MArch 15, 2013
A Writer’s Thread
Artist Statement From MFA Thesis
A Writer’s Thread
While you hold it you can’t get lost
The Way It Is, William Stafford
I am a reader.
Sometime around my fourth summer it became apparent I could read. First it was street signs. I asked “Dad, how does that sign know we are going the wrong way?” just before he turned the old wood paneled station wagon into an ally to avoid an oncoming car. Dr. Seuss books followed, including my favorites Hop on Pop, Ten Apples on Top and Go Dog Go. By five I was asking my kindergarten teacher what “copyright” meant. I was reading my father’s Reader’s Digest Condensed Books as they arrived and recommending which of the contents he might enjoy reading. In second grade I was granted the privilege of reading from the top shelves of the library where the chapter books were shelved by defining the word “postman” from a sentence in Mary Poppins.
The summer following third grade I attended the Advanced Summer School Enrichment Program for third and fourth graders. The book we were assigned to read in the six week course was Heidi. Not only had I already read Heidi several times (certainly in less than six weeks), the version being read was abridged. My response was belligerent and stubborn refusal to participate. In that same summer school class I refused to paint the paper mache relief map of China red arguing it was stereotypical and offensive. I was not asked to attend the Advanced Summer School Enrichment Program again.
I was ten years old when my father brought home a portable typewriter. He would die the following fall, and one of his last gifts to me involved that typewriter. I remember the evening he set it up at the kitchen table and I stood on the rungs of his chair, watching over his shoulder while he typed out “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” followed by “When she grows up, Dana can be anything she wants: a nurse a teacher, a secretary.”
My father’s typed sentence declaring my freedom to choose from three stereotypical professions was not the most important idea I retained from that evening session with the typewriter. Instead, in my mind there was a click of recognition between the words on the pages bound in the books I continuously read and a person seated at a table pressing keys on a typewriter. Yes, the magical world of books and stories was produced by human beings as regular and normal as my father. I didn’t care about being a nurse, a teacher or a secretary, the profession I wanted was writer.
So I began writing.
By the time I was ten my library was extensive. Thanks to the Scholastic Book Company and their Weekly Reader book sales I accumulated a large number of inexpensive, well bound (some are still on my bookshelves) paperback books. I remember reading each catalog with care, not only the plot descriptions for the individual books offered but also the number of pages in each book. I was reading so much, so quickly and in many ways so indiscriminately I was ordering scholastic books from the most pages for the least amount of money concept. It was a scholastic volume of Silas Marner that I first read. My copy of A Wrinkle in Time is Scholastic.
At the same time I was saving and spending my weekly allowance for trips to the local bookstore. I spent hours roaming the aisles and scanning the shelves of this bookstore until I had most of the book titles memorized. I bought, again based on the number of pages for the least amount of money, many of the Signet Classics series. Dickens, Hardy, Wharton, Twain, and Hawthorne filled my bookshelves.
Family and friends soon learned I would be happier receiving books rather than toys as presents. Birthdays and Christmases I stacked up books (The Bobsey Twins, The Bobsey Twins at the Seashore, The Bobsey Twins in the Country). My grandmother and my father gave me books for no reason other than I would read them (Heidi, Robin Hood, Black Beauty, Beautiful Joe). My aunt, when I was eleven and in the hospital in traction for a broken knee found a copy of J. D. Salinger’s Nine Stories in the gift shop and gave it to me. I knew she hadn’t read it, I knew had she read it she wouldn’t have given it to me, and I knew enough not to tell her what I thought of it.
With so many books there came the compulsion to order and catalog them. My first writings were lists, alphabetical by author, of the books I owned with a brief synopsis of plot and a simple one or two word critique. Some of those critique phrases included “boring,” “try again,” “stupid,” “very good,” and “read again.”
When there was a “very good” or “read again” listed I attempted to find other books from that author. Serial books, those with the same characters in different situations and the same plot (Robin Kane Mysteries, Brains Benton,) were easy to request and find. When I ran out of books by a favorite author or couldn’t wait for the next adventure of a favorite character I wrote my own story. Brains Benton moved to my town and set up his laboratory in a carriage house on Fourth Avenue by the college. I wrote about an old hollow tree that I would live in like Sam Gridley of The Other Side of the Mountain.
I kept my stories, mostly unfinished, since I could imagine faster than I could scribble, in spiral notebooks that I hid in the old desk in the basement. When my father figured out I was spending all my time at that desk in the storage room behind the furnace he added shelves for my books, built me a blackboard and brought in some old wooded school desks. His wish to see me a teacher was encouraged by my willingness to help my younger brother with his spelling and reading homework. Truthfully I just couldn’t believe there was a person in the world who wouldn’t rather be reading.
After the death of my father, I began writing letters. Most of them were addressed to him. I described my activities, the events of the day, how lonely I felt, how much I wished he was still alive. I wrote letters to my mother, my uncles, famous people I admired, and other famous people I didn’t admire. Sometimes I actually mailed the letters. Elizabeth George Speare responded to my letter asking for more stories like The Witch of Blackbird Pond. I was stunned and thrilled and carried that letter around until it disintegrated. In the letter she wrote “Keep reading, keep writing, go to school, and learn everything you can. No matter what, make your dreams come true.”
