(Still) reading Barry Lopez

Stories…offer patterns of sound and association, of event and image. Suspended as listeners and readers in these patterns, we might reimagine our lives…As long as it took for me to see that a writer’s voice had to grow out of his own knowledge and desire, that it could not rise legitimately out of the privilege of race or gender or social rank, so did it take time to grasp the depth of cruelty inflicted upon all of us the moment voices are silenced, when for prejudicial reasons people are told their stories are not valuable, not useful. Barry Lopez

About This Life: Journeys on the Threshold of Memory, Barry Lopez

Here is my third and final reposting of my Barry Lopez Books Can Save a Life writings, in honor of his passing on December 25, 2020:

In the introduction to his essay collection About This Life: Journeys on the Threshold of Memory, Barry Lopez tells of meeting a man on a plane who asked what words of advice he could pass on to his teen-age daughter, who wanted to be a writer. This is what Lopez said:

She must read, and her choices should be whatever she is drawn to.

She should read the classics, too, but she’ll have to work harder to find stories of heroism, love, and our noblest values that are written by women.

Second, she must “become someone” and “speak to us from within those beliefs.”

Third, he advised that she “separate herself from the familiar.” After exploring other places and meeting a diversity of people, she`ll know why she loves the familiar and share this knowledge through her writing.

Early on, Lopez felt he was noticed, accepted, and rewarded as a writer in part because he was white, male, privileged and well educated. If you read his work, you’ll find he is keenly sensitive to the fact that many voices haven’t been heard because they are different or not within traditional circles of power. He thrives on traveling to the far corners of the earth and seeking these people out –  artists, artisans, farmers, naturalists, explorers who live close to the land, indigenous peoples, and others.

I was mesmerized by an essay in About This Life, “Effleurage: The Stroke of Fire.”  An Oregon potter and builder of a unique anagama kiln invites clay artists from around the world to fire their work. Jack doesn’t care about marketing or commercial success; he’s totally immersed in the process of making pottery out of materials from nature. Every three or four months, up to twenty artists bring their work to be fired in the Dragon Kiln.  Families, friends, even pets tag along. The firing goes around the clock for several days. Building the tremendous fire that heats the kiln is an art in and of itself. Different kinds of wood – black locust, maple, cherry, Lombardy poplar, red cedar – make different kinds of fires, and keeping the fire properly stoked is a community effort of like-minded artists who put aside their egos for the benefit of the group.

Lopez says you must become someone to write. I think he would agree the kiln designer and the clay artists are “becoming” through their life’s work, just as their clay pieces are forged in the fire. It’s a process that never ends. Even the clay pot continues to change, subtly, after the firing.

Crow and Weasel book cover

Over and over, Lopez celebrates journeys into the unknown, strangers who become friends, coming home again, and the writing of the story. You see this in About This Life and in his fable, Crow and Weasel.

Recently, Lopez published a revelatory personal essay that has received a lot of attention, “Sliver of Sky,”  in Harper’s Magazine, about a period of sexual abuse he endured as a child. That Lopez waited until his seventies to write about this suggests how deeply confounding and wounding it was. The trauma and years of silence may explain in part Lopez’s empathy and compassion for others who were silenced for one reason or another. And no doubt it has contributed to his sense of mission as a writer.

I’ve written about years of being silent and feeling silenced by others because of my mother’s mental illness. I think that is partly why I didn’t make the commitment to becoming a writer when I was younger. How can you mature as a human being and as a writer when you can’t work with the very material that is woven into your identity?

If we’re silenced, we’re blocked. We don’t become our fullest selves. Diminished in what we are able to offer the world, the world will be diminished, too. It is in our best interests to see that no one among us is silenced.

So I find reading Lopez to be a rare and important form of encouragement.

In an interview with Bill Moyers, Lopez says he’s viewed as a nature writer but, actually, he is writing about humanity.

“Every story is an act of trust between a writer and a reader; each story, in the end, is social. Whatever a writer sets down can harm or help the community of which he or she is a part.”

Barry Lopez brought us I, Snow Leopard

Snow Leopard

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

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

Barry Lopez

Happy New Year, everyone! In honor of Barry’ Lopez’s passing on Christmas Day, I’m reposting my previous Books Can Save a Life writings about him. I wrote the following post on April 16, 2016, after Lopez visited Rochester, NY:

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

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

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

I, Snow Leopard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo by Bernard Landgraf. CC BY-SA 3.0

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

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

“I want to see people come alive.”

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

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

“We should be holding hands.”

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

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

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

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

Of Wolves and Men

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

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

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

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

Barry Lopez passing, gathering words

The role of the artist, in part, is to develop the conversations, the stories, the drawings, the films, the music—the expressions of awe and wonder and mystery—that remind us, especially in our worst times, of what is still possible, of what we haven’t yet imagined.  – Barry Lopez

Barry Lopez passed away on Christmas Day, 2020. You can read a brief, beautiful account of his passing by his wife, Debra Gwartney, on his website. Over the next months, his family will begin the work of restoring their home on the McKenzie River, which was burned in the 2020 wildfires.

During the next week I’ll be featuring some of my past posts about Barry. Here is one, which I wrote in 2013:

When I began this blog I chose for my tagline a quote by Barry Lopez about stories because it rang true for me. But I’d never actually read any of Lopez’s books. So I began with Arctic Dreams, which won the National Book Award.

