Living on the edge of wilderness

Cascade wildflowersI’ve been keeping company with Ana Maria Spagna’s essay collections, Now Go Home: Wilderness, Belonging, and the Crosscut Saw; and Potluck: Community on the Edge of Wilderness while we’ve been vacationing in the Cascades.

After college, Spagna made a commitment to work on trail crews for the National Park Service in spring, summer, and fall, and to travel during the winter months. Eventually, she settled in Stehekin, Washington, a remote town in the northern Cascades, where she and her partner built their own house. I believe she still works the trail crews several months out of the year.

I tend to romanticize what it would be like to call such a place home. In her essays, Spagna captures the glamour and majesty of living surrounded by natural beauty, but she also writes about the never-ending challenges.

Ana Maria writes about how Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, tree huggers and loggers, religious fundamentalists and atheists get along (or don’t) in a small community.

There are the forest fires, flash floods, and avalanches. There are the costs incurred to keep residents of these areas safe from natural disasters, costs often borne by taxpayers who live in more populated areas.

It hadn’t occurred to me that precautions to prevent forest fires may cause the buildup of flammable, dense growth that could result in The Big One, a massive fire that destroys everything.

Spagna’s writing is important. She’s a voice from another world, the last bastions of nature, a voice whose wisdom we need to hear.

Here are some of my favorite quotes:

“I visited the Magic Kingdom thirty-seven times before I turned nineteen, and by then I craved something, anything, that would be the antithesis of Disney, the real thing. That’s what I found on the highway: places you can count on, places where in the morning without fail, there will be coffee at the gas station heading out of town….[and] people who….were honest, if quirky, and unexpectedly generous, and they lived an ethic that the land itself, no matter how pretty, can’t teach…..The Golden Rule.”
View from Spirit Lake trail
“These places…wilderness areas, national parks – are supposed to transform us, make us new…..they do not continuously dispense spiritual wowness like a fountain….I stripped myself of everything to be out there–out there!–and the problem with being out there is that then it is not out there anymore. It is more like in here….you can’t be made new at home.”

Quotes are from Now Go Home: Wilderness, Belonging, and the Crosscut Saw, by Ana Maria Spagna, Oregon State University Press, Corvallis, 2004.

Bridal veil falls

Please excuse my language (Blame it on Dear Sugar)

Cheryl Strayed, author of the memoir Wild, is otherwise known as Sugar, the advice columnist for The Rumpus, an online culture and literary magazine.

Cheryl had been writing the column anonymously until this past Valentine’s Day, when she “came out” just as her newly published memoir was rising to the top of the bestseller list.

The Rumpus is a clever, intelligent magazine. I’m a bit too old for it, or it’s a bit young for me, so I’m not a regular reader, nor do I follow Cheryl’s advice column (which is not your ordinary, everyday kind of advice column). But somewhere along the line, I came across a piece of wisdom I liked that Cheryl gave to a struggling young writer who’d sent a letter to Dear Sugar.

This bit of wisdom went viral and the people over at The Rumpus decided to put it on a mug. I ordered the mug and it came in the mail yesterday.

I’ve read all kinds of books about creativity and writing to keep my own writing going and because I’m fascinated by the creative process. A couple of pages on this site are devoted to books about writing and creativity, and I’ll be featuring some of these on Books Can Save a Life as time goes by.

But sometimes just a short, pithy, to-the-point kick in the pants is all I need.

So I’ve got my new mug sitting on my writing desk, ready to be filled with coffee or tea on a moment’s notice.

Write like a m*****f***** mug

I would say this is Cheryl’s approach to writing, to walking, to life.

Wild is to be made into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon.

There is a fabulous interview with Cheryl over at Bookslut, but beware of spoilers. You may want to finish Wild first, before you read it.

Hey, is anyone reading Wild? If so, let us know what you think in the comments below.

I’m heading off to the land of Wild (the Pacific Northwest) later this week to attend a medical librarian conference with some of my colleagues (profoundly intelligent readers, all of them). Then some vacation time with family, where I’ll be reading other books with a Pacific Northwest theme, exploring Seattle (including The Elliott Bay Book Company), and the surrounding terrain. Watch for posts and pictures!

Supermoon and journeys: Cheryl Strayed’s Wild

Moon in my backyard

I write this on the night of the supermoon, high in the sky outside my dining room window.

In her journal, Cheryl Strayed kept a list of the books she burned as she walked the Pacific Crest Trail:  Dubliners by James Joyce; Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov; The Novel by James Michener; The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume 1: California and Volume 2: Oregon and Washington; plus a few more.

