When the ancient forest embraces you

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The H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Infinite colors and layers upon layers

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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More than a foot wide

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Forest fire

 

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A nurse log

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

One Thousand White Women

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An American tragedy plays out in the final pages.

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

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

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

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

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

 

Love and Ruin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Here, she talks about poetry and inspiration:

 

 

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

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.

 

Georgia

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

 

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

 

AbiquiChurch

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

 

So we hope to return someday.

 

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Cliff chimneys at Ghost Ranch

 

 

 

The Invention of Nature

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

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

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

 

Flame:Derrick

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Truck

Humboldt wrote prolifically. His most influential books are:

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

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

Views of Nature

Natural gas tanks

 

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

 

 

Refinery

A refinery

 

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

 

Moonrise

 

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

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

 

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.

 

MtStHelens

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

ThisLifeIsInYourHands

“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.

Handmaid's Tale

“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?

AtwoodAutograph

“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.

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