In junior high I started writing a journal. Instead of writing about other people I began writing to myself. The journals were records of my thoughts and feelings, my awkwardness and my confusion. Like the letters to my father, I hid my journals from prying family eyes. The desk in the basement behind the furnace became my space, my fortress, my retreat. I told my younger siblings there was a monster living behind the furnace that would reach out and grab them when they walked by. I told them I had tamed the monster, but he only listened to me and they could only come into the room if I was there. The story worked for a very long time, until I found a more secure hiding place for my writing.
In high school my writing was praised and challenged. My composition teacher called my writing original and amusing. My satires on literary figures were printed in the school literary magazine and applauded. My editorial in the student newspaper got me three days of detention, when I refused to retract my characterization of the administration as fascists. My senior literature teacher accused me of plagiarism. My essay on the character flaws in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, she insisted, could not have been written by a seventeen year old. After extensive and thorough research by the English department the charge was revoked. Mrs. Crane never acknowledged her mistake nor apologized. .
Meanwhile, I read Marx’s The Communist Manifesto, I found a copy of Mao’s Little Red Book (Quotations of Chairman Mao) in the bookstore and promptly bought it. I read Emma Goldman’s Living My Life and exhausted the minimal collection of essays on political theory in the school library. I read Hitler’s Mein Kamf, and reports from the Nuremburg Trials. I researched and read everything I could find on the history of Nazi Germany and wrote a speculative paper on what the world would look like if Hitler had won.
In college I perfected the five paragraph essay. I discovered test questions were usually one of three kinds- sequence, list, or compare and contrast. I found essay questions usually contained all the information I needed to write the essays. In an upper level political science class (I was a political science and history major) in which I rarely attended the lectures and didn’t read any of the assigned books, I got a perfect score on the final exam by rewriting the essay questions. It was my first political disillusionment.
My final year of college I studied English Literature and I graduated with a degree in English Literature to the disappointment of my Political Science advisor. I read literature continuously and voraciously, although not always according to the syllabus. I was entranced by Spencer, hated Milton, wanted to be Blake. I read every novel of George Eliot and Thomas Hardy, and only selected novels of Charles Dickens and Jane Austen. Wordsworth and Coleridge were exceptional, Keats was overblown. In honor of John Donne, I knit my own shroud.
I read English literature and the literature that inspired English Literature. I read Homer, Aristophanes, Cervantes, and Herodotus. I read the Greek myths, Roman myths, European and English histories, and of course the Russian and German masters. My bookshelves swelled and there always seemed to be more to be read.
I wrote bad poetry and short stories with brilliant and misunderstood heroines. I wrote essays and research papers and occasionally a paper for my siblings struggling to graduate from high school. I wrote long letters to friends in colleges all over the country. College was four years of reading and writing; indulging in the written, soaking in words and ideas without any thought for what would come next.
Upon graduating, I spent six months reading Doonesbury comics and Richard Brautigan.
After graduating from college I moved around. There were seven changes of address in eight years. My books, a heavy and extensive collection, moved with me. I was never without a book, although there were times I wasn’t reading at all. My reading choices came in swaths of topics. There was the year of the Lost Generation. While my friends were busy with Kerouac and Ginsberg I was reading Ring Lardner and Fitzgerald. I read Gertrude Stein and everything Hemingway wrote. I decided to read the entire canon of American Literature (left out of the English Literature curriculum at Carleton) so I read Thoreau, Emerson, Whitman, Dickinson, Hawthorne, Dreiser, Lewis, London, Frost, and Sandburg. I never read Faulkner, couldn’t bring myself to open one of his books (still can’t). I read science fiction and fantasy and all the great epic novels of the genre. For a long period I read only the books that I never found on a college course syllabus
My writing started to slip away. I still wrote in my journal, although even that writing was sporadic I wrote letters to friends but less frequently. I still made up stories, elaborate plots and adventures, but didn’t bother to write them down. The stories were serial daydreams, mini-series in my mind, which I could tune into whenever and where ever I wanted.
As I moved further and further from the city; and consequently away from the bookstores and used bookstores, I began reading more popular “trade” books. My reading choices came from the local library and the book displays in local stores. Romances and murder mysteries were easy to find and even easier to read. It was a junk food reading diet and the consequences were less and less interest in writing. It was so much easier to consume than create.
When I finally tired of the easily digestible and empty contents of my reading life I applied to graduate school. It was a scary decision to make. Could I read and retain something more challenging than a Nora Roberts novel? Could I still write a coherent essay? I went back to my bookshelves and began reading from them. I went back to writing; first sentences, then paragraphs, and finally whole pages of my words. For the six months from acceptance into the MALS program to the start of my first class, I read and reread books and articles and wrote and wrote about them. I researched topics, made bibliographies, organized files, all preparation for that first class. Going back to school was the greatest adventure of my life, a second chance to pursue my dreams and goals. If I worked and studied really hard, maybe I could slip through the back door of the MFA Creative Writing program.
