Great Tide Rising

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The Oculus, World Trade Center, next to the Freedom Tower. The Oculus structure, said to resemble a bird or a dinosaur, symbolizes rebirth from the ashes. In her book, Kathleen Dean Moore writes that we are shutting down the Cenozoic era. What will arise in its place?

 

“He was a huge man – I’d guess six-five. Shaved head. Big black overcoat reaching below his knees. Big black dress shoes with rubber soles….

This is my chance, I said to myself, to relate to an oilman in a personal way, and perhaps even learn a little about his heart.

‘So,’ I said, “Do you have children?’

He knew where I was going with that. He turned to face me straight on. ‘Don’t you ever,’ he said, ‘ever. Ever. Ever.’ He paused. ‘Ever underestimate the power of the fossil fuel industry.'”  –  Great Tide Rising: Toward Clarity and Moral Courage in a Time of Climate Change, by Kathleen Dean Moore

GreatTideRisingThis is the scary, provocative, grieving, truthful, and energizing book to read if you want to come to grips with climate change and decide what, if anything, you are going to do about it.

Great Tide Rising is not filled with climate science and facts about global warming and how to “solve” it with know-how and technology. In her book, Kathleen Dean Moore, an acclaimed nature essayist, philosopher, and environmental leader, frames climate change and habitat destruction as moral and ethical questions, guiding readers toward possible answers. Two of the gravest moral questions we face are:

Why is it wrong to wreck the world?

What is our obligation to our children, our children’s children, and the future?

Moore writes:

“I object…to the language of the sixth extinction and will not use it. The current extinction is something morally different from the first five. For all their horror, for all their calamitous power, the early extinctions were natural Earth processes, what the insurance industry calls ‘acts of God,’ beyond human control or culpability. This current great wave of dying is the direct result of human decisions, knowing and intentional, or willfully and wantonly reckless. That’s a difference of moral significance. It changes a calamity into a cosmic crime, a perversion of human power….To call this just the sixth in a long series of extinction cycles is what philosophers call a ‘category mistake’; it’s not the same thing. Extinctions one through five call us to awe. Number six calls us to rage – rage against the dying.”

For me, Great Tide Rising is a kind of primer, or bible, for our time. A bible in the sense that it contains Moore’s eloquent, clarifying language, as well as the wisdom of our greatest environmental prophets, including Aldo Leopold, Edward Abbey, Joanna Macy, and even the poet Mary Oliver.

A bible, too, because it urges us to bear witness to that which must change, and then to act. By “act,” Moore does not mean switching to eco-friendly light bulbs; she means for us to seek a larger purpose and vision for our lives in light of the disaster we face. Great Tide Rising is a kind of bible because it can be turned to often for wisdom and guidance as we head into a treacherous future.

“It’s a… stunning thing that we face climatic changes that will undermine the lives of our children – and very few people are talking about it….most likely it’s a variety of what American intellectual Lewis Mumford called a ‘magnificent bribe.’ The bargain is that each member of the community may claim every material advantage, every intellectual and emotional stimulus he may desire, in quantities hardly available hitherto even for a restricted minority: food, housing, swift transportation, instantaneous communication, medical care, entertainment, education’ – on the condition, I would say, that they never ask where it came from, or at what cost in human suffering, at what cost to the future, or to what long-term effect. That’s the deal: If they ask, they have to turn away from their glittering lives.”

Great Tide Rising refers not just to sea level rise, but to the growing groundswell of people questioning our way of life and committed to a profound shift in thinking. Joanna Macy calls this The Great Turning. In Macy’s words:

“The Great Turning is a name for the essential adventure of our time: the shift from the industrial growth society to a life-sustaining civilization…A revolution is under way because people are realizing that our needs can be met without destroying our world….Future generations, if there is a livable world for them, will look back at the epochal transition we are making to a life-sustaining society. And they may well call this the time of the Great Turning. It is happening now.”

Macy, Kathleen Dean Moore, and other environmental leaders do not know if humans and other life forms will survive what is to come, even if we take massive action. The deal is, we are to bear witness and act regardless of the outcome.

For Great Tide Rising, Moore interviewed Mary Evelyn Tucker, a professor at Yale Divinity School and the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, who spoke of the human instinct to create. Her words compose one of the most beautiful and hopeful passages in the book:

“Humans desire, more than anything else, to be creative, and we desire to participate in the creative processes, in the future and in life – that’s what having children is about. But we can be life-generating in a variety of ways – creative, participatory, oriented toward something larger than ourselves….

Our work is to align ourselves with evolutionary processes instead of standing in their way or derailing them. So our human role is to deepen our consciousness in resonance with the fourteen-billion-year creative event in which we find ourselves. Our challenge is to construct livable cities and to cultivate healthy foods in ways congruent with Earth’s patterns. We need the variety of ecological understanding so we can align ourselves with the creative forces of the universe.

