Upstream

upstream“The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.”  Upstream, by Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver is a gift to the world.

I’ve learned many things from America’s most beloved poet, with honoring one’s creative impulse being the most important, followed by: pay attention. She has shown us, through her poetry and essays, how to do both of these across the span of a long and fruitful life.

She won the Pulitzer Prize for her poetry collection, American Primitive,  and the National Book Award for New and Selected Poems.

Her latest collection of essays, Upstream, (which contains both new and older work) is a look back at a life well lived, steeped in nature and literature. It has been on the New York Times Bestseller Nonfiction List for many weeks.

Oliver writes of the preoccupations and obsessions of the poets and thinkers that most influenced her, including Walt Whitman, William Wordsworth, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edgar Allen Poe, and Percy Bysshe Shelley. You don’t have to like poetry to appreciate what she has to say about these fascinating writers.

I like those essays, but I love the more personal essays taken from daily life, my favorites being “Bird” and “Building the House.” I say personal, but Mary Oliver often shines a light on some miracle of nature – a wounded gull, or a female spider, or black bear – in a way that tells us much about her own life and her deepest beliefs.

If you have not yet read Mary Oliver, you could start by listening to a few of her most famous poems, such as “Wild Geese” and “The Summer Day” and “The Journey.”

 

 

Upstream is a beautiful little book for ringing out 2016, welcoming 2017, and reading on a cold winter’s night.

“I would say that there exist a thousand unbreakable links between each of us and everything else, and that our dignity and our chances are one. The farthest star and the mud at our feet are a family; and there is no decency or sense in honoring one thing, or a few things, and then closing the list. The pine tree, the leopard, the Platte River, and ourselves – we are at risk together, or we are on our way to a sustainable world together. We are each other’s destiny.”

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all!

Canoe.jpg

We’ve had this little birchbark canoe for many years.

 

Homefortheholidays.jpg

A favorite house in our village, vintage upstate New York.

Wild Arts!

Five books

Books purchased at the Wild Arts Festival in Portland, signed in person by the authors.

 

Litmosphere: 1. the vast domain of the world’s readers and writers 2. a lively literary mood permeating the air ~ sign in Powell’s Books, Portland

Wild Arts FestivalI love the literary scene in Portland. Our Thanksgiving visit there coincided with the annual Wild Arts Festival, a celebration of nature in art and books hosted by the Audubon Society of Portland in the old Montgomery Ward building, now known as Montgomery Park.

Walking into the festival, where hundreds of artists and authors were on hand, was like getting a gigantic embrace from the creative community.

I couldn’t decide among Ursula Le Guin’s many, many science fiction and fantasy books. In the end I chose her translation of Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching: A Book About the Way and the Power of the Way, and she graciously signed a copy for me.

Next, we met Robert Michael Pyle, a jolly teddy bear of a man who spent no less than 15 minutes entertaining us with stories about how, in his Honda Civic with 345,000 miles on the odometer, he spent a year searching for as many of the 800 species of American butterflies as he could find. I could have spent hours listening to this man; instead I bought his memoir and travelogue, Mariposa Road, which he signed with, “May these far rambles on bright wings incite your own wild road trips!”

A dedicated ecologist and naturalist, Robert Michael Pyle has written nearly 20 books and is the co-editor of Nabokov’s Butterflies: Unpublished and Uncollected Writings. (The literary genius Vladimir Nabokov was a butterfly expert and had an extensive collection.)

I purchased another of Robert’s memoirs, Wintergreen: Rambles in a Ravaged Land, about Washington’s Willapa Hills, whose forests have been plundered by lumber companies. Robert lives on a farm in Grays River once owned by a Swedish immigrant. I’m descended from Swedes, who were attracted to the deep forests of the Pacific Northwest because it reminded them of home; I’d love to see Willapa country one day. Of course, Robert signed Wintergreen, too, with these words, together with a sketch of a snail: “May these moss murmurs and fern-words honor your own hills of home – and maybe urge you Northwesterly!”

I can’t say enough about Floyd Skloot and Kim Stafford. They are both poets, and they’ve both written memoirs. (Actually, they’ve both written more than one, and I look forward to reading all of them.)

