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.
Adrift, and a timely new edition of a little-known book
One year ago, my husband left for a two-week expedition to Antarctica. He traveled with 90 other tourists aboard a former research vessel and ice breaker. It was the trip of a lifetime, and he was among the sixteen or so tourists who ventured out kayaking. I asked him to bring back some sounds of Antarctica, and he did.
Finally, in November, I created an audio essay, “Adrift,” from some of those recordings, and it was published as part of my “From Where I Stand” series on Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built + Natural Environment. The audio essay is six minutes long, and I hope you’ll take a few moments and listen. I would appreciate comments, thoughts, and feedback here or on Terrain.org. If you’re intrigued, please check out the other poems, articles, letters, and features on Terrain.org, an outstanding online journal.
I gave my audio essay the title “Adrift” for a variety of reasons. For one thing, this past summer a massive iceberg broke off from the Antarctic mainland, alarming climate scientists and environmentalists. The rogue iceberg has since been floating away from mainland Antarctica’s Larsen C ice shelf. “Adrift” also came to mind because our country is more seriously adrift than ever in regards to acknowledging climate change and taking action.
This past Christmas, our older son who is the avid reader brought home the novel Ice by Anna Kavan. I’d been seeing the 50th Anniversary Edition online, but I’d never heard of the book or the author. Curious, I read the novel in an evening. It embodies the lost feeling of being adrift in the worst possible way. It’s difficult to summarize Ice, except to say that it is a singular, dystopian masterpiece that is eerily of our time, even though it was written in the 1960s. Reading it at this particular moment is especially resonant, given the recent bomb cyclone and deep freeze in the eastern half of the United States. In the novel, ice and bone-chilling cold encroach on the world due to an unnamed environmental or nuclear disaster. Iceis, in part, the story of an ecocatastrophe. (This is the apt word of a New York Times reviewer, not mine).
It is also the story of a man searching for a woman; he finds her but then loses her. He finds her again but then is somehow apart from her. And on and on, his search continues, as in a dream from which he can’t awaken. Reviewers say that his endless, obsessive search is in part a metaphor for the author’s struggle with drug addiction.
In the novel’s foreword, Jonathan Lethem writes that Ice has a nightmarish quality, with a disjointed, endless loop of a narrative similar to the style of Kazuo Ishiguro, and I know what he means: the tone and narrative reminded me of Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled. It’s a disturbing novel by a relatively unknown author who has not gotten the attention she deserves, an arresting but bleak story. There is, though, a note of redemption on the last pages.
Books Can Save a Life, 2018
In a sense, my husband and I have been adrift, too, but in a more positive way. If you’ve been following Books Can Save a Life, you know that in October we left our dear, long-time upstate New York home and embarked on a cross country journey by car and train, stopping at several National Parks and scenic places in search of adventure and a new home.
In November, we landed in Portland, Oregon and in December we found the place that we’ll be calling home, at least for the next year: the high desert of Bend, Oregon. We’ve signed a year’s lease on an adorable bungalow in Bend’s historic district, known as Old Bend. Our intention is to spend the year immersing in nature – a face of nature that is novel and new for us, embodied in the dry climate east of the Cascade mountains.
We’d also like to see if we can learn to live more sustainably, in a more ecologically responsible way.
For example, we’ve chosen to live in a neighborhood where we can walk to the grocery store, the library, church, coffee shops, and restaurants. At the moment, we own one car, not two. We may take classes in permaculture and we’re looking into Oregon’s Master Naturalist and Master Gardener programs. Joe has signed up to renew his Wilderness First Responder Certification.
On Books Can Save a Life,books will continue to be the unifying thread, but I hope also to write about our lifestyle changes and their challenges. Concurrently, I’ll continue to highlight environmental and nature writers such as Barry Lopez, Wendell Berry,Terry Tempest Williams,Bill McKibben, and other modern-day prophets who are deeply connected to the natural world.
As always, I hope to feature other important, topical fiction and nonfiction as well. Jaron Lanier was one of the writers new to me in 2017 who impressed me the most, with his vision of a humanitarian information/technology economy. These are challenging times, and I’d like to focus on novelists and nonfiction writers like Lanier who give us visions of a more humane world.
Originally, I began writing Books Can Save a Life to extend my author platform in preparation for publishing a memoir about mental illness in my family. Now, I have a rather ungainly memoir draft that needs cutting and that’s offering me plenty of opportunities for further creativity and deepening. (In other words, it needs revising. :))
As time goes on I’m more convinced that memoirs are making a difference. To that end, on Books Can Save a Life I’ll continue to occasionally tell you about memoirs that I think are exceptional, as well as books and writers concerned with maintaining and deepening creative practices like writing and art.
In the meantime, here are a few glimpses of our new home:
Next up: Our older son recommended Ice, which was my final read of 2017. I’m giving equal time to our younger son, whose Christmas gift to us was Let My People Go Surfing by Yvon Chouinard. It’s a tremendously inspiring book (even though I have no interest in starting a business), my first read of 2018, originally meant to be a manual for Patagonia employees. I know that sounds boring, but it’s not. It’s been translated into ten language. A new edition was published in 2016.
Happy New Year to all, and let me know what you’re reading!
This time around, my post is mostly pictures from bookstore stops on our summer vacation in the Pacific Northwest.
The past few years, we’ve been more consciously immersing in nature in our travels, and I’ve been reading and writing about nature, too. Along the way, I’ve become fascinated by watercolor painting and nature journaling, though I can’t say I actually do much painting or journaling.