If you want to be an armchair traveler of the world, if you love nature, if you crave being transported to another time and place by extraordinary writing, you must read Barry Lopez. Arctic Dreams has some of the most dazzling and poetic passages about the natural world you’ll ever encounter.

“The aurora borealis, pale gossamer curtains of light.”

“The mother-of-pearl iridescence of the sun’s or moon’s corona in clouds.”

“The outcry of birds, the bullet-whirr of their passing wings, the splashing of water, is, like the falling light, unending.”

You will find uncommon truths, beautifully expressed. Here is Lopez on the great Arctic explorers of the past: “The day after a little trouble on the ice it is possible to imagine, if but imperfectly, the sort of reach some of these men made into the unknown, day after day.” 

“I think we can hardly reconstruct the terror of it, the single-minded belief in something beyond the self.”

“Inescapable hardship transcended by a desire of spiritual elevation, or the desire to understand, to comprehend what lay in darkness.”

“What dreams there must have been that were never written down….that remained in the heart. The kind of dreams that give a whole life its bearing, what a person intends it should be, having seen those coasts.”

If you want to write, how can you move closer to this kind of mastery of language?

old dictionary

As I was reading Lopez, I happened to make a happy discovery in my writing bible, Priscilla Long’s The Writer’s Portable Mentor:  Lexicon Practice. Lexicon Practice involves looking up words you don’t know and words you want to know better, not in in a pocket dictionary or online, but in a mammoth 600,000-word dictionary, the kind you still see in some libraries. 

(Long advises writers to search online for a dictionary published in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. They aren’t cheap, but they are a wise investment.) Copy the definitions of a word in a notebook. These old dictionaries have detailed diagrams and illustrations, and occasionally I copy these as well.

I write down the word in its language of origin, too. If it has a Latin, Italian or Spanish root, I can brush up on my foreign language vocabulary. Long instructs you to write out the sentence where you found the word and make up a sentence of your own, preferably a sentence you can use in a piece of writing you’re working on. You can choose a lexicon theme based on the work you are doing at the moment. Since I’m writing a memoir, for example, I have a lexicon with words commonly used in the 1960s – products, types of clothing, etc.

Long believes in Lexicon Practice. Otherwise, our writing derives from the uninspired language of generic, overused words and phrases we find in newspapers, magazines, advertising, and social media. As a teacher of writing, Long knows immediately when a writer doesn’t have a Lexicon Practice. She mentions Lopez as the kind of master writer we can emulate. He uses words with Old English and Old German roots, and “…he favors concrete words…that can be seen, smelled, touched, tasted, or heard. For Lopez, language is a musical instrument…”

Now, Lexicon Practice is a geeky, writerly thing, but it appeals to me. This kind of practice slows you down, teaches you to choose words with care. If you want to write rich, compelling fiction or nonfiction, you need to be in love with words in this way, or allow yourself to fall in love with them by doing work of this nature.

Definitions and drawings

Culling words from Arctic Dreams was an inspiring way to for me to establish a habit of Lexicon Work. A variety of birds populate the first pages of my first lexicon: plover, whimbrel, curlew. There are many boats and nautical references: pinnace, tender, portolano chart.  Geographical terms, too: archipelago, scree, promontory.  (As I write this, my word processor does not recognize a few of these uncommon words and highlights them as misspellings.)

Long advises writers to compose word lists, too. Her examples: every possible synonym for blue (sapphire, smalt, cobalt, woad) and all the parts of a fiddle (peg box, side rib, bridge, button). You can work according to a theme. Chairs and chair parts. Types of roofs. Clothes for people who love the outdoors. Get an L.L. Bean catalog and find words like cargo pants, fleece, sun-washed, twill, seersucker, Mary Janes, wellies.

I found that keeping a lexicon is a good excuse to buy one of those expensive, fancy journals I love. Mine has a silvered filigree cover designed in Germany around 1800. (I haven’t kept up a lexicon practice as of 2020, but I do it from time to time for specific writing projects.)

I am now using the second edition of Pricilla Long’s The Writer’s Portable Mentor, published in 2018 by the University of New Mexico Press. It has been updated with all new craft models and to reflect changes in the publishing industry.

***

If you want to be uplifted or if you would like encouragement in your life’s work, listen to a few minutes of this conversation between Barry Lopez and Bill Moyers.

Here is a moving and enlightening interview with Barry Lopez on Idaho Public Television from 2019. He talks about his latest book, Horizon, (which is a wonderful and urgent read!!!) and opens up about the impact of childhood sexual abuse on his life, and what he hoped to accomplish by finally writing about it in the New Yorker as an elder. Those of you writing memoir about traumatic events will find it helpful.

Here is a link to the McKenzie River Trust, which is devoted to conservation of the western Oregon region where Barry Lopez lived. Much of the river corridor was destroyed by the fall fires. If you wish, you can make a donation in memory of Barry Lopez.

Hope in the Dark

A backyard in San Francisco, September 10, 2020

“This morning was perhaps the most unnatural-feeling and unnerving of my life, with darkness rather than daytime rolling in. People around California reported that the birds that would normally be singing were silent. On some of the days, since the freak lightning storm in the heat wave of mid-August launched this explosive fire season, the sun has been red, and when the moon was full it was also red near the horizon, but this morning there was no sun to be seen through the murk. Ash was falling, the ash of trees, forests, homes, towns, dreams burning up. In the strange light, the world around us looked ghostly, otherworldly, unnatural, unnerving, disturbing.”