Something is changing; an era is changing. If we are shutting down the Cenozoic era…the great work is to imagine how the new era can unfold. Our work in the world is not just a stopgap to extinction….We are part of the Great Work, as Thomas Berry would say, of laying the foundation of a new cultural era.”

I have only touched on highlights of Great Tide Rising. There is so much more, including a special appeal for grandparents to act on behalf of their grandchildren and future generations.

 

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Times Square and a mantra for our time, maybe one that needs to change.  I brought Great Tide Rising on a trip to New York City last week and read it in the evenings. I visited the photography studio where my son works and, walking around Manhattan, I saw many promo posters for The Americans (a favorite series) with photos taken by Pari, my son’s employer. This is why I will always love great cities, especially New York, where I once lived: they nurture and embody the human desire to be creative that Mary Evelyn Tucker speaks of in Great Tide Rising.

 

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I found this stunning High Victorian Gothic library in the West Village. Jefferson Market Library, part of the New York Public Library System, was once a women’s prison. It is now a quiet, beautiful city space. Perhaps cities will save us. Some environmentalists predict that more people will live in cities, leaving vast tracts of nature to heal and regenerate.

 

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The library is tucked in alongside Jefferson Market Park. I enjoy seeking out small secret gardens in urban places. When Michael Bloomberg was mayor of New York, thousands of acres of parkland were added, nearly 2000 parks were redesigned or upgraded, and a million trees were planted.

 

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A view from the High Line, a repurposed elevated rail line nearly two miles long on the lower West Side. An enchanting garden, especially at dusk, that did not exist when I lived in New York. My son and I walked the High Line, between Tenth and Twelfth avenues, on the way to dinner. Green spaces like this one could be part of the future livable city Mary Evelyn Tucker speaks of in Great Tide Rising.

 

This post is written in memory of David Buckel, a civil rights lawyer and environmentalist who took his own life in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park in April. He self-immolated with fossil fuel to protest its use and left a note: “Most humans on the planet now breathe air made unhealthy by fossil fuels, and many die early deaths as a result — my early death by fossil fuel reflects what we are doing to ourselves. I hope it is an honorable death that might serve others.”

Winter Solstice, 2017

Nestle

“Nestle, as we later named her, was a baby sparrow that had been kicked out of the nest because of a deformity of one of her legs…She found refuge in a house of humans totally ignorant of her special needs. There were so many reasons she should not have survived and yet she did.” – Kathleen J. Maloney, artist. This stunning Christmas card, printed from a woodblock creation by Kathy, was waiting for me in Portland when we completed our cross country travels.

 

In search of a new home, my husband and I sold our house of many years in Rochester, New York and on October 14 began a road trip that took us south to St. Petersburg, Florida, west to California, then north to Portland, Oregon.

 

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Washington DC, Union Station

 

We arrived in Portland on Thanksgiving eve but, sadly, a week and a half later, someone in our extended family passed away, and so we flew back east for the funeral and family time. On the return trip west, we took a three-day Amtrak train along the north coast, the only coast we hadn’t yet explored. We spent hours looking out our sleeper car window and sitting in the observation car as we passed through landscapes new to us: North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, and eastern Washington.

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Martinsville, W. Virginia

We traveled over 10,000 miles by car and train, covered 30 states, visited four national parks (actually, five, but it was dark when our train passed through Montana’s Glacier National Park), plus the place where artist Georgia O’Keeffe lived and worked, Ghost Ranch Education and Retreat Center in New Mexico. We saw Savannah, St. Petersburg, Mobile, New Orleans, Tucson, Sedona, and San Francisco where our son lives, in addition to several smaller cities, and we had a fun afternoon layover in Chicago.

The first stop on our long journey was one of the best: Audubon, New Jersey, where we visited with my good friend and college roommate of many years ago, Kathy – an accomplished artist – and her husband, Steve. They entertained us with the beautiful story of Nestle, a wounded baby sparrow they adopted this past summer and nursed back to health and life. I wrote about it in my post, Sparrow, Art, Life.

Kathy gave us a tour of the creative spaces in their home, including her studio and basement workshop, where Steve makes custom frames for her art work. I loved talking about creativity and the creative life with her – a few hours of conversation was for me a powerful dose of inspiration.

I was thrilled when, thanks to auspicious timing, a stunning Christmas card printed from the wood block art of Nestle that Kathy made was waiting for us at journey’s end.

Kathy’s work is so connected to nature, and so has my writing been of late. During our travels, we saw wild beauty but, at times, also an unbridled pillaging of the earth that reveals an ugly inhumanity toward people and communities as well. This has been so since humans have walked the earth, but now we are almost out of time if we are to avoid climate change disaster and inhabit the earth in a new way. The situation is much graver because people in positions of power are working against this very thing.

 

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Chicago landscape

 

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. Now that we have raised our children, my husband and I are planning our next great endeavor, which we hope will be closely tied to nature and changing the status quo.