Since I’m writing a memoir myself, I decided to go for the memoirs: In the Shadow of MemoryFloyd Skloot’s first memoir (part neuroscience and part autobiography about a virus that left Skloot disabled and bereft of memories) and 100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do: My Brother’s Disappearance by Kim Stafford (his brother committed suicide.)

Both of these generous writers spoke with me about their work and asked at great length about mine. Kim wanted to know the working title of my memoir and, when I told him, he gave me a writing assignment to try. As I did the exercise Kim recommended, I discovered that one particular word in the title is especially important to my memoir’s theme. It got me thinking about how I could bring out the theme more vividly as I revise.

The authors I spoke with at the Wild Arts Festival were incredibly kind and gracious. I had instant connections with these generous writers, who are among the best in America today. Don’t be shy at these kinds of events. Writers and artists are the most giving and engaged people you’ll ever meet.

Portland is a book-loving town, and as I walked around the neighborhoods with family, I noticed several Little Free Libraries. It’s also a poetry-loving town, and a couple of the homes I passed by had poems on display – including one by Kim Stafford’s father, the great poet William Stafford.

Slipped inside the Kim Stafford memoir I bought was the gift of a poem that begins, “The only heroic thing is to not be a hero.” I believe Kim borrowed this phrase from a poem by his father, William: “At the Un-National Monument Along the Canadian Border.”

Kim’s poem is called “A Few Words, Each Day,” and it includes this line: “The only heroic thing is to be a child of four…of fifteen…of forty…of eighty – trying with the heart and mind to listen to the self, each other, and the earth….”

Litmosphere definition sign in Powell's Books

We stopped by Powell’s Books for good measure, where I learned a new word.

 

Books: Braiding Sweetgrass; Notes from No Man's Land

At Powell’s I bought Eula Biss’s collection of essays and the latest book by Robin Wall Kimmerer, who is a botanist and member of the Citizen Potawatoni Nation.

 

Northern spotted owl at the Wild Arts Festival

Northern spotted owl at the Wild Arts Festival

 

Kim Stafford: “That is my story.”

 

 

The Summer Book

“It was a particularly good evening to begin a book.”   The Summer Book, Tove Jansson

 

Reading a book in the hammock

Reading in the hammock

 

I’m discovering Tove Jansson this summer, thanks to Claire McAlpine and her blog, Word by Word. I don’t know how I went this long without delving into this amazing Finnish, Swedish-speaking writer and world-renowned creator of the Moomintroll comic strip.

Next week I’ll show you her Moomins, but today I’m reading The Summer Book, a novel about a girl spending the summer with her grandmother, who lives on an island at the end of the Finland archipelago.  The island in the book is like the one Tove lived on with her partner for many years, a wild and beautiful place superbly evoked in this story.

I’m lazy on these idyllic summer weekends, so I’m going to borrow the copy that’s written on the back of the book, which captures the novel much better than I could:

The Summer Book cover, Swedish

The Summer Book, by Tove Jansson

“….Jansson distills the essence of the summer – it’s sunlight and storms – into twenty-two crystalline vignettes. This brief novel tells the story of Sophia, a six-year-old girl awakening to existence, and Sophia’s grandmother, nearing the end of hers, as they spend the summer on a tiny unspoiled island in the Gulf of Finland. The grandmother is unsentimental and wise, if a little cranky; Sophia is impetuous and volatile, but she tends to her grandmother with the care of a new parent. Together they amble over coastline and forest in easy companionship, build boats from bark, create a miniature Venice, write a fanciful study of local bugs. They discuss things that matter to young and old alike: life, death, the nature of God and of love.”

This slim paperback, a New York Review Books Classic, was originally published in 1972. I love the cover illustration by Tove Jansson, which was on the original jacket cover. Jansson’s simple, black and white sketches are scattered throughout the book.

Her novel has inspired me to begin planning a summer vacation in Sweden, where my grandparents are from. It would be fun to stay in a fisherman’s cottage like the one Sophia’s grandmother lived in, perhaps near to the farm where my grandmother grew up.

To come: Jansson’s memoir, Sculptor’s Daughter; her collection of stories about the artist’s life – Fair Play; and the Moomins.

Mushrooms next to tree

I don’t know if you’d find these mushrooms on Tove’s Finnish island, but that’s what I thought of when I saw these in our neighborhood.

 

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