Every evening she’d make a campfire, tear out the pages she’d read that day, and feed them to the flames to lighten the load in her over-stuffed pack. I imagine her performing her nightly ritual, the words on paper turning to ash.

Cheryl carried one book the length of her trip: The Dream of a Common Language, by Adrienne Rich.

Reading Wild, I remember this stray fact: In college, I wrote my senior seminar English paper on Adrienne Rich’s Diving Into the Wreck. I’d like to find that old English paper so I can read it after all these years and see what I had to say about Rich’s poetry.

Reading Wild, I remember a vacation in Portland, Oregon to visit family. Our boys were six and nine at the time.

We decided to hike with my sister-in-law and her family along the lower elevations of Mount Hood in search of a waterfall whose name I can’t remember. The map posted at the trail head indicated the hike was a couple of miles. A manageable trip for young children, we thought. The day was hot and sunny, but we walked in the shade of a beautiful pine forest along an easy, well-cleared path.

When Cheryl began walking, her pack was so heavy she couldn’t lift it, and her brand new REI hiking boots were too small.  Along the way, she shed many layers of skin from the pads of her feet and several toenails as well.

She’d walk a week without seeing anyone. She’d go days with a handful of change to her name until she reached a town where a supply pack (mailed by a friend) awaited, with necessities and two ten dollar bills to tide her over for the next couple hundred miles.

The day of our hike we walked. And walked. And walked some more. Until it got to be not so much fun anymore. Until the children were dragging, and the teenage cousin and her friend decided to go on ahead.

One of our boys (who shall remain nameless) grew cranky. The heat was intense and our water was running low. But we figured we were almost to the waterfall, so we kept going.

We walked another half hour, and then in a full meltdown, the thoroughly overheated and tired boy refused to go any further. We’d stopped next to a creek, and my husband took his handkerchief, dipped it in the ice-cold mountain water, and we took turns bathing our faces with it.

My in-laws decided to keep going with their children while we cooled off at the stream. Before long, I was ready to move on. My husband stayed behind with the tired one, cajoling him to take off his shoes and socks and wade in the stream.

Our original group had now split into four groups, which made me uneasy. Walking along holding my son’s hand, I hoped the path wouldn’t split off. What if we went the wrong way and got lost? We saw an older couple approaching as they headed back down the trail.

“Are we close to the waterfall?” I asked.

“You’re getting there. But you’ve a ways to go,” the man said. Not what I wanted to hear.

At the age of 26, with little preparation and no extreme hiking experience, Cheryl decided to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. She was grieving for her mother, who had died in her early forties a month after a cancer diagnosis, and Cheryl had been making a mess of her life ever since. She hoped the trip would save her in some way.

My son and I heard rushing water and felt a million invisible, blessedly cool droplets on our skin before we saw the waterfall. In the clearing ahead, ribbons of spray curved and tumbled down a wall of solid rock, like a bridal veil fluttering in a breeze. Instantly, the temperature dropped ten degrees. We were like parched plants coming back to life after a generous watering.

Everyone had arrived except for my husband and the tired one; they came along a few minutes later. In this peaceful and secluded Shangri La we stretched ourselves out on large, flat rocks and talked as the kids splashed about the stream looking for tadpoles.

Having walked 1100 miles, Cheryl ended her journey at the Bridge of the Gods spanning the Columbia River, which lay between Oregon and Washington.

She’d become a different person, inside and out.

Do good books make you remember, too?

Multnomah Falls, Oregon
Multnomah Falls, Oregon

With that, I leave you “A Story for Tomorrow,” posted today on Brain Pickings.

Facing your heart of darkness for love: State of Wonder

“She was not terrified that the patient would die or she would lose the baby, she was terrified that she was doing something wrong in the eyes of Dr. Swenson.”


Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder is about a life severely, intentionally curtailed.

Marina Singh is a successful scientist conducting important research at a pharmaceutical company. Only she knows that long ago she’d bailed out of her own life.

When Marina was a chief resident in obstetrics, she performed a complicated delivery that ended badly. There was a lawsuit. Her marriage to a fellow resident dissolved. She wasn’t asked to leave the residency program, but she felt compelled to punish herself and leave on her own.

That way, she never had to face her classmates, or patients, or the brilliant, intimidating Dr. Swenson, again.  Anick Swenson had been the attending physician on call the day of the crisis. All the medical students both revered and feared her.

“She was harder on the women…She would tell them stories of her own days in medical school and how when she came along the men knit their arms together to keep her out. They made a human barricade against her, they kicked at her when she climbed over them, and now all the women were just walking through, no understanding or appreciation for the work that had been done for them.”