More about that in future posts. In the meantime, here are snippets from Kathy and Steve’s story of welcoming Nestle into their family and launching her into life. As Kathy said, never before had they experienced such a bond with a different species.

“Baby birds eat every 20 minutes or so and we took turns feeding her water-soaked dry cat food. We even gave her water through a tiny medicine dropper, which apparently was one of our many mistakes, and yet she didn’t drown.”

 

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“Just as amazing as her physical development was the level of trust she showed in us. We were, after all, her surrogate family. Steve even was able to give her a sparrow massage ever so gently along her back and we watched her relax into the palm of his hand and close her eyes. At night, she would nestle into the crook of his arm and just sit, totally at ease.”

 

“We carried the cage outside and placed it in the meditation garden under the bird feeders. After several days we realized she just wanted to be outside and we opened the cage so she could join her fellow sparrows. Eventually she flew off but returned at the end of the day and spent the night back in the safety of her cage in the house.”

“The most amazing thing began to happen during that last week. As we carried the cage outside in the mornings she would begin to flap her wings excitedly. We realized she was aware that she was going outside to join the backyard birds!”

“If she heard our voices, she would come close, even landing on my arm at one point. Then, one night she didn’t come back to the garden at dusk and all we could do was hope she would be safe. The last time I saw her that week one-on-one she was two feet away perched on top of the wooden fence in my herb garden. As always, I told her to ‘be safe, little one’ and then she flew off.”

 

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Kathy and Steve’s gardens in late fall, where occasionally they are still treated to a glimpse of Nestle.

 

“The gift that she brought to us that hot summer night was the gift of hope and the realization that we are all more closely related to one another on this sometimes crazy, always amazing planet.”

What a wonderful story, and I’m so glad Kathy and Steve shared it.

The Open Gate

If you are still looking for a special, one-of-a-kind holiday gift, or if you would like a truly unique book of poems for the new year, I highly recommend Emily Hancock’s just-published volume, The Open Gate. I “met” Emily online when we took a class from poet and writer Kim Stafford. Her poems are exquisite and nature infused. The volume was typeset and printed by Gaspereau Press in Nova Scotia. The covers were created and printed at St. Brigid Press, which Emily owns and operates.

The editor of Appalachian Journal says of Emily’s poems:

Emily Hancock’s poetry is as inviting as this book’s title: The Open Gate swings wide and asks us to “step through” and see the world through her remarkable eyes. Her poems are full of birdsongs and shifting light through trees in the Blue Ridge. They show us what we didn’t see right in front of us. Her poems are meditative and hopeful—and dazzling.”

You can order The Open Gate at this link. Scroll down at the link to watch Emily give a short talk and reading from her collection of poems.

Next: I’ll tell you where we have decided to make our home and what the focus of Books Can Save a Life will be in the coming months. On this brief, dark solstice day, I wish all of you, my faithful and delightful readers and friends, happy holidays aglow with the spirit of the season, and all good things in the new year!

 

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Marshall Field’s, Chicago

 

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Journey’s end: Portland Union Station

 

 

Sparrow, Art, Life

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An artist’s work table. The photo is the artist’s mother. The feathers are thought to be sparrow feathers. This past summer, Kathy (my college roommate and an accomplished artist) and her husband nursed and fed a one-legged baby sparrow ejected from its nest, helped her learn to fly, and acclimated her to the suburban “wild.” Kathy said she kept finding feathers in her yard, as if the birds were leaving small tokens of thanksgiving.

 

My husband and I and Books Can Save a Life have taken to the road!

We’ve left upstate New York, where we’ve lived for over thirty years, and are heading to one of our favorite cities, Portland, Oregon, via St. Petersburg, Florida, where we have family. The place we’ll ultimately call home is still to be determined, but in the meantime, we’re in search of happy adventures and detours.

I’m excited to share with you highlights of our auspicious first stop: Audubon, New Jersey, the home of my good friend and former college roommate, Kathy. She is an artist who specializes in printing, painting, and drawing. Here is a link to her IG site, @blueberry_hills. If you follow her, you’ll be treated to beautiful art along with her thoughts about the creative process and challenges particular to her project of the moment. Back in the day when we were roommates, Kathy was always working on an illustration, a painting, or illuminated calligraphy. Just being around the making of these beautiful pieces awakened my own creative spirit.

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Books nourish an artist’s practice. I see familiar titles here on Kathy’s drawing table, and ones new to me that I look forward to reading.