I live, and have lived for the past twenty-five years in a landscape that is open and expansive. It does not compare to the vast landscape of topics, interests, theories, and authors I found available to me in graduate school. It was a literary wilderness and I had the opportunity to explore and discover in the company of others equally curious.
I don’t think it is a surprise or coincidence that the landscape where I live and the landscape of graduate studies overlapped in the last ten years of my life. Perhaps it was the melding of these two worlds- the physical and the intellectual- that brought me to this thesis project.
Certain authors and books appeared early in my travels through the MALS program. I joked to others as I read syllabus after syllabus that the MALS program must have a good deal with the publishers of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. These books appeared in many of the book lists of the classes I took. Of course, the reading lists would have been entirely different had I focused on a different topic. A fact I recognize now, but didn’t then. Triggering words for me in the search for classes were “Landscape, environment, wilderness, journey, and memoir.”
And so began five year study of the literature of place and landscape and people living within or as part of their landscape. I revisited the essays of Wendell Berry, and Aldo Leopold. I was introduced to a huge number of “environmental” writers including Terry Tempest Williams, Rick Bass, Paul Gruchow, Rebecca Solnit, Gretel Erhlich, and David Gessner. I welcomed the opportunity to reread and reconsider the works of Edward Abbey, Henry David Thoreau while expanding my list of favorite authors to include Barbara Hurd and Bill Holm. My book shelves swelled with titles and tomes of authors I wanted to read, planned to read and eventually did read.
My writing, essays and response papers, began to focus more and more on my environment. I found two sentences in Henry David Thoreau’s essay Walking that gave me direction, a path to follow.
There is in fact a sort of harmony discoverable between the capabilities of the landscape within a circle of ten miles radius, or the limits of an afternoon walk, and the threescore years and ten of human life. It will never become quite familiar to you.
The quotation is still pinned to my bulletin board. It is pinned there among the photographs my partner has taken over the years. Dennis’ revived interest in photography began shortly after I returned to school. His photographs, local vistas and panoramas, helped solidify my interest in the local landscape. On those first trips to explore the area near our home, I would bring my books to read while Dennis was out photographing the rivers, creeks, and valleys. Many of the books I would read would be accounts of an individual learning and interpreting the landscape around him. These memoirs of place often covered the same topics and discoveries set in different locations. Like the typewriter scene with my father it clicked that I could write something similar.
So I did. The Ravine was published in the 2007 Spring edition of Confluence.
That same spring I began my creative writing journey in the MFA program. I started with the conviction that I was a writer of creative nonfiction. Looking back, this reminds me of my earlier conviction that I was to be a political scientist, even though I had no idea what a political scientist actually did. Starting the MFA program, despite five years of reading essays, memoirs, and first person accounts, I was still not sure what creative nonfiction writing entailed.
I planned to sample all the genres but concentrate on the creative nonfiction genre. For my first few classes I held steady to my plan. I wrote essays, attempted short stories, forced out brief poems, and continued to read from the long list of authors classified as “nature writers.” I began to consider “craft” and “routine” and wondered how and if I could develop either.
Nearly fifty years of reading and writing in a random and whimsical manner is hard to correct. There were many times I considered quitting. The dedication and ability of my fellow student writers was both inspiring and intimidating. Could I write like that? Would I ever have insights like those? Whose time was I really wasting in this program?
After the Groundings in Fiction class I took I was convinced I didn’t want or have the ability to write fiction. The whole story arc and character development and requisite action just didn’t seem to fit my writing style. I wrote in a more introspective, contemplative manner. My writing was descriptive, questing, more meditation than motivation.
I danced around in creative nonfiction without actually taking the required groundings course until just before I began working on this thesis. I reasoned it was better to have the concepts and ideas fresh when I started. I would get all the other required courses and electives out of the way before concentrating on serious writing.
Cancelling out fiction and delaying creative nonfiction left poetry and elective courses. Enticing titles like “Form and Vision,” and “Inspired by the Visual” caught my eye and my imagination. “Portraits” and “Transitions” lured me in along with “Groundings in Poetry “and finally, “Advanced Poetry.”
I found myself reading more poetry than I had read since college. I was introduced to contemporary poets I would never have read without the class reading list. My bookshelves swelled some more. Dennis built me a tall and wide bookcase just for the poetry. I filled it. Poems by Dorianne Laux, Lisel Mueller, Bill Holm, Richard Jarrette, Ted Kooser, and Zbigniew Herbert hang from my bulletin board. On the bookshelves, Stephen Dobyns stands next to Emily Dickinson, William Blake leans on Robert Bly, Louis Jenkins is shoulder to shoulder with Deborah Keenan and Walt Whitman props up Robert Walser. I delight in the dissonance and variety.
As I write this, with eight plus inches of snow on the ground marked with the dark distinct shadows of full sunshine outside, and the window next to my desk open, I hear the tentative singular sounds of a bird. A song unheard for months, from a bird unseen in the tree branches so still in the sunshine. An appeal to the oblivious.
