Turning Homeward

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

 

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

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

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

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

She writes:

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

The memoir I didn’t want to write about

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

And loss.”  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Let My People Go Surfing

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“Reusing something instead of immediately discarding it, when done for the right reasons, can be an act of love which expresses our own dignity.”  Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home, an encyclical letter by Pope Francis, 2015

 

LetMyPeopleGoIt was great timing: I finished Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman just when Nicholas Kristof published his op-ed column, ” “Is the Business World All About Greed?”

I think this is going to be one of my favorite nonfiction reads of 2018.

Our industrial/product designer son Matt gave us Let My People Go Surfing for Christmas. Written by Yvon Chouinard, rock climber, environmentalist, and founder of Patagonia, as a manual for his employees in 2006, Let My People Go Surfing is immensely popular among lay readers. It’s been translated into many languages and is required reading at many business schools.

Now 80 years old, Yvon revised his book in 2016, with a new preface by Naomi Klein, author of This Changes Everything.

If the ways of the world have been getting you down, you might want to pick up this book. You don’t have to be in business, or planning to start your own business, or interested in extreme sports to appreciate and enjoy Let My People Go Surfing. You don’t have to be a customer of Patagonia, either. I’ve never bought anything from Patagonia. But I enjoyed Yvon’s story of how he almost accidentally started his company to meet a particular need in a specialized market. He and his friends and first employees ended up doing so in an ethical way, while carving out a business model that challenges our culture of limitless consumption. They were ahead of their time.

The books is an inspiring life story and an eloquent articulation of a business ethic and approach to life we’ll all need to adopt if we and the planet are to survive and flourish.

“My company, Patagonia, Inc., is an experiment. It exists to put into action those recommendations that all the doomsday books on the health of our home planet say we must do immediately to avoid the certain destruction of nature and collapse of our civilization.”

Yvon Chouinard and his friends just wanted to go mountain climbing. They enjoyed reading the transcendental writers – Emerson, Thoreau, and John Muir – and they learned from these authors that when you visit the wilderness, it’s best to leave no trace upon leaving.

But they were doing multi-day ascents in places like Yosemite and using “soft” European-made pitons, which were secured in the rock as they climbed and then left behind. Hundreds of pitons were required to complete a climb, and when a climber was finished, the rock walls were littered and defaced.

In 1957, Yvon bought a forge and some equipment and taught himself blacksmithing. He and his father converted an old chicken coop in their Burbank backyard into a blacksmith shop, and Yvon began making climbing hardware for himself and his friends. Yvon developed a stronger piton that could be used over and over again and placed in existing cracks in the rock. When a climber completed a climb using Yvon’s pitons, the rocks left behind were clean.

Yvon worked in his shop in the winter, and spent the rest of the year in Yosemite, Wyoming, Canada, and the Alps climbing (when he wasn’t surfing), while selling his equipment from the back of his car. Things took off from there.

“I’ve been a businessman for almost fifty years. It’s as difficult for me to say those words as it is for someone to admit being an alcoholic or a lawyer. I’ve never respected the profession. It’s business that has to take the majority of the blame for being the enemy of nature, for destroying native cultures, for taking from the poor and giving to the rich, and for poisoning the earth with the effluent from its factories. Yet business can produce food, cure disease, control population, employ people, and generally enrich our lives. And it can do these good things and make a profit without losing its soul. That’s what this book is about.” 

Much of Patagonia’s story is told in chapters that focus on the company’s philosophies: Product Design Philosophy, Production Philosophy, Human Resource Philosophy, Environmental Philosophy, etc. The book ends with an eloquent call to action, “Turn Around and Take a Step Forward.”

Here are themes and stories in Let My People Go Surfing I especially enjoyed:

