her and killed her parents and little sister. Now she has been traded back by the Kiowa to the US Army, in exchange for blankets and a set of silver dinnerware.

Fully assimilated into the Kiowa culture, Johanna has forgotten virtually everything about her former life with her birth family. She does not want to return to the “civilized” world.

News of the World is about Jefferson and Johanna’s dangerous 400-mile journey from Wichita Falls to San Antonio, Texas in 1870 in a hostile, post Civil War landscape, and the relationship that develops between this elderly widower and the young girl.

“Maybe we have just one message, and it is delivered to us when we are born and we are never sure what it says; it may have nothing to do with us personally but it must be carried by hand through a life, all the way, and at the end handed over, sealed.”

Along the way, Captain Kidd reads his newspapers to the town folk. In this post-war time, passions are still running high, and there is much bitterness, division, and conflict in everyday life. Does that sound familiar? But for a time, the townspeople are lifted out of their own locality by news of the world.

“He began to read to his audiences of far places and strange climates. Of the Esquimaux in their seal furs, the explorations of Sir John Franklin, shipwrecks on deserted isles, the long-limbed folk of the Australian outback who were dark as mahogany and yet had blonde hair and made strange music which the writer said was indescribable and which Captain Kidd longed to hear.

He read of the discovery of Victoria Falls and sightings, real or not, of the ghost ship The Flying Dutchman and an eyewitness account of a man on the bridge of that ship sending messages by blinking light to them, asking about people long dead. And before these tales for a short time Texans quieted and bent forward to hear.”

Jiles deftly portrays the nuances of characterization and psychological motivation in riveting scenes between Johanna and Captain Kidd that build to a powerful climax. Of Johanna Leonberger she writes:

“She never learned to value those things that white people valued. The greatest pride of the Kiowa was to do without, to make use of anything at hand; they were almost vain of their ability to go without water, food, and shelter. Life was not safe and nothing could make it so, neither fashionable dresses nor bank accounts. The baseline of human life was courage.”

News of the World was nominated for the National Book Award.

Have you read News of the World? Are there novels that you are dying to press into the hands of your reader friends this holiday season?

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