 

I’m intrigued by the books and authors that inspire artists. Kathy keeps these close at hand on her drawing table. I’ve read and highly recommend these:

The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron

Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

The Art Spirit by Robert Henri

Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh

In Praise of Slowness by Carl Honorè

New to me are:

The Artisan Soul by Erwin McManus

The Wisdom to Know the Difference by Eileen Flanagan

Keep Calm and Carry On  (The title is based on a British motivational poster from World War II that was never actually used – it was for if and when Britain was invaded; the book is a collection of motivational quotes)

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Woodcut, ‘Welcome Home’/’Pineapple’

 

I decided to call this post “Sparrow, Art, Life” because a few weeks ago I wrote about Birds Art Life: A Year of Observation by Kyo Maclear. It seems to me that Kathy’s work, art and life blend together in a seamless way, and this can be so for the rest of us. Plus, a sparrow happened to come along that changed Kathy’s summer.

 

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Detail of the woodblock Kathy carved to make the pineapple prints. The soft pine woodblock is a work of art, too, and woodblocks are often displayed as such. I deepened the color in this photo somewhat; the piece is beautiful – you can’t help wanting to touch the textured surface.

 

Kathy and her husband told us the fascinating story of their becoming foster parents to a baby sparrow. She said it was quite something to become so surprisingly intimate with a member of another species. Over the span of four weeks the sparrow, which they named Nestle, bonded with them. Nestle got to feeling quite comfortable snuggling up on Steve’s lap and going to sleep.

 

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Exploration of wind across water, reflected trees. Woodcut, Akua ink on 400 count cotton sateen (a really nice pillow case). I find this piece and its production intriguing, mysterious, and unpredictable, and Kathy does too. It requires several steps and layerings of ink. Kathy was planning to create another water print the week after I left. She estimated the printing process would take about two days.

 

Taking care of Nestle, encouraging her to fly, and acclimating her to the wild was intensive, time consuming, and required a bit of research. Kathy and Steve ended up not following much of the advice they found online, but in the end they were successful. The process of letting go was quite moving; at first Nestle returned every evening and wanted to sleep in her cage, but eventually she stopped coming back. Now, occasionally, they spot Nestle in the backyard. I wonder if she remembers her human parents.

 

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Detail, water woodcut

 

We talked about getting close to nature in this way. Maybe if all of us had opportunities to bond with a creature of another species, we’d have more appreciation for the earth and become more inclined to care for the environment. Kathy said Nestle has inspired a unique art project that she’ll be working on in the coming months. I can’t wait to see it.

I found Kathy and Steve’s story especially timely for me, because I’d just finished writing and producing another audio essay in my “From Where I Stand” series. It features the sounds of encounters with a humpback whale and Adelie penguins from my husband’s recent trip to the Antarctic. I hope to share a link to the audio essay here on Books Can Save a Life soon.

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Nestle the sparrow

 

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An artist’s garden. Kyo Maclear, in her book Birds Art Life, writes of artists and writers having a side practice, and certainly for Kathy it is gardening. I enjoyed seeing the flowers and meditation space she’s created over the years and hearing about her future garden plans.

 

Our visit with Kathy and Steve was too short. I loved hanging out in her studio and seeing her other creative spaces, and we could have talked for hours.

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Another art studio book stack…..

 

I’ll write more in a few days from on the road.  Do you have especially loved books about art, life and creativity? What are they?

Birds Art Life

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

To inspire your creative practice, soak up another’s

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“Those who have taken up homesteading – whether in the late nineteenth century, in midcentury, or in more recent periods – have all been acting out particular versions of larger experiments in American cultural dissent and spiritual creativity.”

 

I wake up early, not so usual for me, and when I raise the blinds it’s always sunny here on the dry side of the Columbia River Gorge in Washington.

I put on a thick woolen sweater with a Native American design in sepia and acorn hues, owned by the artist who lives and works here. I grab my cereal and juice, head outside, and eat my shredded wheat looking at Mt. Hood.

We just sold our home of 23 years, where we raised two sons. Wanting to get our minds off of what we left behind, we flew across the country to an artist’s studio and retreat in the Pacific Northwest. New terrain and evidence of an artist hard at work teaching, learning, sharing, and making are reviving my creative spirit.

These things inspire:

  • a weaver’s loom
  • artwork on all the walls, mostly nature based
  • marigolds drying in a basket
  • a display of cloth swatches dyed from goldenrod, Queen Anne’s lace, turmeric, eucalyptus, horsetail, walnut, and blackberries
  • a fragrant garden with mint, basil, tomatoes, squash and other goodies
  • a handmade bread oven
  • poppies everywhere in gold and fiery red
  • jars filled with mysterious things, such as dried flower petals and I don’t know what
  • thick, blush-pink pear slices put by in glass jars
  • a catalog of enticing classes like Wooden Spoon Carving, Flower Farm Dyes, Ikat Weaving, and Columbia Plateau Beadwork

 

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It’s chilly in the morning, often windy, always sunny.

 

Other people’s book collections take us down unforeseen paths, and sometimes the more off the beaten path, the better. There are many books to sample here. At the moment, I’m delving into At Home in Nature: Modern Homesteading and Spiritual Practice in America, by Rebecca Kneale Gould, learning about John Burroughs, Henry David Thoreau, Helen and Scott Nearing, and lesser known American homesteaders – an intriguing slice of American history. It’s perhaps more scholarly than I’d prefer, but I’m enjoying it.