I found I enjoyed reading poetry. I liked its brevity, its conciseness. I liked writing a poem about the relevance of walking to the mailbox every day. I liked not having to explain, defend, or analyze as I wrote. I especially liked that I could enjoy reading or writing a poem without understanding why or what it meant. I feared I was becoming a poet.
I also worried about structure, my lack of discipline, why my writing seemed so random. I was reading and writing, meeting assigned deadlines, producing decent work, but I characterized my writing as “playing” and I was unable to settle into a routine. Everything seemed so random, as if I stumbled upon a poem or essay by chance. Attempts at conformity were restrictive and deadening. I was a fraud. I was the actor playing the writer. I was certain the make believe world would come tumbling down in shambles when the time came to do the thesis work.
Then in January, during the semester break, I sat down at my computer and wrote a short story. Then the short story began feeling like it wanted to be a novel. I was suddenly, inexplicably writing a novel. It was fun. It was engaging. I am still working on it. I haven’t lost interest. I haven’t abandoned the writing. I don’t know where it came from, the idea, the desire to write, but I am going with it. I am curious to see where it leads.
I still resist using form as a starting point of writing. While I am told form can be freeing, allowing the writer to concentrate on the words, and intentions of the poem or prose piece, I find myself blocked as if in a maze with no visible exit. I like the white space open, untrammeled. I want to wander in my writing, whether it was poetry or prose.
Poetry or prose, my writing works best in small sections, individual moments, and stilled scenes. I like the white space around the individual pieces even if they comprise a longer essay. I look to the novels Mink River by Brian Doyle and When to Go into the Water by Larry Sutin, and to the short essays or prose poems by Michael Martone in Racing in Place and Larry Sutin’s A Postcard Memoir. I like to establish patterns with the pieces. Aspects of form like repetition, stanza, list, and chronology exist in my writing. I use the elements of form to unify longer pieces. In the debate over form and content I am firmly on the side of content determining form.
In poetry classes and those final creative nonfiction classes- lyric essay and groundings in creative nonfiction- I discovered I did have a writing routine. I found a way to craft my writing. My routine is not one listed in the advised writing routines guides. I don’t write a page a day, or until I find a place in the manuscript where I know I can begin again the next day. I don’t write for a certain period of time or at a certain time. I don’t always write in silence alone in my room or always write in a coffee shop or other public place.
I have discovered I can’t easily write on demand. Those in-class writing exercises instructors are so fond of left me frustrated and panicked. I don’t like music or background distractions when I write. I am not in favor of writing from a prompt. Sometimes I welcome distractions, sometimes not.
I write in spurts. I will write and write and write until I am exhausted. I might not write for days or weeks. I like to rehearse my writing in my head before writing it down. I will mull over, outline, edit, and occasionally write an essay without ever putting it down on the paper. Like the stories I used to entertain myself with, sometimes there is just as much satisfaction doing all the work in my mind and leaving it there. When I do write something down it usually means I want to share it.
As I mentioned earlier I see writing as a meditation. I become completely involved in the process of writing, sometimes getting to the point (like now) of simply enjoying the words appearing on the screen and the sensation of touching the keys with my fingertips. If I begin to struggle to write I will stop. I won’t force the words.
My writing guidelines are:
1. Write concisely.
2. Write precisely.
3. Write declaratively.
4. Write to an audience.
5. Write to be heard.
6. No prevarication.
7. Know when and where to end.
8. If you get lost, embrace it.
9. Don’t be cruel, flip or snarky.
10. Write joyful and proud.
In one of the first sessions of the core class in my MFA program I was handed a page of poems. One of the poems was The Way It Is by William Stafford. It is a little poem, only eleven lines long. That night when I got home I cut that poem away from the rest of the poems pasted on the page. I pinned The Way It Is to the bulletin board over my desk. That is where it is today.
This little poem has framed my journey through the MFA program. I include it everywhere I can, give it to anyone willing to accept it.
The Way It IsThere is a thread you follow. It goes among things that change. But it doesn’t change. People wonder about things you are pursuing. You have to explain about the thread. But it is hard for others to see. While you hold it you can’t get lost. Tragedies happen; people get hurt or die; and you suffer and grow old. Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding. You don’t ever let go of the thread.
I have many threads in my life. I have my love of reading. There is my writing. I like to make things. I prefer solitude to crowds, country to city, and winter to summer. I value my place in the world. These threads haven’t changed. Or maybe they comprise one big thick thread. Multi-colored and multi fibered, I hope. All I know for sure is that the thread is lifelong.I am a reader. I am a writer. I won’t ever let go.
Some writings that didn’t make the thesis cut.Sponge and Stone Some times I am sponge Rain soaks into me Waves swirl through me I grow saturated. Some times I am stone Rain runs over me Waves pound at me I remain impervious. Mates In dark corners, forgotten and forlorn, The singles, crumpled and left to mourn, Huddle humbled, to consider their fates And ponder the misfortunes of their mates- The hardly heeled and thinly soled The saggy cuffed and holey toed Useless without old fashioned darning Simply tossed without warning, Somewhere between the bedroom floor And the opened dryer door, Left behind and left in doubt, By mates that went walk about. The singles grumble in their pile Growing crowded all the while Till sudden inspiration flares To match the singles into pairs. Unabashed when fashion mocks Singles once more are socks.