Very early on, I let a teacher convince me I had no talent for art, and so I’ve avoided these artistic pleasures and pursuits. I’ve since seen the light, and now I have all sorts of intentions and anticipations when it comes to making art. We’ll see.
In the meantime, my desires and my love for beautiful things are reflected in my bookstore adventures.
Many thanks to Browers Bookshop and Book ‘N’ Brush for much browsing pleasure, for great books I wouldn’t have discovered anywhere else, and for giving so much to their communities. What would we do without independent bookstores?
Here’s one more quote by Hannah Hinchman, from A Trail Through Leaves; it occurs to me that I must have been not that far away from this scene as it happened – I was in college in Appalachian Ohio in 1976:
“The girls wore plain long dresses with a sort of blazer coat, equally plain. They led me to the barn with no concern for the mud. They showed me the milk vat, half full of milk. Startling to see a whole lake of milk like that, with cat tracks on the lid of the vessel. Such an austere cold and windy gray day, spitting pellets of snow. Arriving at this farm in the deepest of Ohio agricultural land, far from the mainstream of the world, and meeting these youngsters, plain as the winter landscape, but with faces like young peaches, smooth as fresh-shelled beans, like sprouts in winter.”Hannah Hinchman’s journal, Volume 19, Ohio, 1976.
(Since I wrote this post, I found out Hannah Hinchman has another classic book, A Life in Hand: Creating the Illuminated Journal.It’s available as an e-book, but the print versions are now quite expensive. It would be great if a publisher would re-issue a print edition. Print books such as this one disappearing from the world are a loss.)
What are you reading this summer? If you’ve been traveling, where to, and have you found any bookstores to recommend?
“Looking back, I see now that Denali did more than charm me that first summer; it saved me. The whole damn place beguiled me and believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. Call me crazy or blessed or crazy blessed. But I swear that again and again Denali has done this–made me buckle down and find inspiration and become the free man I am today.” Kim Heacox,Rhythm of the Wild: A Life Inspired by Alaska’s Denali National Park
“What you hold, dear reader, is a story of love and hope, equal parts natural history, human history, personal narrative, and conservation polemic. I make no attempt to be a neutral journalist, a rare bird in today’s corporate culture. I’m a story teller.”
I’ve tried to persuade my husband to read the latter book, as he’s a kayaker and a Beatles lover, as Heacox is. I believe Heacox and J. are kindred spirits, but so far no luck, J. hasn’t picked up the book–he’s not a particularly avid reader. However, he has been to Alaska, while I have not, so I think that counts for more than reading two books about Alaska.
Kim Heacox is an award-winning writer (with four books for National Geographic to his credit), a photographer, a speaker, a conservationist, and a lover of Alaska and Denali. (Denali, the mountain, which is the highest in North America, and Denali National Park.)
He and his wife, Melanie, have resided in Alaska for over thirty years; they are two remarkable people who have devoted their lives to educating others about the inestimable value of our wilderness areas. Heacox writes in a very personal way about Alaska and Denali, weaving together his own wilderness stories with coming of age in the Northwest during the 1960s and 70s. I admire him for many reasons, among them his talent for lyrical writing and his willingness to be vulnerable as he shares his love for the wilderness that is Alaska.
As I read, I began to feel sorry for the tourists Heacox describes who find their way to Denali but after a few short days must return to their Dilbert cubicle lives in cities and suburbs. Then I realized that has been much of my life, too. Heacox paints such a compelling picture of Alaska he made me feel deprived for never having experienced this wild, remote place.
Heacox recounts his fascination with the Beatles and their reinvention of music – from an early age he identified with outsiders and challengers of the status quo. Naturally, he’s been deeply influenced by “outsider” environmentalists as well, including Edward Abbey and Adolph Murie. He writes about their legacies in Rhythm of the Wild.
Those of you who follow my blog know I’m a fan of Barry Lopez and Wendell Berryand other influential writers who care about nature and wilderness. I’ll look for more writing by Kim Heacox in the future. I consider him an important addition to my nature and conservation bookshelf. He’s the kind of writer we should be reading if we want to protect our national parks and take climate change seriously.
Here are a few enticing samples of this singular voice in Rhythm of the Wild:
“Years ago in a cowboy cafe in Moab, Utah, I met a nine-fingered guitarist who poured Tobasco on his scrambled eggs and told me matter-of-factly that Utah was nice, Montana too. And of course, Colorado. But any serious student of spirituality and the American landscape must one day address his relationship with Alaska, and once in Alaska, he must confront Denali, the heart of the state, the state of the heart….by Denali he meant both the mountain and the national park.”
“Denali is what America was; it’s the old and new, the real and ideal, the wild earth working itself into us on days stormy and calm, brutal and beautiful, unforgiving and blessed. It’s where we came from, long before television and designer coffee, even agriculture itself. Before we lost our way and granted ourselves dominion over all living things, before our modern, paradoxical definitions of progress and prosperity, and too much stuff; it’s the lean, mean, primal place buried in our bones no matter how much we might deny it, no matter how fancy our homes, how busy our routines, how cherished our myths. Denali resides in each of us as the deep quiet, the profound moment, the essence of discovery. It offers a chance to find our proper size in this world.”
The publisher of Rhythm of the Wildkindly provided me with an Advanced Reader’s Copy (ARC).
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, primarily from a secular perspective. Why don’t you read it with me – I welcome your thoughts.