  • How Patagonia came into its own over many years, forging a distinctive identity and set of values, and successfully cultivating a loyal niche market.
  • How Patagonia expanded into outdoor clothing and made the extremely difficult transition to using only organic cotton, which entailed searching out suppliers and learning alongside them.
  • How Patagonia was the first company to formally use the principals of industrial design to make clothing. I’ve learned a little about this from our industrial designer son, who was initially inspired by the simple, elegant design of Apple products. “…the function of an object should determine its design and materials….Function must dictate form….The functionally driven design is usually minimalist…Complexity is often a sure sign that the functional needs have not been solved.”
  • Patagonia clothes are guaranteed for life. The company offers repair services, publishes free repair guides and videos for customers, and encourages customers to recycle and re-gift used clothing.
  • Patagonia values personal and family time highly. They have a “Let My People Go Surfing” flextime policy and a world-renowned onsite child care (Great Pacific Child Development Center). New mothers have 16 weeks fully paid and 4 weeks unpaid leave, and new fathers have 12 weeks fully paid leave.
    • (I worked in hospital public relations when our boys were very young, and I had two weeks of vacation a year. One of those weeks, a reservation snafu meant we spent seven days cramped in the same condo with two or three other families with babies and young children. I was exhausted when I returned to work. As a mother, I found just 14 days of vacation a year personally unsustainable. I think it isn’t sustainable for people who aren’t parents, too. I hope the rarefied Patagonia work culture becomes more common in the American workplace. If we let go of our relentless focus on productivity and stock value, and if more women were leaders in business, I believe things would be different.)
  • The first CEO of Patagonia was a woman, Kristine McDivitt Tompkins. Many years ago she left Patagonia and moved to Chile with her husband. This is what they have done with their lives, just published in The New York Times: “Protecting Wilderness As an Act of Democracy.”

Yvon Chouinard is a refreshingly practical, straightforward guy who has lived life to the fullest and wants to get a message out to the world. He fully admits no company is perfect, least of all Patagonia. It hasn’t managed to fully live the values it embraces. He says he’s doubtful we’ll be able to pull out of the mess we’re in. He takes the Buddhist view and seems able to detach himself from the idea that perhaps we humans as a species will run our course and die out. This hasn’t meant, though, that he thinks we should give up trying.

“Despite a near-universal consensus among scientists that we are on the brink of an environmental collapse, our society lacks the will to take action. We’re collectively paralyzed by apathy, inertia, or lack of imagination. Patagonia exists to challenge conventional wisdom and present a new style of responsible business. We believe the accepted model of capitalism that necessitates endless growth and deserves the blame for the destruction of nature must be displaced. Patagonia and its two thousand employees have the means and the will to prove to the rest of the business world that doing the right thing makes for a good and profitable business.”

If there is hope for us, it will be because of leaders and thinkers like Yvon Chouinard who got their start during the Beat and hippie heydays, and even more so because of the millennial leaders and thinkers coming into their own now who are refusing to succumb to apathy, inertia, or lack of imagination.

As Nicholas Kristof says in his op-ed piece, millennials want to work for ethical, socially responsible companies. They want to make a difference in the world. (And, he points out that investment companies like BlackRock are looking to invest in companies aiming to make “a positive contribution to society.”)

We, as customers, have a responsibility, too.

“The Zen master would say if you want to change government, you have to aim at changing corporations, and if you want to change corporations, you first have to change the consumers. Whoa, wait a minute! The consumer? That’s me. You mean I’m the one who has to change?” – Yvon Chouinard

 

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Let my people go snowboarding….I saw this cake in our local grocery story/bakery in Bend, Oregon.

 

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Let my people go mountain climbing….Sometimes you can see two of the Sisters at Mirror Lake in Drake Park, a short walk from our house.

 

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And sometimes they’re hiding.

 

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We saw the largest ponderosa pine ever recorded, 8 1/2 feet wide, 28 feet round, in La Pine State Park. I’ve been taking a master naturalist class, and in the East Cascades ecoregion alone, climate change will bring challenges that seem overwhelming, especially given the lack of will to solve our problems Chouinard speaks of. Although, here I’ve seen much enthusiasm for and appreciation of nature. There are many, many people, young and old, volunteering time to restore species and wilderness habitats.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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Encounter with an Antarctic glacier

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

Books Can Save a Life, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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A Charlie Brown tree

 

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Raised beds waiting to be reclaimed

 

Pinecones

A lifetime supply

 

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Old Bend bungalows are painted in deep, earthy colors.

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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.

 

Housing

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 .

 

IMG_6102

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.

 

ZionAutumnColors

“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.

 

VirginNarrows

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.”

Old Florida

SpanishMoss

Savannah, Georgia

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

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

FlanneryOconnor

A Flannery O’Connor display at The Book Lady

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

St. Petersburg

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

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

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

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

AngelHair

I love angel hair fern.