Sky LinesVariable as wind rushing, stretching, churning swirling water vapor invisible words read between lines striations of clouds memories, stories, histories time spread out on the flat horizon infinite, ephemeral June 15, 2011
chased the sunset through looming storms
turned around to follow the full moon
among thunder remnants all the way home
May 4, 2011
Turn on the light and the world goes neon- green!
The second day of sunshine so far this month. Amazing to think it could keep going, sunshine, sunshine, sunshine.
Probably being overly optimistic- we could use (ha ha!) some rain every once in a while.
Makes me think there is some malevolent being somewhere playing with our collective regional minds-
“They complain about cold, they complain about snow, well. let’s see how they like six months of hot and dry. That will teach them!”
That old “be careful what you wish for” adage.
But that light, from the east, that is not Juliet, well that is a fine thing and welcome. Just don’t get used to it.
Be accepting, be a duck, Quack, Quack.
November 19, 2010
The red dot on the horizon is first visible as I crest the small rise in the road. I walk toward the dot, sometimes pushing against gusting southern winds that whip through corn stalked fields, shredding and slashing dried leaf blades. Other times, western based squalls hurl shards of glassy ice across the sky and barren fields. The snow accumulates as frozen surf in the shallow ditch borders of the road. Or there may be a soft saturated wall of clinging heat enclosing everything, weighing down every step, pressing against every breath.
I continue on, steady pacing; focused on the red dot growing incrementally larger until I reach the top of the last hill. At the junction of gravel and tar I pause and view my goal across the blacktop; the battered silver gray mailbox slightly askew on the thick wooden post.
I listen through the wind for the noise of a car engine; the rising whine of acceleration that denotes a vehicle climbing the backside of the hill where the mailbox stands at the crest. I listen for the crows perched on the power lines, their caws warning of some unseen, undetected danger. I watch the starlings swoop and loop, an amoeba shaped flock twisting and twirling in mindless choreography. Sometimes I see the rising dust plume of the truck rattling down the gravel road half a mile away.
The dot is an octagonal sign on a rusty metal stake. Stop.
Heading home again, down the gravel road, down the dip in the road, another sign, square and yellow, on point, on a shorter metal stake. I look across fields frozen in undulating curves to the horizon. Green swells, brown and black parallel scars, ragged tree lines in the distance, my eyes pick through the variations. Above, the vastness of the sky highlighted with tumbling streaks of white clouds, or glowing with the insistent oranges of sunset, or rumbling and tossing with the looming thunderclouds. I walk past the sign, musing on its cautionary message. Dead End.
Why is there no green sign? No encouragement to proceed? Star shaped, or oval, maybe a spinning globe, a swirling rainbow, the northern lights? Green is the color of photosynthesis, growth, life. Green is the color of environment, ecology, living. Do we not need a sign to tell us to continue, keep moving? Breathe. Live. Go.
November 4, 2010
A bird shat on the big green coat.
A bird shat on the big green coat. Since I was in the big green coat at the time, it could be said the bird shat on me. The bird instinctually letting go meant me no disrespect. So I did not flip the bird the bird for letting go while above the big green coat. Instead, I walked to the mailbox, picked up the mail, and returned to the house. Inside I wiped the bird shit from the big green coat and hung the coat in the closet until tomorrow. I won’t ever know where the bird went after letting go on the big green coat.
10/20/2010 2010/10/20 20/10/2010
Dry fall wind
Bright metal insects
gather grain, spit dust
hum through the twilight
head home with their
orange tails wagging.
I dig grit from eyes, ears,
face wind stung and red,
nose caked and dry.
Iwatch the harvest moon rise
with jupiter tethered below.
Dry fall wind blows away clouds
and denies settling rain.
Dry fall wind strips the trees and
tumbles yellow leaves across
stubbled brown fields.
Stillness before the Storm
Four days of rain steams the air. Three goldfinches perch in the tree. On the ground two squirrels watch. Pigeons on the roof add melancholy coos. A woodpecker adds staccato contrast. Chipmunks scurry near their burrow doors. The sky threatens; more rain. All scatter, anticipating precipitation.
May 12, 2010
Landscape Interventions Are Never Permanent
Ephemeral. Fleeting, delicate flower, blooming before the woodland canopy shades the light. A life cycle measured in days, weeks, some years not at all. Transitory.
I carve turns down the slope of County Road E as if I were skiing not driving. I glance toward the steep embankment on my right. I am looking for the flashes of white, trilliums blooming, the small patches of violet blue, blooming violets, signs of the ephemerals.
Signs. Announcements, notices, road names, directions. See, read, know.
At the bottom of the hill there is a cluster of road signs.
RUSTIC ROAD. MAIDEN ROCK ROD AND GUN CLUB.
STREAM RESTORATION PROJECT 2008-2009.