Some other books that live here:

which “aesthetics” do you mean? ten definitions, by Leonard Koren

Coming to Stay: A Columbia River Journey, by Mary Dodds Schlick

A Dyer’s Garden: From Plant to Pot, Growing Dyes for Natural Fibers, by Rita Buchanan

Pacific Feast: A Cook’s Guide to West Coast Foraging and Cuisine, by Jennifer Hahn

Art of the Northern Tlingit, by Aldona Jonaitis

The Textiles of Guatemala, by Regis Bertrand and Danielle Magne

Native Arts of the Columbia River Plateau: The Doris Swayze Bounds Collection, edited by Susan E. Harless

In Zanesville, a novel by Jo Ann Beard (I loved her memoir, The Boys of My Youth.)

Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay: Reflections on Art, Family & Survival, by Christopher Benfey

Recommended by my son, which I packed in my suitcase:

The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food, by Dan Barber

Other books I brought with me:

The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker (book club reading)

The Artist’s Rule: Nurturing Your Creative Soul with Monastic Wisdom, by Christine Valters Paintner

No Experience Required! Watercolor, by Carol Cooper

I’ll likely read just a couple of these but it’s nice to be able to choose.

 

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View from the backyard. (I zoomed in on Mt. Hood.)

 

 

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A homemade bread oven. At the moment, a burn ban prohibits its use.

 

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I think these sunflowers would be a relatively easy watercolor project for a beginner like me.

 

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Marigold blossoms drying

 

Climbing a small mountain is another way to get your mind off things. I have more stores of endurance than I thought and limbs that are plenty sore, but the climb gave me a sense of accomplishment.

 

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View of Mt. Hood from Little Huckleberry Mountain in Gifford Pinchot National Forest

 

We saw three of the Cascade mountains once we made it to the top…

 

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Mt. Adams

 

….which I could not have done without the encouragement of my husband.

 

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Mt. Rainier 

 

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Atop Little Huckleberry Mountain, on the ruins of an old fire lookout. Elevation: 4,781 feet.

 

An artist’s tools and artifacts. Books that belong to another. Climbing a small mountain. How do you feed your creative spirit? Can you recommend any books? Are you traveling this summer or working on a creative project?

Closing 2015 with The Story of the Lost Child

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Little girl at Casa Guidi

 

Opening 2016 with a poem

I ended 2015 reading Elena Ferrante’s fourth and final Neapolitan novel, The Story of the Lost Child, and this first week of 2016, a poem of mine, “At Casa Guidi,” was published in Loveliest Magazine.

Italy. Children. Creativity. I hadn’t planned this, but the poem and Ferrante’s novel have these in common. (The similarities end there – Elena Ferrante is a world-renowned author; I’m a novice poet.)

First, the poem. Some years ago I traveled to Florence with my sister-in-law, and we visited Casa Guidi, the home of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning in the Oltrarno quarter, where many artists and writers lived. Later, recalling our visit, I was inspired to write “At Casa Guidi.”

Loveliest Magazine, a new venue “for storytelling and togetherness,” caught my eye when I read the words “slow-lifestyle” and “literary” to describe its cross-genre purpose. That’s me, for sure, so I thought my poetry might be a good fit. Beautifully written and produced independent literary and lifestyle publications such as Loveliest often look for good fiction, poetry, and essays; if you’d like to see your work published consider submitting to these in addition to traditional literary journals.

 

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Little boy at Casa Guidi

 

If you are ever in Florence, be sure to visit this quieter part of the city, the Oltrarno, which literally means “beyond the Arno River.” In addition to the must-see attractions and many great works of art, Oltrarno streets are lined with stationery stores featuring the things writers love: Italian-made note papers and leather journals, ornate fountain pens, inks in every shade and color. When I was there, I bought a small, leather-bound copy of Sonnets from the Portuguese, and my sister-in-law bought a print of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper.

Closing 2015 with Elena Ferrante

I’ve written about Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels in a previous post.  The Story of the Lost Child is Ferrante’s fourth and final novel in her Neapolitan series. The books are a probing look at the inner life of a writer; a family saga; a soap opera; a history of Italian feminism, culture and politics; and more.

So much has been said about these singular, internationally bestselling novels and their mysterious author, who publishes under a pseudonym, that I’ll simply add my thoughts here. (That we don’t know the identity of the author adds to the power of her work, in my opinion.)

If you look at the book covers you’ll see dreamy, idealized illustrations that are misleading: the story of the lifelong friendship between Lila and Elena, born in Naples just after World War II, can often be raw, brutally honest, and bleak. The book covers belie the content, but perhaps that was intentional, as if to say: think again if you expect a story filled with roses and happy endings….