Rebecca Solnit, The Guardian, September 10, 2020

There are no words to describe my grief over the fires in Oregon, California, and Washington, so I’ll defer to Rebecca Solnit and her Hope in the Dark:

“I write to give aid and comfort to people who feel overwhelmed by the defeatist perspective, to encourage people to stand up and participate, to look forward at what we can do and back at what we have done. This book was always for them. And if you’ve read this far, for you.”

“….sometimes it’s the most unlikely people who rise up and take power, the housewives who are supposed to be nobody, the prisoners who organize from inside, the people who have an intimate sense of what’s at stake.”

“Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. It is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency. Hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth’s treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal…”

“To hope is to give yourself the future – and that commitment to the future is what makes the present inhabitable.” 

One Long River of Song

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“So much held in a heart in a lifetime. So much held in a heart in a day, an hour, a moment. We are utterly open with no one, in the end — not mother and father, not wife or husband, not lover, not child, not friend. We open windows to each but we live alone in the house of the heart. Perhaps we must. Perhaps we could not bear to be so naked, for fear of a constantly harrowed heart…..You can brick up your heart as stout and tight and hard and cold and impregnable as you possibly can and down it comes in an instant, felled by a woman’s second glance, a child’s apple breath, the shatter of glass in the road, the words ‘I have something to tell you,’ a cat with a broken spine dragging itself into the forest to die, the brush of your mother’s papery ancient hand in a thicket of your hair, the memory of your father’s voice early in the morning echoing from the kitchen where he is making pancakes for his children.” – One Long River of Song: Notes on Wonder for the Spiritual and Nonspiritual Alike by Brian Doyle

Easter Sunday, 2020 in the time of COVID-19: Just about the coolest and most uplifting and loving and literary and funny and expansive collection of essays you could ever read.

In my last post I wrote that I discovered two favorite, amazing, new-to-me authors in my 2019 reading. Margaret Renkl is one; Brian Doyle is the other.

During the first month of our time in Oregon, we lived in Lake Oswego. The first time I entered the public library, I saw a Christmas tree decorated with hand-written tributes to Brian Doyle, who had made his home in Lake Oswego and who had recently died.

I ended up reading a collection of his essays and his most famous novel. If you are looking for joy in the midst of this pandemic, Brian Doyle would be the writer to read.

Here is what Margaret Renkl had to say about One Long River of Song:

“If you are in love with language, here is how you will read Brian Doyle’s posthumous collection of essays: by underlining sentences and double-underlining other sentences….by marking whole astonishing paragraphs with a squiggly line in the margin, and by highlighting many of those squiggle-marked sections with a star to identify the best of the astonishing lines therein…. and, finally, by dog-earing whole pages, and then whole essays, because there is not enough ink in the world to do justice to such annotations, slim as this book is and so full of white space, too.” – Margaret Renkl in The New York Times

Below are some excerpts. By the way, Brian was a devout Catholic, but you do not have to be a Catholic, or a Christian, or religious or spiritual in any way to sip from the wellspring of joy that runs like a river through all of Brian’s writing.

“But you cannot control everything…All you can do is face the world with quiet grace and hope you make a sliver of difference…You must trust that you being the best possible you matters somehow…That being an attentive and generous friend and citizen will prevent a thread or two of the social fabric from unraveling.”

****

“A 5.56-millimeter bullet can punch nearly half an inch into steel, and punch right through a bulletproof vest, and punch right through a human being of any size and shape and age and nationality and gender and religion and sexual orientation and combatant status, or not….

Dear outraged shrieking lunatic, you who are about to lecture me on how this was just an accident, and how it’s a necessary part of the capitalist system, and how I am clearly a yellow liberal pansy: Are you only stupid, or are you insane?”

****

[On hummingbirds} “Each one visits a thousand flowers a day. They can dive at sixty miles an hour. They can fly backward. They can fly more than five hundred miles without pausing to rest. But when they rest they come close to death: on frigid nights, or when they are starving, they retreat into torpor, their metabolic rate slowing to a fifteenth of their normal sleep rate, their hearts sludging nearly to a halt, barely beating, and if they are not soon warmed, if they do not soon find that which is sweet, their hearts grow cold and they cease to be.”

****

“Every creature on earth has approximately two billion heartbeats to spend in a lifetime. You can spend them slowly, like a tortoise and live to be two hundred years old, or you can spend them fast, like a hummingbird, and live to be two years old.”

MinkRiverMink River

This novel is about the quirky people who make up a quirky “little green cup of a town” on the Oregon coast.

“On a clear day the Oregon coast is the most beautiful place on earth—clear and crisp and clean, a rich green in the land and a bright blue in the sky, the air fat and salty and bracing, the ocean spreading like a grin. Brown pelicans rise and fall in their chorus lines in the wells of the waves, cormorants arrow, an eagle kingly queenly floats south high above the water line.”

****

“Rained gently last night, just enough to wash the town clean, and then today a clean crisp fat spring day, the air redolent, the kind of green minty succulent air you’d bottle if you could and snort greedily on bleak, wet January evenings when the streetlights hzzzt on at four in the afternoon and all existence seems hopeless and sad.”