Marina never told her mother why she abruptly decided not to become a doctor. She never told her lover, Mr. Fox, who is president of the pharmaceutical company she works for. She never told her close friend and colleague, Anders Eckman, who has just died of fever in the Amazon jungle.

Now, Anders’ wife has begged Marina to find out what she can about Anders’ death and retrieve his body. And Mr. Fox has asked her to check on the progress of a top secret research project being conducted by none other than Dr. Swenson, who makes it a practice of remaining incommunicado.

Marina doesn’t want to set foot in the jungle, and she doesn’t want to see Dr. Swenson. But she goes, because she cares deeply for Anders, who has left behind a wife and three young boys.

Here is the particular nugget of the story I keep coming back to:

“The great, lumbering guilt that slept inside of her at every moment of her life had shifted, stretched.”

Marina has suffered and continues to suffer deeply, even though her suffering is hidden away. She knows what she’s lost. She was a bright, capable young woman who wanted to devote herself to caring for women and helping them bring new life into the world. Yet in the space of a few hours she walked away from it all. She’d spent the greater part of her adult life only half alive, using a fraction of her potential. She seems to be very much alone; she holds the other people in her life at a distance, and she settles for a less than fulfilling relationship with Mr. Fox.

Marina has never gotten over her past. She locked it away in a dark corner of her mind and got on with life. Facing her demons is the psychological story within the story of Marina’s journey into the Amazon jungle. It turns a plot driven novel into something more urgent and real for the reader, even if the reader is only half aware of it.

This fusing of outward adventure and inner journey is what ultimately made it impossible not to follow Marina into the darkness. I revisited some of my own life issues as Marina revisited hers.

I admire Marina, but not all of the decisions she makes as her story unfolds, and that’s as it should be when reading about a character who is real, alive.

The essential story in this book, for me, is the reclaiming of a life. By the end of the story, I was different.  Not in a dramatic way, but nonetheless something had shifted.  A truly great book such as this one stays with me and continues to wield its power. And I can’t begin to measure the impact of many books read over a lifetime.

Some people say the book is in danger of disappearing. But in a recent essay, Timothy Egan writes that people are actually reading more and buying more books. I think we will always hunger for the power of story and the collective wisdom of the great writers and thinkers.



Blue mushrooms and yellow tree bark – what would you do? State of Wonder

I write with unfortunate news of Dr. Eckman, who died of a fever two nights ago. Given our location, this rain, the petty bureaucracies of government (both this one and your own), and the time sensitive nature of our project, we chose to bury him here in a manner in keeping with his Christian tradition….Despite any setbacks, we persevere.

The letter writer, Dr. Annick Swenson, is a fearless force of nature.

Marina Singh, the protagonist, is not.

Watching the relationship between these two women unfold in Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder was one reason I couldn’t stop turning the pages.

If you’ve read the book or are in the process of reading it, I’d like to know what you think about these two women. Do you like them? Do they change as the story unfolds? For better or for worse?

What do you think about their relationship with men? I found myself comparing Dr. Swenson’s relationship with Dr. Rapp to Marina’s relationship with the men in her life, especially her father and Mr. Fox.

Any thoughts about Marina’s nightmares, induced by taking a drug to prevent malaria?

The conventional roles of mother, father, friend, lover, husband, wife, and child seem to become less strictly defined and more fluid as the story unfolds. What do you think about that?  Consider the Lakashi tribe, too.

What exactly was Easter all about? What do you think of the way Marina, Dr. Swenson, and other characters treated him?

Many of Patchett’s characters must make difficult moral choices. Do you agree with the choices they made? Do any surprise or upset you?

We encounter addicting yellow tree bark, blue mushrooms with hidden power, and lavender moths unlike any other species of moth. What do you make of how the characters responded to these discoveries? What would you do?

Please tell me what you think about any of this in the comments below. There are bound to be disagreements – the more discussion, the better!

What Albert Einstein Said to a Girl
It occurred to me that the books I’ve featured on this blog have so far been about strong, independent women departing from traditional roles.  When I was checking my email subscriptions before I wrote this post, I found this:
Albert Einstein once had a correspondence with a young girl who wanted to be a scientist. She regretted the fact that she was a girl but said she’d grown resigned to it. She hoped Einstein wouldn’t think less of her for being female.
You can read his reply in Brain Pickings, a website about creativity that I like, in a post about women in science.

The letter is from Dear Professor Einstein: Albert Einstein’s Letters To and From Children.

The quote at the beginning of this post is from State of Wonder by Ann Patchett, HarperCollins Books, 2011