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.

 

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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

 

 

In Sweden, what will I find?

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Will I find them? I have photos, but no addresses, of the two Swedish farms where my grandmother lived at the turn of the century. At the farmhouse above, my mormor, Hulda, helped her mother and father with baking, cleaning fishing gear, etc.

 

I am in Sweden for the first time, exploring Stockholm with a friend, preparing for a journey west to research family ancestry with my son.

I’d like to find at least one, if not both, of the farms near Falkenberg and the North Sea where my grandmother (mormor) lived. I have photos, but no addresses.

I’d like to find out more about my mysterious grandfather (morfar), who was said to have been orphaned in a flu epidemic and who sailed for America a few days behind the Titanic, having missed that ill-fated ship because of a rail strike in England.

For the most part, seeing extended Swedish family will have to wait until another trip to Sweden, although we do have plans to meet up with a distant cousin. Many years ago when I was living in New York City, two Swedish cousins came to sightsee and I had a great time showing them around. They have both since passed away. My aunts visited Sweden a few decades ago and saw many cousins, but there is a new generation now whose addresses I don’t have.

We’ll see what I find this time around.

 

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Morfar and Mormor: Ivar Emmanuel Håkansson and Hulda Viktoria Johansson

 

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My maternal great grandparents – stora farföräldrar – on their 50th wedding anniversary

 

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“How is it to be done? I have known a long while now. Chance has so arranged matters that the solution is as good as given: my potassium cyanide pills which I once made up without a thought to anyone but myself, must be brought into service.”  Doctor Glas, by Hjalmar Söderberg

I brought with me the classic Swedish novel Doctor Glas, a brooding, psychological period piece that foreshadows modern-day themes of euthanasia and abortion. Margaret Atwood wrote the foreword to the paperback edition I have.

It has been intriguing to find turn-of-the-century landmarks, such as restaurants and museums, mentioned in the novel as we pass by them sightseeing around Stockholm.

And there is the unusual, early morning light of the 4 am Swedish spring sunrise – Atwood mentions eerie evening light below.

“Doctor Glass is deeply unsettling, in the way certain dreams are – or, no coincidence, certain films by Bergman….the eerie blue northern nights of midsummer combined with an unexplained anxiety, the nameless Kirkegaardean dread that strikes Glas at the most ordinary of moments….It occurs on the cusp of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but it opens doors the novel has been opening ever since.”   – Margaret Atwood

 

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A city garden allotment in Eriksdalslunden, Stockholm on the Årstaviken inlet/canal. Imagine living in a beautiful, spacious pre-war apartment in Stockholm and having your very own garden hideaway several city blocks away. You can be placed on a waiting list for one of these coveted allotments, but you will wait 30 years!

 

In Stockholm, I found my way to a city park, which gave way to an enchanting neighborhood of garden allotments along the water, with a public, tree-lined hiking path. I saw the following passage in Swedish on a plaque. I used Google Translate to decipher it. Because that tool is imperfect, I took liberties and edited the passage, so it’s not a literal translation:

“From the cottages on the slopes above the Eriksdalslunden, with its aspen and small flowering gardens, look down to the water and the dark wilderness of coniferous forests across thew way; it’s as if you’ve been transported to Sweden’s Norrland (Northland). – Architect Osvald Almqvist, 1930s

 

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This garden allotment (kolonilottor) reminds me of a Carl Larsson painting.

 

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Allotment spring flowers (blommor)

 

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Parked along the Eriksdaslunden path

 

Birdsong and flowers in Eriksdaslunden:

 

 

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View from my airbnb in Skanstull, Stockholm, on Sunday morning, 6 am.

 

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The quaint old elevator in our airbnb. Or I can walk two floors up on a winding staircase.

 

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Good, strong Swedish coffee in a konditori, with cardamom and cinnamon buns, budapests, and princesses (these are the names of various desserts).  No such thing as decaf here.