I wouldn’t say I was always entertained by the books, because they can be relentless in their depiction of Napoli poverty and the battle between the sexes in an era when feminism blossomed. But, as many readers do, I became obsessed with Lila and Elena and had to keep on reading to see what became of them.

  • Ferrante’s work is especially meaningful to me because my father was Sicilian. Now I better understand the values, traditions, and struggles of my Italian ancestors and how these may have had an impact on my own childhood. The cultural history of Italy and its focus on family reminded me of one of my favorite Italian movies, The Best of Youth. Although I have not yet read My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgard, it sounds as though Ferrante’s penetrating look at the psychology of growing up and growing older may have similarities with Knausgard’s autobiographical series.
  • As a writer, I was especially taken with Elena’s love/jealousy/hatred of her friend, Lila. Though Elena was the outwardly successful one, with several novels published and lauded as a scholar of literature and culture, she always believed Lila was the more talented of the two, the one with wildness, fire, and true originality.  It’s often a struggle when I write to break out of my safe, everyday self and give creativity free reign. The genius of the Neapolitan novels is that Elena and Lila’s story can be read as the author’s own creative struggle with a psyche split in two.

 

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Elena and her friend, Lila, are strong women, survivors. Here is Elena during the earthquake in Naples, 1980:

“I felt that fear in me could not put down roots, and even the lava, the fiery stream of melting matter settled in my mind in orderly sentences, a pavement of black stones like the streets of Naples, where I was always and no matter what at the center. Everything that struck me–my studies, books, Franco, Pietro, the children, Nino, the earthquake–would pass, and I, whatever I among those I was accumulating, I would remain firm.”  – The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante

 

My Brilliant Friend book coverThe Story of a New Name book coverThose Who Leave and Those Who Stay book cover

Where Do Poems Come From?

I recently had a poem published in Verse-Virtual: An Online Community Journal of Poetry.  In this excellent and unique publication, the published poets are encouraged to contact each other to show their support for poems that move them. (No critiquing allowed.) The editor, Firestone Feinberg, is a joy to work with and warmly encouraging of new writers.

I wrote “Nadezhda, If You Were Here” quite a while ago, and as I prepared it for submission I was thinking about where poems – my poems – come from. In this case, I was reading a memoir by Paul Auster (I believe it was The Invention of Solitude.) In it, he includes an extraordinary letter written by Nadezhda Mandelstam to her husband, the poet Osip Mandelstam, after he’d been sent to a labor camp by Stalin. I had never heard of these people, but I was so struck by the letter I just had to read Nadezhda’s amazing memoir, Hope Against Hope, about her life with Osip.

I was reading the memoir in Wegmans grocery store on a cold winter day, when I was inspired to get another cup of coffee and start writing. That’s where my poem came from. I wasn’t sure I had much to say, but it turned out to be a direction worth exploring.

The Present MomentThis summer I’m enjoying This Present Moment, a collection of poems by Gary Snyder, who is now 85. Remember the Beat Generation? Gary Snyder is one of America’s greatest living poets. This volume includes poems about being a homesteader, father, husband, friend, and neighbor. (I’m paraphrasing the jacket copy because it is a good summary of the subject matter.) The final poem, “Go Now,” is about the death of his wife.

Even if you’re not a fan of poetry, I encourage you to take three minutes to listen to this poem by Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska, “Life While-You-Wait,” read by Amanda Palmer and passed along by Maria Popova and Brain Pickings. (Scroll down the page to get to the recording.) I think you’ll like it.

I’ve ordered a copy of Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’ encyclical on climate change. It is available from Amazon and other booksellers, and you can download the pdf at this link: Laudato Si’ . I’ll be writing about it here in late July, mostly from a secular perspective. Why don’t you read it with me – I welcome your thoughts, faith-based or otherwise.

John Steinbeck and Slow Writing

Clock, family photo

June 17, 1938

“Hope my nerves aren’t weak because they have a long haul ahead….Begin the detailed description of the family I am to live with for four months. Must take time in the description, detail, detail, looks, clothes, gestures. Ma very important. Uncle John important. Pa very. In fact all of them are important. Got to take it slowly. I don’t care how long it is. We have to know these people. Know their looks and nature. Must.”  Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath, 1938 – 1941, John Steinbeck

The Art of Slow Writing book coverI’ve just finished reading Louise DeSalvo’s wonderful The Art of Slow Writing.  I like slow cooking, slow cities, slow flowers, and slow living, so of course I had to see what slow writing is all about.

In her book, Louise looks closely at every stage of the writing process and what it takes to achieve our best work.

Slow down, she recommends. Good writing cannot be rushed.

Slow writing is not a new trend: the best writers have always been slow writers.

Zadie Smith, Elizabeth Gilbert, Jo Ann Beard, Virginia Woolf, Michael Chabon, Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence, Jeffrey Eugenides, Ian McEwan – DeSalvo synthesizes the wisdom of these and many other writers who have spoken frankly about what it takes to go deep into our creative process to achieve stellar writing.