NATURE CONSERVANCY PROPERTY
I turn right onto the narrow gravel road. The steep hillside remains on my right side. To the left the valley opens up, the twisting and winding channels of spring fed Pine Creek carving up the field of young quack grass.
Spring. Come into being, season of first growth, where water wells up from the ground, resilience.
Along the edge of the road about a half mile from the intersection there is a small pool, spring fed and filled with vivid deep green watercress. The pool is not deep or large; the water is clear, numbing cold, and for years considered the best drinking water in the county. A culvert, under the road, channels the spring water into the creek.
Across from the spring is a small parking area, bulldozed flat by the heavy equipment used for the restoration project. Deep ruts are still visible in the greening field. I park my car. If I am to find the flowers it will be walking, slowly, carefully, watching, paying attention to the thick carpet of greens. A bent weathered sign informs me the Land Trust manages this property, and I am a welcomed guest.
Attention. Look, listen, scent, feel, taste. Discover, test, experience, attend. Witness.
I first look to the stream banks. Barren carved and manufactured mud and limestone embankments built to enhance and grow the trout population in the stream provide no place for flowers. I look next along the hillside, near the spring, with the rotting tree trunk askew across the edge of the pond, the foot prints of deer and raccoons in the sandy mud edges.
WOOD ANEMONE DUTCHMAN’S BREECHES
SWEET WHITE and CANADA VIOLETS
YELLOW WOOD SORREL LARGE FLOWERED BELLWORT
Beauty. Day-Glo moss on the dead tree fallen into the spring pool, water leaf’s spotted leaves unfolding along the muddy bank, may apple umbrellas protecting pale white rosettes, two robins, a red winged blackbird, and a rabbit.
It’s too early for trillium blooms, the narrow green leaves expanding in the leaf litter. Then I see a white spear sheathed in pale green, just above the round lobed leaf shield. On the hillside among the other flowers and greening brambles there is only one. Bloodroot.
Roots. Routes, descriptions, depictions, words, art, meaning, life, significance. Big, little, close, deep, now, never, soon, gone.
I imagine making a boat from my notebook; tied shut with vines, a goose feather sail. I set the boat in the pool near the spring. I watch it drift away, down the creek toward the river. On a page near the center of the notebook is written, “I who two-five-three name tongue not eye”.
Landscape Interventions are never permanent.
March 27, 2010
One quarter mile each way, six days a week, she walks to the mailbox. Following her, along the gravel road, a dog, large, brindled, and old. The postal service wants to deliver mail one less day each week. She wonders what she will do on the day of no delivery. The dog just follows behind her.
A Matchbook Story I wrote on a whim one day. The requirements- a story that fits on a matchbook, less than 300 characters. Delivery is pick of the week for March 25, 2010. http://matchbookstory.blogspot.com/
Here’s another I am working on:
We don’t exist, he said rattling the map. How? She asked darning his dirty sock. We are not on the map. We don’t exist if we are not on the map? Everything is on the map. Except us. Exactly. Give me your other sock. Aren’t you scared? Just put us on the map. Where? Anywhere you like would be fine.
January 30, 2010
Space on my bookshelves has gotten tight. Another instance showing the infinite possibility of books and the finite limits of shelf space. With this in mind, I have developed a three tier system for judging books I read.
- The books I think have some intrinsic value-content, form, entertainment or educational interest- will earn a place on the bookshelf. These are the books I want on hand when someone asks, “what do you suggest I read about this…” This category of books is based on personal taste only, although I will attempt to provide reasonable arguments for these decisions.
- Books of the categories the pedantic, the canonic, and innovative near misses will be delegated to the archives shelves housed in the sewing room. They will be accessible, but not immediately so. These books are the obligatory tomes that I have been convinced should be part of a personal literary library. (When the sewing room shelves are filled, the excess are boxed and placed in storage closets.) Joyce’s Ulysses is in box somewhere- I read it, but really, how many people actually read it more than once? Jamaica Kincaid is in the sewing room, two books, only because my opinion of her writing seems to be in the minority. I could be wrong, convince me.
- Books that can’t hold my interest, are badly written, or with a premise that is not sustained will go into the book bag. Book bag books will be turned into the used bookstores or donated to the library. Again, personal taste is the deciding factor. The last book to go in the book bag was Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol; a disappointing hack job that left a bad taste in my mind. In every load of coal there are a few clinkers.
With this system in mind, I have a few books, recently read, to categorize.
Bluetts by Maggie Nelson is a series of prose poems, journal entries, factoids, and statements that relate to the color blue. The form is fascinating, 240 individual entries tied to the theme of blueness, although some of the connections seem very tenuous. Nelson refers to the idea that she has been working on this book for years without writing a word. Bluetts has the look and feel of research notes from the beginning of a project gathered together and shuffled to form a braided essay.
Blue topics include depression, rejection, injury, philosophy, obsession, and religion. References are made to poets, philosophers, and artists. The brief passages can be appreciated individually and as integers of a larger unit. The essay holds together, although there are sections in the center where the form bogs down. The best parts of the essay are the beginning and the ending sections. I’d be inclined, as an editor, to cut out about 50 of the entries, some which are repetitious, obscure, or easily incorporated into other entries. It sometimes seemed like Nelson was more invested in the sheer number of entries she had made and not their substance.