 

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I’ve been carrying around (and not so much reading) the poetry of Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer. Here, his poem about espresso:

The black coffee they serve outdoors/among tables and chairs gaudy as insects.

Precious distillations/filled with the same strength as Yes and No.

It’s carried out from the gloomy kitchen/and looks into the sun without blinking.

In the daylight a dot of beneficent black/that quickly flows into a pale customer.

It’s like the drops of black profoundness/sometimes gathered up by the soul,

giving a salutary push: Go!/Inspiration to open your eyes.

 

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Tomas Tranströmer 1931 – 2015. His grave is in the Katarina Church cemetery in Stockholm. Many prominent Swedes are buried there, including actor Michael Nyqvist of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo fame.

 

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Katarina Church, Stockholm

 

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Stockholm light at 4 am.

 

 

Kim Stafford, feasting on beauty

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Oregon Poet Laureate Kim Stafford

 

Oregon Poet Laureate Kim Stafford came “home” to our little town last week to read poetry, tell stories, sing, call up local history, and conjure memories of many Stafford family vacations spent here in a home-made cabin.

It was a lively, friendly, intimate couple of hours. I’m new to central Oregon, but I could feel the great love long-timers here have for Kim’s family, which includes his sister, Kit, a local artist and teacher, and his father, William Stafford, now deceased, one of America’s most beloved and important poets. It’s been a long, cold winter, and Kim’s energy and love resurrected our spirits, a perfect springtime happening.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about David Wallace-Wells’ vision of an uninhabitable earth, followed by a post on A Paradise Built in Hell and the hope Rebecca Solnit discovered when she looked at how people spontaneously come together in the extraordinary communities that can arise in disaster.

It seems a natural progression to next look at how we, as individuals, can cope and thrive in challenging times, and how we can slow down our lives to nurture and sustain our creative work – which may in turn serve as witness to what needs changing and as a catalyst for that change. This is what Kim Stafford’s life is all about, and what his father’s life was about, too.

Kim’s visit happened to coincide with my reading Christian McEwen’s magnificent World Enough & Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down.    It’s a primer on how living slowly can sustain creative work and allow it to flourish, filled with the words and wise ways of contemporary and past literary and spiritual thinkers – including William and Kim Stafford.

If you want to be uplifted and fed, I suggest getting a copy of World Enough & Time. I didn’t read World Enough & Time straight through, but picked it up between other books, reading chunks here and there, especially when I wanted creative or spiritual uplift.

You’d want to keep World Enough & Time handy on your desk or nightstand to pick up as needed. Its bibliography alone is a gold mine.

Chapters are organized around themes that include: having face-to-face conversations with friends and loved ones; approaching life with the playfulness and imagination of a child; walking; looking; reading; writing letters and keeping journals; pausing; and dreaming. You can read chapters out of order, picking and choosing as you please.

World Enough & Time is a an especially rich collection. For a decade, McEwen interviewed contemporaries; unearthed insights from past poets, artists, writers, composers, and musicians; and culled from her own life experiences.

The passages below are about or by writers, but I think you can adapt their wisdom to your particular work and daily life. Here, McEwen quotes William Stafford explaining his daily 4 am writing habit:

 

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Christian McEwen feasting on beauty. How we can, too.

“I get pen and paper, take a glance out of the window (often it is dark out there), and wait. It is like fishing. But I do not wait very long, for there is always a nibble – and this is where receptivity comes in. To get started I will accept anything that occurs to me.”

McEwen goes on to say:

“Years later, Kim Stafford wrote a memoir about his father entitled Early Morning. He described William’s steady practice as a ‘symposium with the self.’ A particular day’s writing might include images from a recent dream, news of the family and the world at large – and a couple of poems…. by lending ‘faith and attention’ to what he called those ‘waifs of thought,’ a total of more than sixty books made their slow way into print.”