Louise shows us her writing process, too (she has published several memoirs and other books), and shares anecdotes about getting stuck and how she eventually found a path forward.

Working Days book coverFor those of us writing a memoir or other book-length work, De Salvo recommends studying Steinbeck’s two published writing journals: Working Days: The Journals of the Grapes of Wrath and Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters. She encourages us to keep our own writing journals, too, for long projects.

I’ve begun skimming Working Days. Notice in the opening quote above that John Steinbeck reminds himself to take it slowly, and give each character his or her due.

It’s surprising to see how lost Steinbeck sometimes felt and how he used his writing journal to keep himself going. Here are more excerpts:

September 7, 1938

“I’m afraid this book is going to pieces. If it does, I do too. I’ve wanted so badly for it to be good….if only I wouldn’t take this book so seriously. It is just a book after all, and a book is very dead in a very short time. I’ll be dead in a very short time too. [Steinbeck would live another 30 years.] So the hell with it….I must go on. I can’t stop…..How did I ever get started on this writing business anyway? To work.”

January 29, 1941

There are so many things to go into this book. An astonishing number of things. But I’ll get them all in if I just relax and get them in day by day and only worry about the 2000 words of each day’s work. That’s the only way to do it, I have found. But damn it, I have to learn it over again every time.

January 30, 1941

My head is a grey cloud in which colors drift about and images half-form. I’m bludgeoned and feel beaten by many little things. And I can’t figure answers to them. Maybe some people think clearly all the time and make nice decisions. I don’t know. But I feel very lost and lonely. 

The Grapes of Wrath book coverThe Grapes of Wrath won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940, and contributed to Steinbeck’s winning the Nobel Prize in 1962.

It has stirred up a great deal of controversy, too. According to Robert Demott, editor of Working Days, The Grapes of Wrath has been “banned repeatedly by school boards and libraries, and denounced by right-wing ministers, corporate farmers, and politicians as immoral, degrading, and untruthful.”

A Free Roundtable with Louise DeSalvo

If you’re interested in finding out more about stages of the writing process and how to begin and successfully complete a book-length work, consider registering for the National Association of Memoir Writers free Roundtable (teleconference) with Louise DeSalvo on Thursday, March 5 at 7 pm EST, 4 pm PST. I’ll be in the audience.

Digging Deep

Narcissus, bookshelf

Taking this pic, I re-visited my long-ago college lit books on the bottom shelf: The Complete Pelican Shakespeare, The Norton Anthology of English Literature I and II, Victorian Poetry and Poetics, The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, Critical Theory Since Plato (oh, dear.) With many notes in the margins. Odd one out, a scriptwriting handbook. The “soil” of my literary leanings.

 

“I do believe that there’s something exquisitely powerful about taking something in nature and molding it with your own two hands. From the moment you dig up that first clump, you’re empowered because you immediately enter into collaboration with nature, and who better to be in collaboration with than the greatest force on earth?” Fran Sorin, Digging Deep

 

I have a delightful pairing to begin the new year: Digging Deep: Unearthing Your Creative Roots Through Gardening, the 10th anniversary edition by Fran Sorin; and Gardens of Use and Delight: Uniting the Practical and Beautiful in an Integrated Landscape, by Jigs and Jo Ann Gardnerpublished in 2002.

Digging Deep book coverYou don’t have to be a gardener to enjoy Fran’s book, though if you are, all the better. Fran says, “My  mission is to show new and experienced gardeners alike how they can use their gardens – be they rolling, manicured lawns or tiny, blank plots of land – as tools for their creative awakening. I believe from the depths of my heart that gardening can be one of the most profound ways to unearth the creative spirit buried within every one of us. Once you unleash this creative energy, you’ll be amazed at what happens in all areas of your life. You’ll begin to see how living creatively opens up new vistas in your imagination and new windows of opportunity in your life.”

I’m a new gardener, and gardening has become for me a pleasurable, relaxing complement to writing, perfect for getting my body moving outdoors in nature. As I write about growing up in a family flower shop, sowing and tending and reaping resurrect the fragrance of fresh blooms and damp soil, and many other sensory pleasures, from my childhood.

When I ran across Fran’s book online, I was intrigued with her melding of gardening and creativity. The first edition of Digging Deep was immensely popular, hence the 10th anniversary edition in 2014. I’m glad to have discovered it this time around. In addition to being a garden expert and deep ecologist, Fran is an ordained interfaith minister and a soul tending coach. I point this out because the deceptively simple Digging Deep is a profound and spiritual book that is part memoir, as Fran draws upon her own rich life experiences to tell the story of how she arrived at the wisdom she shares here.