****

“She’ll be a fierce woman, that one. It’ll take a hell of a man to love her right. Be like living with a thunderstorm. Same as her mother. A fierce woman. Force of nature. The kind of woman you just hand on for the ride. The most exciting and the most heartbreaking woman you could ever meet. They don’t know their own minds most of the time, but their hearts are so damn big it hurts em inside.”

****

“Dawn. A pregnant green moist silence everywhere: and the robins start, and then starlings, and the jays, and the juncos, and the barred owl closing up shop for the night, and a hound howling in the hills which starts a couple other dogs going, which sets a guy to shouting at the dogs to shut up for chrissake, and someone tries to get a recalcitrant truck going, and the truck just can’t get going, it gasps and gasps and gasps, which sets the owl going again….and then the truck finally starts but then immediately dies, which sets the driver to cursing steadily feck feck feck which sets his passenger to giggling and the passenger’s giggle is so infectious that the driver can’t help but laugh either, so they are laughing…”

****

“They pull in the lines and up come three small halibut, a vermilion rockfish that is the reddest thing Nicholas has ever seen, and a ling cod with a gaping mouth the size of China. They clean and ice the fish. Gulls wheel and dive at the offal flung into the water.

See? No snot, no shit, and birds clean up after you, says Grace.

Can I ask you a question? says Nicholas.

No.

Do you miss your dad?

No.

Is your mom dead?

No.

Should we bait up again?

Yes. 

Am I bugging you?

Yes.

I’ll stop talking.

No.”

****

“These things matter to me, Daniel, says the man with six days to live. They are sitting on the porch in the last light. These things matter to me, son. The way the hawks huddle their shoulders angrily against hissing snow. Wrens whirring in the bare bones of bushes in winter. The way swallows and swifts veer and whirl and swim and slice and carve and curve and swerve. The way that frozen dew outlines every blade of grass. Salmonberries thimbleberries cloudberries snowberries elderberries salalberries gooseberries. My children learning to read. My wife’s voice velvet in my ear at night in the dark under the covers. Her hair in my nose as we slept curled like spoons. The sinuous pace of rivers and minks and cats. Fresh bread with too much butter. My children’s hands when they cup my face in their hands. Toys. Exuberance. Mowing the lawn. Tiny wrenches and screwdrivers. Tears of sorrow, which are the salt sea of the heart. Sleep in every form from doze to bone-weary. Pay stubs. Trains. The shivering ache of a saxophone and the yearning of a soprano. Folding laundry hot from the dryer. A spotless kitchen floor. The sound of bagpipes. The way horses smell in spring. Red wines. Furnaces. Stone walls. Sweat. Postcards on which the sender has written so much that he or she can barely squeeze in the signature. Opera on the radio. Bathrobes, back rubs. Potatoes. Mink oil on boots. …..Rain in every form from mist to sluice. The sound of my daughters typing their papers for school. My wife’s eyes, as blue and green and gray as the sea. The sea, as blue and green and gray as her eyes. Her eyes. Her.”

Brian Doyle passed away from complications of a brain tumor in 2017.

 

Columbia River

Columbia River, view from Amtrak train heading for Portland, 2018.

 

Birdsong on the trolley trail, Easter Sunday, 2020.

 

We come from Joy; we are sustained in Joy, and to Joy we will return. – The Upanishads

Late Migrations

Late Migrations

 

“Every day the world is teaching me what I need to know to be in the world.” – Margaret Renkl, Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss.

Last year I encountered two new-to-me writers who bowled me over.

I would say that one of them, Margaret Renkl, is a kindred spirit; she cares deeply about family, the natural world, and the fate of our earth. I never fail to read her opinion pieces in The New York Times.

I’d like to press her memoir into the hands of every reader I know. Late Migrations is a meditation in short, interlocking essays about family, love, loss and backyard nature, destined to become a classic.

It won the 2020 Reed Environmental Writing Award from the Southern Environmental Law Center, and was named a 2020 Notable Book by the American Library Association.

You couldn’t find a better book at a time like this. It’s written in short, exquisite essays of a page or two, so you can read it in small bits if you’d like.

There is grief – for lost family and a wounded natural world – but mostly her writing is a celebration of the natural cycles of life and death, and the wildlife accessible outside our windows and in our backyards.

In lieu of saying more, here is a 9-minute video trailer featuring Renkl, who calls her memoir “a love letter to my family and to the natural world.” The video is like a mini-retreat. Enjoy!

 

 

Have you read Late Migrations? Or another memoir about family and nature that is comparable?

Next on Books Can Save a Life: The other writer who bowled me over – just about the coolest and most uplifting and loving and literary and funny and expansive collection of essays you could ever read.

 

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Happy Easter Week! From the 2020 Dutch Connection at the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, NY.

 

Wisdom for 2020 from an American prophet

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Broken Top and Three Sisters, sunset. The star (can you see it?) is Venus. Photo by MJHallinan.

 

“We can find ways to believe in survival and to live for the children….In our tribal and indigenous cultures, which have endured for thousands of years, every decision must leave no one behind. ‘Progress’ has caused us to miss love and reciprocity… these can be restored through narrative. Can you tell us a story that helps?”  Barry Lopez, Portland Festival of Books, 2019

 

On the very last day of 2019, my husband and I concluded our two-year and three-month grand adventure in central Oregon. We left the delightful, quirky little town on the edge of the wilderness that has been our home, and returned to the place on the Erie Canal in upstate New York where we’d raised our family.