How could I not quote a few of McEwen’s words about Mary Oliver’s creative practice:

“Mary Oliver’s day starts at five each morning, when she sets off on a long, solitary, attentive walk. ‘What I write begins and ends with the act of noticing and cherishing…’ Like Coleridge, who scribbled words and phrases while he was out in the field, Mary Oliver likes to use a pocket notebook, ‘small, three inches by five inches, and hand-sewn.'”

Kim Stafford, William Stafford, Mary Oliver, Christian McEwen, and many others. Feast on the beauty of their work and on the beauty of the world around you. You can’t go wrong.

At Kim’s event, I picked up a small gem of a book for $5, Meditations and Poems for Writers, which you can order from Lulu:

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“Writing could be the door to a new kind of individual life, community life, national life, and earth citizenship. We each could greet the day as seeker, artist, witness.”

In The Muses Among Us: Eloquent Listening and Other Pleasures of the Writer’s Craft, a favorite of mine, Kim Stafford writes this, which I’ve copied into my daily work planner:

“What is it like to live your life story, to feed on the beauty meant for you alone, to insist on the conditions that make it possible to live the precise, full life you are here to accomplish?

Don’t wait for the right time. Don’t hesitate. Cross into your beauty now. Carry your seeing, your feasting, your selfish pleasures in the art you choose to the place you need to be, and enact what you have to do there. If you are awake, you have no choice.

Life begins with your witness there.”   

 

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Recently, I took part in my first sacred drumming session with 40 other women in a big, old barn warmed by a wood-burning stove, filled with animal skin rugs and sacred objects. I borrowed this drum, owned by a woman whose spirit animal is the wolf.

 

Here is a link to one of William Stafford’s best loved poems, “The Way It Is.”

Do you have favorite books, authors, or pursuits (such as gardening, drumming, hiking) that sustain you in your work and/or feed your spirit? Let us know in the comments.

The Uninhabitable Earth

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Life After Warming

“It is worse, much worse, than you think.”   The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, by David Wallace-Wells

After we moved from upstate New York to central Oregon, one of the most unsettling adjustments we had to make was contending with late-summer wildfire smoke. For several days in a row, I didn’t venture outside. On a couple of especially bad days, people wore masks if they had to go out and about.

As bleak as The Uninhabitable Earth is, it did relieve me of my wildfire and smoke worries, somewhat. Should we stay where the air can be so hazardous to our health? Ultimately, I’m not sure it matters. No place on earth will remain unaffected by climate change upheaval, and the climate we enjoyed growing up is gone forever.

This book is being compared to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which had an enormous impact when it was published in 1962.

But of course The Uninhabitable Earth was not a pleasant book to read. I hurried through it, sometimes skimming, often wanting to put it down.

“The earth has experienced five mass extinctions before the one we are living through now, each so complete a wiping of the fossil record that it functioned as an evolutionary reset…: 86 percent of all species dead, 450 million years ago; 70 million years later, 75 percent; 125 million years later, 96 percent; 50 million years later, 80 percent; 135 million years after that, 75 percent again. Unless you are a teenager, you probably read in your high school textbooks that these extinctions were the result of asteroids. In fact, all but the one that killed the dinosaurs involved climate change produced by greenhouse gas. The most notorious was 250 million years ago; it began when carbon dioxide warmed the planet by five degrees Celsius, accelerated when that warming triggered the release of methane, another greenhouse gas, and ended with all but a sliver of life on Earth dead.”

David Wallace-Wells intends for The Uninhabitable Earth to arouse fear, even panic, so that we will finally do something. He has been one of the first writers to synthesize research on catastrophic climate change that involves warming of 4 degrees Celsius or higher – because this is what we are on track for so far – and present it to a lay audience.

Something new I learned was that most atmospheric damage has occurred during the last thirty years, and not since the Industrial Revolution began. For the past thirty years, we were raising our children. It isn’t easy to acknowledge that my generation, more than any other, is most responsible for this mess.