Reading Bluetts I was most interested in the format choices Nelson made. It is easy to see how this form could be used (has been used) for any topic with seemingly disparate associations. The topic, blue and blueness, was of secondary concern to me. While the entries themselves were well written, instructive and entertaining, I spent most of my time reading for connections between entries, separating and reweaving the braided bits, and discovering “how she did that.”
Bluetts has a place on my bookshelf, not for its content, but for its form. I would use Bluetts to illustrate a well crafted braided-list-hybrid essay. At least I would, until I find one with more compelling content.
Drowned Boy by Jerry Gabriel is a collection of short stories linked through two characters, two brothers, and their trials and adventures in the town of Moraine, Ohio.
I don’t read much fiction, and I rarely read short stories. The whole premise of a short story frustrates me. About the time, I am invested in the characters and plot of a short story, it ends, either abruptly or trailing off into nothing. Gabriel solves this problem for me, by linking the stories with both characters and location. While each story is complete and stands alone, as part of a collection each adds to the depth and intensity of the larger story of a boy (Nate) growing up in small dying town.
Andrea Barret, in her introduction to this collection, uses the words spare, sturdy, slow and careful to describe Gabriel’s writing. I would add precise, bare, and unemotional. These are dull stark stories of growing up. They are delivered without sentimentality or outrage. They are stories of the inevitable and as such, they resonate in their ordinariness. The title novella (the longest story in the collection) is almost painful to read. Its characters seem trapped in a bleak and directionless situation and the one sliver of potential redemption is briefly suggested only at the end of the story.
Probably the most compelling thing about this collection of stories is the tenuous presence of hope in each of the stories. Somehow, despite the agonizing commonality of the characters and plots, these stories are not depressing. Gabriel somehow manages to insert just the tiniest spark of personality and possibility into each story.
Drowned Boy has a place on my bookshelf. It is one of a very few collections of short stories to make it there. I’ll be looking for more from Jerry Gabriel in the future. Everyone should read Drowned Boy, if only to reconnect with the reality of the ordinary.
Can Poetry Save the Earth? I don’t know. It seems lately everybody and everything is trying to save the earth, the planet, nature, and/ or the environment. If poetry can, more power to it.
John Felstiner seems to think poets have been trying to save the earth all along. His Field Guide to Nature Poems presents poems from well known sources including the bible, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Coleridge and Whitman. There are also essays on modern poets- Gary Snyder, Derek Walcott, May Swenson and Maxine Kumin- later in the book, but so far I am stuck with the canonical nature poets. (Strangely, Wendell Berry and his poetry are not included in the book. Is Berry too agricultural, not wild enough, too multi-genres?)
I have only read a few of these short essays on poetry and poetical language, and I am impressed with the clarity of Felstiner’s explication. Simply put, Felstiner’s essays show me how the poets use natural phenomenon as metaphor for human thought or behavior. I can get that. And he does it without bombarding me with poetic terminology and critical jargon. I like that.
If nothing else the book answers my question; who and where are all the nature poets? I am still not convinced that poetry alone can save the earth, but with this book Felstiner does a good job of convincing me that those obscure lofty poets I was forced to read in lit classes were interested in joining, and involved in, the fight. This book gets a prominent place on the bookshelf. I can envision reaching for it repeatedly and often.
January 24, 2010
The warming weather has creatures stirring in the yard. The demented cardinal is back, attacking the kitchen window with his unwavering determination. The rabbits now congregate under the bird feeder in the morning, showing no anxiety about the big dog or the persons living in the house less than ten feet away. The deer, especially two yearlings, no longer hesitate to feed from the crabapple tree, in the middle of the yard, in the middle of the day. Squirrels are awake again, and moving around in the trees. Saturday morning I looked out the window and saw one cardinal, two rabbits, three blue jays, and a handful of chickadees at the bird feeder.
That afternoon as I was walking up the driveway, on the way to the mailbox, with Macarthur trailing behind, it was no surprise to see a bulbous gray shape waddling slowly across the snow under the apple trees. It was a groggy possum on his way for a late lunch of frozen apples. Of course the dog, usually blind to anything more than three feet away from him, sighted, or more likely scented, the possum.
No amount of shouting No! on my part could stop the big canine hunter from his slow moving quarry. It only took seconds and across Macarthur’s lower jaw the possum was draped , pointy pink snout on one side, skinny hairless tail on the other.
It was one of those unnecessary acts of instinct; dog and prey doing what dog and prey do naturally. I should have just kept walking, gone to the mailbox and forgot about the incident. But the possum, obviously the victim of unfortunate circumstances deserved some rescue attempt, or so I thought.
Stern commands of “drop it” were ignored. Macarthur at his best is not about to be hindered by my demands. The dog-human relationship at our house is and always has been one of reluctant compromise. This time Macarthur had the advantage and he knew it. I started yelling, he started chomping on the hapless, limp possum.