Our plane landed just a few hours before the New Year at Greater Rochester International Airport.

We were sad to leave Sisters, Oregon, but happy to come back to the town we think of as home. In December, I made it my mission to soak up as much Sisters holiday joy and central Oregon natural beauty as I could.

 

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Winter solstice: walking the Sisters Community Labyrinth.  “At the end of every journey lies a labyrinth.” – St. Atilla

 

For the winter solstice, we did something special. Dozens of townspeople and visitors gathered in the diminishing light to silently walk the Sisters Community Labyrinth at the edge of the Deschutes National Forest. Each person carried a natural object – the husk of an acorn, a bone fragment, a pine cone – and threw it into a fire that symbolized transformation. Each object represented something the bearer was releasing, or something new arising in the flames.

We walked single file, each walker on his own journey in companionship with other souls on their journeys. We walked with our two sons, my meditation friends from the amazing Sisters Sangha, and many others – members of the community and visitors from afar who came to enjoy Sisters at winter’s portal. This communion is part of the beauty of the labyrinth.

 

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At the Portland Festival of Books, November 2019

 

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Oregon Poet Laureate Kim Stafford at a pop-up poetry reading, Portland Art Museum, Portland Festival of Books

Attending the Portland Festival of Books in November was a meaningful way to conclude my in-person Oregon literary explorations. My husband and I listened to the American author Barry Lopez and the Russian author Anna Badkhen converse about the role of the writer as explorer, seeker, and witness. Both have traveled the world many times over: Anna has written in depth about civilians in war zones, and Barry has reported in award-winning prose on flora, fauna and indigenous cultures across the globe.

They touched on how a writer finds meaning in her work and the moral and ethical responsibilities that come with bearing witness. There wasn’t a single empty seat in the auditorium, and the audience seemed to hang upon every word. I had the sense that we all knew what a privilege it was to hear the words of these great contemporary writers.

Barry Lopez asked this question:

“How are we going to take care of each other?

The storyteller recognizes when there is a disturbance … and has an ethical responsibility to take care of those in a culture living in disarray.” 

 

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First light. A friend advised us to come to this little park on the edge of town, where people enjoy waiting for sunrise.

 

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Christmas shopping in Sisters

 

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Warming up by the river rock fireplace at the magnificent Sisters Coffee Company. The flagship shop was designed by Sisters Coffee founder Winfield Durham and made from ponderosa pine, western larch, grand fir, and juniper.

 

 

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A silver and pearl-gray morning in central Oregon

 

 

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Sometimes Santa and his reindeer need a little help. Ready for take-off at Sisters Eagle Airport.

 

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Ponderosa pine sunrise

 

Coming up on Books Can Save a Life:

Five memoirs by five women with superpowers

Just about the coolest and most uplifting and loving and literary and funny and expansive collection of essays you could ever read, by a beloved Oregon writer

 

Books Can Save a Life

 

“When you’re in a place that is not your own among people not like you, your first impulse has to be respect. Even if you don’t understand, you have to show respect for what is technically called another epistemology, another way of knowing the world.”Barry Lopez

After nearly eight years of blogging at Books Can Save a Life, I’ll be taking a break to work on other writing projects and bookish activities. I’ll be back from time to time, though, when extraordinary books and literary happenings come along.

When I started Books Can Save a Life, I was thinking primarily about books saving lives personally and individually. Over the years, my reading has come to include books that I believe save lives in a much broader sense. Books have always been a way for me to understand the world, and I believe books can help us save value systems, democracies, species, and perhaps even humanity.

Bill McKibben, Barry Lopez, Richard Powers, Kim Stafford, Barbara Kingsolver, Terry Tempest Williams, Kathleen Dean Moore, and Mary Oliver are among the writers I’ve come to trust deeply. In his newest book, Falter, McKibben says we may have begun humanity’s endgame because of climate change, staggering inequality, and artificial intelligence. (Google has just announced it has achieved “quantum supremacy,” whatever that means.)

We don’t really know, of course. Barry Lopez recently said there is no place for despair and pessimism if we are to have the energy and wisdom for a massive course correction:

“The whole thing is on the line now. The entire meaning of the evolution of homo sapiens. We either show that our power of invention is tremendous or we show that the development of the imagination in the hominid line was maladaptive.” 

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“The whole book is about arriving at a position of impassioned embrace of all human beings.” – Barry Lopez

Barry’s latest book, Horizon, a culmination of his life as a world traveller and seeker, is a handful at over 500 pages. If you don’t want to take on the book, I encourage you to listen to this 15-minute interview with Lopez at Public Radio International’s Living on Earth. It is filled with transcendent words of wisdom I wish everyone could hear.

All of us can work toward a more humanitarian culture and learn to take better better care of the earth. We’ve reached an inflection point in human history, and it’s our destiny to do the important work we’re each called to do. Reading can fortify us.

I’ve enjoyed sharing my reading journey with you.