“Many perceive global warming as a sort of moral and economic debt, accumulated since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and now come due after several centuries. In fact, more than half of the carbon exhaled into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels has been emitted in just the past three decades. Which means we have done as much damage to the fate of the planet and its ability to sustain human life and civilization since Al Gore published his first book on climate than in all the centuries – all the millennia – that came before. ….The majority of the burning has come since the premiere of Seinfeld.”

It is also depressing to know that my adult children and nieces and nephews – and any grandchildren we might someday have – will have lives severely degraded by climate change. They will have no choice but to engage in an epic, lifelong battle.

It’s not just about sea level rise, either. If we do nothing, other catastrophic changes will “deform” every life on the planet:  heat, hunger, wildfire, lack of water, unbreathable air, economic collapse, war, and masses of refugees.

“…150 million more people would die from air pollution alone in a 2-degree warmer world than in a 1.5 degree warmer one….Numbers that large can be hard to grasp, but 150 million is the equivalent of 25 Holocausts. It is three times the size of the death toll of the Great Leap Forward – the largest nonmilitary death toll humanity has ever produced. It is more than twice the greatest death toll of any kind, World War II.”

Similar to Naomi Klein, who believes that only mass social movements can help us now, Wallace-Wells believes that lifestyle changes on an individual level won’t make much difference at this point. The most important thing we can do is engage: become politically active and work, ceaselessly, for swift, dramatic mobilization and change.

“The thing is, I am optimistic. Given the prospect that humans could engineer a climate that is 6 or 8 degrees warmer over the course of the next several centuries – large swaths of the planet unlivable by any definition we use today – that degraded middle counts, for me, as an encouraging future. Warming of 3 or 3.5 degrees would unleash suffering beyond anything that humans have ever experienced through many millennia of strain and strife and all-out war. But it is not a fatalistic scenario; in fact, it’s a whole lot better than where we are headed.”

Many people David’s age are opting not to bring children into the world. I was touched to read that while he wrote this book, David Wallace-Wells became a father. And, yes, he is hopeful.

“In the course of writing this book, I did have a child, Rocca…I think you have to do everything you can to make the world accommodate dignified and flourishing life, rather than giving up early, before the fight has been lost or won…I have to admit, I am also excited, for everything that Rocca and her sisters and brothers will see, will witness, will do. She will hit her child-rearing years around 2050, when we could have climate refugees in the many tens of millions; she will be entering old age at the close of the century, the end-stage bookmark on all of our projections for warming. In between, she will watch the world doing battle with a genuinely existential threat, and the people of her generation making a future for themselves, and the generations they bring into being, on this planet. And she won’t just be watching it, she will be living it – quite literally the greatest story ever told. It may well bring a happy ending.”

Wallace-Wells has this to say, in a footnote:

“….particular market forces have almost conquered our politics, but not entirely, leaving a bright shining sliver of opportunity; and I also believe…that meaningful and even dramatic change can be achieved through the familiar paths: voting and organizing and political activity deployed at every level. In other words, I believe in engagement above all, engagement wherever it may help. In fact, I find any other response to the climate crisis morally incomprehensible.”

Currently, my husband and I are familiarizing ourselves with climate activism in central Oregon so that we can become involved. We’ll try to make environmentally responsible lifestyle changes, too, but we agree with Wallace-Wells that political activism is now our best hope.

Here is Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, now 16 years old. She has rocketed to fame in recent months and has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize:

 

Thoughts? Please comment! What books, if any, are you reading about climate change? How are you coping psychologically, and have you found ways to feel empowered?

Next time, I will bring you a beautifully written book of hope by Rebecca Solnit. 

 

 

My best 2018 read: The Overstory

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One of the most beautiful book covers I’ve ever seen

“We’re completely alienated from everything else alive.” Richard Powers, author of The Overstory, in an interview with The Guardian

In The Overstory, nine strangers are summoned by trees. According to the jacket copy, they become connected in “a last and violent stand to save the continent’s few remaining acres of virgin forest.”