I’ve found that to nurture a creative practice (mine is writing), it is good to have other creative outlets just for pleasure, quite different from your primary practice. These “low-stakes” pastimes give your mind and body a break from routine and stimulate your imagination by allowing you to play and experiment. This spirit of play permeates Fran’s book. Her chapters take you sequentially through the cyclical nature of gardening, and creativity: Imagining: The Spark of Creativity. Envisioning: Giving Shape to Your Dreams. Planning: Laying Down the Bones. Planting: Taking Action. Tending: The Act of Nurturing. Enjoying: Reaping What You Have Sown. Completing: Cycling Through the Season.

Here is a favorite passage from a section called “Appreciating”: “Savoring your garden brings more than just sensory pleasure, though – it fills your creative well. In the moments that you experience the reverie of simply being there without working or planning or doing anything other than just drinking it in, you can experience a heightened awareness that elevates your consciousness. Any expression of art, be it a Rembrandt or your own garden, reflects the best of humankind, and tapping into this wonder expands your creative capacity so you may in turn create even more art – more awareness, more inspiration, more aliveness. The cycle feeds itself, but only if you stop to smell those literal and proverbial roses.” (boldface is mine)

Fran includes some excellent gardening guidance and tips, but her book is not a gardening manual. Rather, her aim is impart a deeper wisdom, a kind of spiritual instruction about connection to soil and nature, to foster creative awakening.

Gardens of Use and Delight book coverJigs and Jo Ann Gardner’s Gardens of Use and Delight is about a remarkable couple who for thirty years taught themselves how to live off the land on a farm on remote, hardscrabble Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. (They now live on a smaller farm in upstate New York.) I wanted to pair it with Digging Deep because, although Jigs and Jo Ann are immensely practical people, they are deeply connected to their land and passionate about homesteading, which they portray as at once the functional task of reawakening fertility and abundance in the landscape and making it beautiful as well. The subtitle is Uniting the Practical and the Beautiful in an Integrated Landscape, and that is exactly what Jigs and Jo Ann did on their isolated farm, while also raising four children (and a few foster children for good measure.)

Gardens of Use and Delight, like Digging Deep, is part memoir. More of a how-to book than Fran’s, Gardens, for me, stands out because of Jigs and Jo Ann’s instinctively creative approach to seamlessly blending beauty and fertility as they rejuvenate and work their land. I will never rehabilitate an entire farm as they did, but in Jigs and Jo Ann’s book I find an approach to making my much smaller landscape both productive and beautiful. Jigs and Jo Ann remind me of Helen and Scott Nearing and their classic and influential The Good Life, although Helen and Scott were not concerned with aesthetics as are Jigs and Jo Ann. The Gardners view their land as an artist does a blank canvas, to be molded and planted with flowers, herbs, vegetables, fruits, shrubs, and trees.

You’ll find some recipes and homemade craft instructions, too, such as pressed flower cards, candied petals, herb salt, rose petal jelly, and skin freshener. Elayne Sears’ watercolor illustrations of the landscape, fruits, vegetables, flowers, and Jo Ann’s rustic farm kitchen and pantry are delightful – I’d love to have prints of them to hang in my kitchen.

I have read other titles by Jo Ann Gardner and hope to collect everything written by this talented, tenacious homesteading and gardening virtuoso.

A very vintage photo of Cape Breton Island, from my honeymoon. Although I don't believe they were on the coast, Jigs and Jo Ann Snyder must have encountered land much like this when began to reclaim an old Nova Scotia farm.

A very vintage photo of Cape Breton Island, from my honeymoon. Although I don’t believe they were on the coast, Jigs and Jo Ann Gardner must have encountered land much like this when they began to reclaim an old Nova Scotia farm.

 

Slow Flowers Challenge

I wanted to also tell you about Debra Prinzing’s Slow Flower Challenge for 2015, which you can join at any time. Every day, once a week, once a month, or once a season, you can design and make a floral arrangement using slow flowers. If you don’t know what slow flowers are, click on the above link, or read my post about Debra’s book, Slow Flowers. (St. Lynn’s Press)

Raised beds covered with snow

Our blank slate

 

 Next up

More WW II fiction, a travel-to-the-ends-of-the-earth memoir, a wolf, Scandinavian literature, Little Golden Books, a favorite author visits Rome. Etc. Etc.

 

“Where the blue of the sea meets the sky”

Water and skyThe art of diving is not to do anything new but simply to cease doing something. You have only to let yourself go….It is only necessary….to abandon all efforts at self-preservation.

C.S. Lewis, The Pilgrim’s Regress, as quoted in Standing at Water’s Edge: Moving Past Fear, Blocks, and Pitfalls to Discover the Power of Creative Immersion, by Anne Paris

Many thanks to Lynne Favreau, who recommended Standing at Water’s Edge by Anne Paris, a fabulous book about creative immersion. Now it sits on the top shelf of my writing bookcase.

Watching the movie Goodbye First Love, I encountered The Water, by Johnny Flynn, a beautiful companion song to this sentiment.   The water sustains me without even tryin’….

Blog post title quote from “The Water,” by Johnny Flynn.

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