“You can call it global climate change, you can call it the disintegration of democratic forms of government….the need to attack this issue, to me, is like one of the great voyages that we now have to choose to make, to move into unknown territory, into uncharted lands….My hope is that people will say, ‘We’re in trouble. What is going to be the vessel on which we sail?’  And, maybe more importantly, ‘Who is going to be the navigator?'” Barry Lopez

 

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Oregon coast

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sisters Festival of Books

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The poster for the inaugural Sisters Festival of Books reminds me of our backyard view of the full moon peeking through ponderosa pine. (We even have a hammock.) Until we moved to central Oregon, I never knew how big the sky could be, nor how magnificently a rising moon could command the landscape. Or how good it feels to sit on a big lava rock reading while the high desert sun warms you deep in your bones.

 

A village lost in bookish revelry….

That’s what I did this weekend in this quirky little town we moved to the year before last. I indulged in bookish revelry with other like-minded book-lovers, in the first ever book festival to be held in Sisters, Oregon, thanks to hard-working volunteers, generous sponsors, and Paulina Springs Books. 

Outside, the weather was bone-chilling and windy, with rain bordering on sleet. Inside, there were stacks of brand new books to choose from, a bake sale, writers reading aloud their latest work, and meandering lines where you could get your book autographed and have a long chat with the author.

Over forty writers came to Sisters, representing a mix of genres: historical fiction, romance, mystery, nature, memoir, literary fiction and nonfiction, poetry, food writing, children’s and young adult literature, and more.

Housed in the local middle school and at Paulina Springs Books, the festival was special because the venues were intimate and the writers so entirely approachable.

Here are three writers and a sampling of memoir, history, and poetry:

I Am a Stranger Here Myself, by Debra Gwartney

IAmAStrangerGwartney held us spellbound reading a passage about the day 20-year-old Debra shopped for a wedding dress (for a marriage that sounded doomed), and the November, 1847 day the Cayuse tribes killed missionary Narcissa Prentiss Whitman, her husband, and eleven others.

You might wonder what the Whitman massacre and Debra’s wedding plans have in common. Gwartney reflected on how she had always been fascinated by Narcissa Whitman; somehow, this historical figure spoke to Debra’s own identity, and those of her mother and grandmother and other female relatives, who had long lived in the West. It took seven years of research and draft writing for Debra to discover the connective tissue between her own life and Narcissa’s, resulting in this fine book that combines memoir with an important part of American Western history.

I appreciated Debra’s honesty about her extended writing process and how patient she was in letting her story incubate. I Am A Stranger Here Myself is especially timely in light of how our culture is re-examining racism, indigenous culture, sexism, and the role of women in America.

Here is an excerpt:

“Something about Narcissa Whitman drew me in when I saw the book on my grandmother’s shelf this time. She was the first Caucasian woman (so say the history books) to cross the Rocky Mountains, the first white woman to give birth to a white baby on the frontier (same history books). A missionary killed by the people she aimed to convert – her death, some say, changing the course of the settling of the West….

….She was shaping up to be my ideal nemesis in the way she believed the land was hers to take, in her insistence that she alone held the one and only path to God. Putting an end to an entire culture was justified in Narcissa’s mind as long as it was done in the name of Progress and Providence. I would let myself despise her for that squirt of narrow-mindedness and her proclivity to judge, even while managing to ignore my own such propensities. So what if she was trapped in others’ expectations – her mother’s, and later her husband’s, and also her time’s and her church’s? I wouldn’t forgive her for building a good part of her cage.” – I Am a Stranger Here Myself, by Debra Gwartney

 

 

BookofHelpThe Book of Help: A Memoir in Remedies, by Megan Griswold

“And now it’s after one a.m. and I get a phone call from Tim. He tells me he is in jail.

….I have just picked him up….We had started driving south on I-5 to get his car. After he’d directed me to keep driving past the route home, I’d asked, ‘I thought it all happened right before our turnoff. Why are we heading way down here?’

There was that vast silence. My stomach dropped.

“Let’s just wait to talk about it when we get home,” he’d said.    The Book of Help, by Megan Griswold

Megan’s life life was never the same after the unfolding of a personal debacle in her marriage. To cope, Megan, a true New Age child of the West Coast, experimented with and/or recalled her history with these and other remedies:

  • EST Children’s Training
  • Transactional Analysis
  • Camping with the Chilean Military
  • International Wilderness Training Course
  • Classical Five Element Licentiate (Acupuncture School)
  • Doula Certification
  • Rolfing
  • Therapist Shopping
  • Psychic Reading
  • Vipassana Meditation Retreat (I’ve done this!)
  • Tarot Cards
  • A Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor (SSRI)
  • Drinking Hoasca with the União do Vegetal
  • Classical Homeopathy

Megan’s voice in The Book of Help is comic, over-the-top, vulnerable, and honest. She doesn’t hold back, at all. I think you’ll either love her writing, or you’ll put the book down after the first chapter or two – she’s not for everyone.

I stuck it out and became quite taken by her story.

The following excerpt is near the memoir’s conclusion. Megan’s mother is losing her memory and approaching the end of her life; Megan is calmer, more mature, and has attained a measure of peace. I love this particular passage because it evokes a favorite Mary Oliver poem:

“I close each night by reading Mary Oliver. Mom’s favorite poet. Because of her memory, she won’t remember that I read “Wild Geese” last night or the night before that or the night before that. But I have. And I will read this poem again tomorrow. We will read of the geese and their skyward return. Of all the landscapes we must move through to reach home.