(This post contains a few spoilers, although so much happens in The Overstory‘s teeming universe, I don’t think these small giveaways will make a difference in your enjoyment of the novel.)

***

[Nicholas Hoel] “Later, he’ll wonder whether he knew already, there in the front doorway. But no: He must walk around to the foot of the stairs where his father is lying, head downward and arms bent at impossible angles, praising the floor….Upstairs, the two women curl up in their bedrooms and can’t be wakened – a late-morning sleep-in on Christmas Eve….Nick blunders through the front door, trips down the porch steps, and falls into the snow….When he looks up, it’s into the branches of the sentinel tree, lone, huge, fractal, and bare against the drifts, lifting its lower limbs and shrugging its ample globe. All its profligate twigs click in the breeze as if this moment, too, so insignificant, so transitory, will be written into its rings and prayed over by branches that wave their semaphores against the bluest of midwestern winter skies.”

 

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In Oregon’s H. J. Andrews Experimental Forest, where I had a writer’s residency in 2018.  The research geologist/ecosystem scientist who gave us an introductory tour of the old growth forest referred to these ancient trees as Druids and elders.

 

[Mimi Ma] “She hears herself being paged over the airport speakers again and again. Each time she bolts upright, and each time the syllables turn back into other words. The flight is delayed. Then delayed again. She sits twisting the jade tree around her finger, tens of thousands of times. The things of this world mean nothing, except for this ring and the priceless ancient scroll in her carry-on. She wants only peace. But this is where she must live now: In the shadow of the bent mulberry….”

 

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In The Overstory, Dr. Patricia Westover conducts research in a forest modeled after the Andrews Experimental Forest.

 

[Adam Appich] “Adam waits, month by month, for the choked black walnut to die and take his baby brother with it, smothered in his own clown-covered coverlet. But both live, which only proves to Adam that life is trying to say something no one hears.”

 

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Taking the vital signs of the elders in the Andrews Experimental Forest

 

[Dorothy Cazaly] “…she drives up onto the curb and wraps the car around a parkway linden wide enough to destroy her front grille. Now, the linden, it turns out, is a radical tree…..It’s the bee tree, the tree of peace, whose tonics and teas can cure every kind of tension and anxiety – a tree that cannot be mistaken for any other, for alone in all the catalog of a hundred thousand earthly species its flowers and tiny hard fruit hang down from surfboard bracts whose sole perverse purpose seems to be to state its own singularity. The lindens will come for her, starting with this ambush. But the full adoption will take years.”

 

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“Douglas Pavlicek works a clear-cut as big as downtown Eugene, saying goodbye to his plants as he tucks each one in. ‘Hang on. Only ten or twenty decades. Child’s play, for you guys. You just have to outlast us. Then no one will be left to fuck you over.’

 

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[Neelay Mehta] “…the alien invaders insert a thought directly into his limbic system. There will be a game, a billion times richer than anything yet made, to be played by countless people around the world at the same time. And Neelay must bring it into being. He’ll unfold the creation in gradual, evolutionary stages, over the course of decades. The game will put players smack in the middle of a living, breathing, seething animist world filled with millions of different species, a world desperately in need of the players’ help. And the goal of the game will be to figure out what the new and desperate world wants from you.”

 

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[Patricia Westerford] “For the three agonizing days of the conference, people nudge each other as she passes them in the halls of the hotel: There’s the woman who thinks that trees are intelligent…..

….she can’t believe what her animal fear was willing to make her do. The opinion of others left her ready to suffer the most agonizing of deaths….Her real life starts this night – a long, postmortem bonus round. Nothing in the years to come can do worse than she was ready to do to herself. Human estimation can no longer touch her. She’s free now to experiment. To discover anything.”

***

We’ve all been summoned like the characters in The Overstory, I believe, but whether we answer the call, in 2019 and beyond, remains to be seen.

See also my post, “When the ancient forest embraces you.”

 

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The forest canopy. The overstory refers to the tallest trees in the forest.

 

What were your favorite books in 2018?

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