 
The ‘burbs

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

 

SandhillCrane

A sandhill crane waits for a bus

 

Ibis

Ibis, following their leader

 

AfterRain

After the rain

 

BigLeaves

They grow them big,

 

Garden

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

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

 

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

 

Chick

My attempt to paint a chick

 

RabbitBamboo

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

 
The Panhandle

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

DestinBeach

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

 

Monarch

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

 

Tracks

Places to go….

 

DestinSunrise

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

 

TheYearling

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

 

CrossCreek

Her memoir.

 

TheHabitofBeing

Flannery was a great writer of letters.

 

The Invention of Nature

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

Coming up: Mobile, Alabama and New Orleans

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

 

Men We Reaped

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

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

Our country is going through something.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Birds Art Life

“They were constantly chirping, and what they were saying, or what I heard them say, was: Stand up. Look around. Be in the world.”


BirdsArtLife

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“For me, birding and writing did not feel interchangeable. Birding was the opposite of writing, a welcome and necessary flight from the awkward daily consciousness of making art. It allowed me to exist in a simple continuity, amid a river of birds and people and hours. The stubborn anxiety that filled the rest of my life was calmed for as long as I was standing in the river.”

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“As long as I can remember I have been drawn to people who have side loves. Maybe because no single job or category has ever worked for me, I am particularly interested in artists who find inspiration alongside their creative practice. It could be a zest for car mechanics or iron welding (Bob Dylan) or for beekeeping (Sylvia Plath). I love the idea that something completely unexpected can be a person’s wellspring or dark inner cavern, that our artistic lives can be so powerfully shaped and lavishly cross-pollinated by what we do in our so-called spare time.”    Birds Art Life: A Year of Observation by Kyo Maclear

I just love this little memoir. Writer Kyo Maclear, a novelist, essayist, and children’s book author, was feeling overwhelmed by the illness of her father, caring for her two young boys, keeping up her writing, and all of life’s other demands. She decided to begin a side practice, something to relax her and refresh her writing and creative spirit.

For a year, she accompanied an avid birder who is also a musician and performer in birding adventures around Toronto and wrote about it, along the way finding truths about life and art.

Many artists and writers are dabblers or become accomplished in a side practice that cross pollinates their art and their life. Vladimir Nabokov was a world renowned butterfly expert. Virginia Woolf gardened.

I’m not sure I have a side practice. Certainly nature feeds my writing and inspires me, and I’m experimenting with learning how to paint watercolors because painting is nonverbal, a relief from hours of being in my own head when I write.

For Kyo, birding was a delightful hobby and new passion because it was relatively easy to do. Despite living in an urban environment, Kyo and her birding companion were intrigued and entertained by the wide range of birds they found along the lake front and in streams, parks, vacant lots, parking lots, backyards, and right outside their picture windows.

Each chapter in Birds Art Life is devoted to a month and a theme: Love, Cages, Smallness, Waiting, Knowledge, Faltering, Lulls, Roaming, Regrets, Questions, and Endings.

A few chapter subtitles will give you an idea of Kyo’s thematic reflections:

Smallness: On the satisfactions of small birds and small art and the audacity of aiming tiny in an age of big ambitions

Lulls: On peaceful lulls and terrifying lulls and the general difficulty of being alone and unbusy

In one chapter, Kyo broadens her scope to reflect on climate change and how, day to day, urbanites and suburbanites don’t notice the human-caused environmental disruption and species depletion happening just outside their view.

Many birders have a spark bird, a particular species of bird that ignites their interest and launches them into birding. Likewise, many devoted readers have a spark book, a book they read in childhood that became a portal to a life of passionate reading.

Do you have a spark book? What comes to mind for me is A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. 

This is a hugely satisfying memoir and meditation on life and art that will replenish your spirit. I highly recommend it.

“This is what birds do when they join a swirl of other birds, I thought. They don’t proclaim their individuality or try to make a splash. They dissolve into the group. I wondered if this merging felt so relaxing because it was an antidote to the artist ego, built on an endless need to individuate, to be your own you. In place of exhausting self-assertion, the relief of disappearing into the crowd.”

Do you have a side practice that complements your primary work? Do you have a spark book, or a spark bird, or something specific that sparked your passion in another hobby or practice?

 

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.”)

 

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