I board the plane. As it takes off, we lift out of Seattle’s gray cloud bank and hover far above the city’s clouds, now flooded in sunshine. I can’t really explain it, but amid the sunshine, I feel somehow turned toward life in a way I don’t remember ever feeling. None of what happened here is good news, but I feel touched by the fleeting nature of what I hold dear. I just want to eat up everything I can while I am still here. I want to eat big meals, run long distances, and have a really good laugh. I act on the urge to ring up people I haven’t spoken to in ages. Life is calling to me stronger than ever. Like wild geese.”

 

Wild Honey, Tough Salt, by Kim Stafford

WildHoneyOregon’s poet laureate, Kim Stafford, knows how to gather kindred spirits together to celebrate poetry and life, and he has a devoted following in Sisters.

Kim read to us from his new collection, Wild Honey, Tough Salt.  I found “Citizen of Dark Times,” especially resonant given all that has been in the news lately. (Garrison Keillor read this poem on The Writer’s Almanac recently – follow the link in my previous sentence and scroll to the second half of the recording.)

Given these dark times, we can “live as if in the early days of a better nation,” Stafford advised.

He suggested we write about daily happenings. Stafford’s writing practice makes him more optimistic, because “something is growing.” A writing practice is restorative, he says. “The spirit of what you want will come to you.”

Write a draft with promise. Then, your second genius will come as you revise.

A few days after the Sisters Festival of Books, this brand new poem appeared on Kim’s Facebook page:

Sisters Book Festival

Writer, rise from your writing desk,

and step forth from your solitary cell.

Reader, rise from your reading chair,

to throng in grand reunion.

 

It’s really a festival of shining eyes,

a story fire we gather round.

It’s a voice as pure as a mountain spring,

a stanza landmark we reckon by.

 

How is this magic done? Page by page,

we season summer into fall, and

word by word we bud

winter into spring.

 

Books winnow trouble into truth,

and distill sorrow into song. So come,

friends, and be a village lost

in bookish revelry.

 

I think the Sisters Festival of Books has made a fine beginning.

 

Here are some images from a central Oregon autumn:

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Classic Three Sisters silhouette, with newly mown hay. I drive past these mountains several times a week, and they always look different. Now that they are snow-covered, they appear closer and bigger.

 

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Sky and Riata, guests who came to stay with us for a while. The aspen leaves turned golden shortly after this photo was taken.

 

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Sky in the morning

 

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Black Butte, a volcanic cinder cone, is a primal, arresting shape in the Sisters landscape. Three-Fingered Jack, a Cascade mountain, hovers in the background.

 

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Black Butte from another angle, nightfall.

 

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Moonrise over Whychus Canyon Reserve meadow

 

Birds of the West by Molly Hashimoto

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Short-eared owl, block print by Molly Hashimoto

“….there’s nothing quite as inspiring as a bird in its habitat – the ecosystem and the bird belong together in a coherent and necessary way.”  Birds of the West: An Artist’s Guide, by Molly Hashimoto

This summer I was thrilled to find on my doorstep the exquisite Birds of the West: An Artist’s Guide by Molly Hashimoto, sent to me by her publisher Skipstone, the sustainable lifestyle imprint of Mountaineers Books.

 

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American goldfinch (Spinus tristis) block print . “…I attempted to express how moving it was to see the vivid colors of the male goldfinches visiting at the height of color in the garden, in May, with blooming poppies and clematis…In winter, the males are drab brown with a few yellow streaks on the wings – you may not even know you’re looking at the same bird.”

 

I became a fan of Molly’s when I discovered her Colors of the West: An Artist’s Guide to Nature’s Palette in one of the national park bookstores my husband and I visited on our trip West two years ago. Molly is accomplished in watercolor, block printing, etching and egg tempera – the media she features in Birds of the West – informed by decades spent exploring the landscapes, flora, and fauna of the West. Her art combines a naturalist’s expertise with a deep love of nature.

Molly is a dedicated art teacher as well, based in Seattle. I’m sorry I missed her last year at Roundabout Books in Bend when she spoke and demonstrated techniques from Colors of the West. She teaches regularly in her local community and at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology, the North Cascades Institute, the Wenatchee River Institute, and the Yellowstone Forever Institute. 

Her love of teaching and her passion for birds shine through in this luminous new collection of nearly 100 bird species and more than 130 sketches, aimed for seasoned artists, beginner artists, and non-artists alike.

 

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Birds of the West is organized by habitat: Backyard and City; Wetland and Pond; Shoreline and Beach; Meadow and Grassland; Desert and Sagebrush Steppe (that’s us!); Forest and Woodland; and Alpine and Tundra. Each chapter includes an inspiring, even poetic, list of nature terms.

 

Exploring Molly’s new book was a bittersweet delight because, as I did so, the journal Science published a study revealing that one third of the birds in North America have died since I was in high school in the 1970s. A “staggering decline,” the authors of this study wrote.

Perhaps this sad development only affirms that the good work of Molly Hashimoto and other fine artists, writers, and humanists is more necessary than ever. We can hope that their love of art and nature will continue to be contagious – and more of us will be moved to observe birds and other wildlife with love and attention and become activists for and caretakers of the earth.

 

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Stellar’s jay and ruby-crowned kinglet, forest and woodland habitat, block prints (I took this photo underneath our ponderosa pine, which is why it is mottled with shadows. I love the dramatic PNW setting of the stellar’s jay habitat, on the left.)

 

Molly writes eloquently, honestly, and tenderly – her background as an English literature major shows – in Birds of the West about the ethic of stewardship she seeks to inspire in the world:

“I don’t belong to the art for art’s sake camp. I want to make art about birds that is accurate about the ecosystem and true to the bird’s anatomy, characteristic gestures, and plumage colors. … I want my art to be in the service of the living, existing bird. That’s not to say that mere representation is all I aim for – photorealism can drain the life out of a subject. There’s a place somewhere between the representational and the conceptual that expresses all the meaning that I’ve found in watching birds. I also make art for the sake of connection and to inspire an ethic of stewardship.”

 

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Lewis’s woodpecker, block print, and acorn woodpecker, watercolor, meadow and grassland habitat.

 

You don’t have to be an artist (I’m not) or a birder (I’m not) to fall in love with this fine collection. Molly shares inspiring nature poetry, quotes that capture the wisdom of famous artists and nature writers, and her own thoughts about great artists who have influenced her work.  Here is one example:

“Georgia O’Keeffe believed that we want to make art of things that have moved us deeply, even if we don’t know exactly why or understand the meaning of what we feel. It is only by recording it, writing about it, or making art about it that it becomes clearer to us what it all means and why it is so important to us. I have found this many times, with every medium.”

 

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Nest in an oak sapling in winter. “On that gray, drizzly day, the nest was a poignant memory as well as a sweet anticipation of the life-bringing season of spring.”

 

In fact, you don’t even have to live in the West to benefit from Birds of the West. I can imagine artists and nature lovers and birders in other parts of the country using this as a model for exploring and rendering birds in their own regions.

Since I’m a writer, not an artist, I found myself looking at Birds of the West through my own idiosyncratic lens. Molly’s beautiful text taught me specific ways to observe birds in my own wanderings, and modeled how I might capture what I see on the page, via the written word. I don’t know if this was Molly’s intention, but like all good works of art, I think that her book is larger and more resonant than its creator originally intended.

 

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Song sparrow on tall grasses, Union Bay Natural Area, Washington

 

I love Molly’s thoughts about how she chooses particular media to depict particular birds; I imagine that working artists especially will appreciate her insights:

“Every medium has a way of revealing distinct aspects of the birds. Etching utilizes fine lines that can precisely describe the elegant contours and feather groups of birds; watercolor, with its wide-ranging hues and many technical options of indicating trees, shrubs, grasses, rocks and all the components of an ecosystem, displays the manner in which they live and make use of their habitats. Sketches in pencil or pen, with and without added watercolor, convey, through their gestural quality, the attitude, demeanor, and movement of birds. Egg tempera, a centuries-old medium used in icons and altarpieces, can express the reverence I feel for birds and other animals. Relief or block prints, with their dramatic values, contrasts, and bright colors, help me share the surprise – sometimes even the shock – of encountering a new species.  As composers work with many different types of instrumentation, with widely varying timbres and colors, such as full orchestras, smaller string groups, or choral ensembles, I use different media to express a range of moods and ideas.”

 

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Red-breasted sapsucker. There were so many gorgeous bird scenes in Birds of the West it was hard to choose which ones to show you!

 

Molly includes a For Further Reading section that is especially rich, with field guides and books about natural history, ornithology, birds in art, and art techniques.

She has a helpful resources list too, with stores, supplies, and Pacific Northwest printmaking co-ops and studios that offer classes, workshops and press time.

 

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Trumpeter Swans (Cygnus Buccinators) Skagit Valley, etching. I love the simplicity.

 

I hope someday I have the opportunity to attend one of Molly Hashimoto’s art workshops or book signings. I’d love to meet her, wouldn’t you? The next best thing would be to get your hands on the lovingly created Birds of the West: An Artist’s Guide.

 

 

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Western sandpiper, egg tempera. “I set up a still life with a piece of driftwood and some weather-beaten beach pebbles and added the sandpiper by looking at one of my photos from the Oregon coast. The arched enclosure evokes the framing devices used in late medieval and Early Renaissance altarpieces, as well as the small diptychs and triptychs used for private devotions.” 

 

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Hairy woodpecker, sketch with marker and watercolor, and carved block

 

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Red-naped sapsucker, block print. “I used my imagination to situate the sapsucker on an aspen trunk, since I actually saw it in a birch tree near my home in Seattle. This bird is quite rare west of the Cascades….”

 

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Calififornia quail, block print, desert and sagebrush steppe habitat. “…I thought it would be perfect to combine the quail with the California poppies that put on such a show in springtime on the dry hillsides of Northern California. I felt I could take these liberties because of the bird’s very wide range. The combination of the paisley-shaped markings on the breast with the bright colors of the poppies made for a dramatic print.”

 

“The silence of the desert, the sound of wind through the high branches in a coniferous forest, the complex patterns of reflected color in ripples on a pond, the crashing surf, the austere beauty of alpine heights – all of these contribute to the great pleasure that comes with watching birds. In these locales and moments, we are sharing an environment with the birds, which gives us, earthbound as we are, a deeper connection with our fellow creatures.” – Molly Hashimoto

Birds of the West: An Artist’s Guide, by Molly Hashimoto

 

 

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