I tried using parallel logic with the dog. No possum in the house is a well established rule around here. No possum at the mailbox might be stretching that rule, but worth a try.
Macarthur didn’t accept my reasoning. He’d drop the possum, But every time I walked away, toward the mailbox, Macarthur picked up the possum and started following me, limp, motionless possum swinging from side to side as he walked. Occasionally Macarthur would trip over the trailing possum tail.
The possum did nothing. He did not struggle, squirm, or in any way attempt to alter his situation. Macarthur would drop him on the ground and the possum would lie there curled and stiff. Macarthur would pick him up again, the possum would droop.
I was not going to get the possum from Macarthur. I was not going to lure Macarthur away from the possum thereby allowing the possum to escape. I was probably causing more harm to the possum, should it still be alive, with every drop, pick up, and carry Macarthur performed.
So we went to the mailbox, all three of us. It was a short circus parade through the countryside. Me, the ever optimistic ring leader in my big green coat led the way. About twenty paces behind me the slobbered silvery possum hanging from the mouth of the elderly mastiff mutt swayed back and forth with every stiff jointed step of the dog.
It was a quarter mile out and a quarter mile back. The mail was an advertising flyer and a bill. The wind was from the south, sharp and cold across the fields. We just kept walking, down the center of the gravel road with its patches of melting ice and drifting corn snow.
As we walked down the road, I tried shaming Macarthur into giving up the possum carcass. I called him a possum killer. I told him it was wrong to kill an innocent, mind your own business creature. I told him he hadn’t given the possum a chance, taking advantage of his sleepy slow state. My monologue of humiliation was ignored.
When we got to the back door of the house Macarthur continued around the side of the house and disappeared. I had hoped he would drop the possum on the steps and follow me into the house. He was obviously not finished with his possum prize.
Inside, I watched through the office window as he dug through the crust of the snow along the edge of the house, banging the possum against the house a few times. He did not put the possum down while he dug. When he was satisfied with the cache he had created he dropped, rolled, then stuffed the possum in hole in the leaf mulched flower bed.
After securing his possum in the leaves, Macarthur walked back to the door, and barked to signal he wanted inside. When I opened the door for him he walked by me, up the sunroom steps. He stopped to eat from his food dish, drank some water, and then curled up on the kitchen rug and began snoring.
With the possum safely stowed, he lost all interest in it.
I could not forget about it. I needed to know if the possum was alive or dead. Alive, I wanted it away from the place Macarthur had buried it, to insure it remained that way. If dead I wanted it away from the house. I knew what happened with the carcasses of Macarthur’s hunting prizes, which he usually forgot about until they started to thaw, decompose, and smell. Moving a dead possum, frozen and odorless, to the woods was much easier to accomplish.
After about an hour I left Macarthur snoring on his rug in the kitchen and I went outside to the flower bed where the possum had been interred. In the undisturbed snow around the flower bed were small hand-like tracks, with a thin line running between them. They went around the house, past the workshop and disappeared beneath one of the big maples.
After traveling a half mile in the dog’s mouth, being dropped several times, shaken a few times, and chomped around the middle more times than would be considered good for a possum, the creature had gotten up and walked away.
When I told Dennis about the possum adventure, he nodded. He said the possum was doing what a possum does; playing possum.
The dumpy looking, slow moving, dull witted animal was smart enough not to fight or resist the big predatory delusional dog. Instead, it went limp, passively waiting for the aggressor to lose interest. Then it walked away, back to its nest or den. It was a little battered, a little slobbered, but it had survived. It lived to see another day.
Passive resistance- an effective survival strategy and worth considering more often.
January 19, 2010
Let the warm up commence
There are clothing optional mornings when lingering in my robe and bare feet seems comfortable, natural. Then there are mornings like this one where the cold breeze sweeping across the floor from the sunroom chills my feet almost instantaneously. When I wonder why we didn’t put in the “in floor heating” in the sunroom and whether we should consider it for the kitchen. When standing in front of the heat register by the kitchen counter as I warm up yesterday’s coffee in the microwave is painful- the air pushing across my feet cool instead of warm.
Abandoning the coffee I retreat to the bedroom and into layers of clothing.
Then it is time to fire up the wood burning stoves. One in the living room and the cookstove in the kitchen. Dennis has gone out in the pre sunrise cold to photograph and when he returns he will be chilled, shivering, and seeking warmth. The radiant heat of the wood stoves could lure his heat seeking hands away from their slide under my shirt for contact with warm flesh. The shivery alternative sends me to the woodbox for fire lighting supplies.
Fire; wood pulp, air, and a spark. That’s all that is needed. The living room stove is full of ashes, and I shovel them into the ash bucket, reserving in the firebox the few remaining coals from last night’s fire. As I crumple the local and regional newspapers gathered from the offices of the county building where Dennis works, my eyes catch phrases and headlines.
Someone has data proving farmers in Iowa with more than high school educations are more prone to harvest time accidents because they think they know more. Think they know more! I imagine agricultural schools across Iowa closing for safety concerns. Knowing less keeps you safe. The best farmers are the ones with the least education- happy peasants. That story burns.
A snowy owl was seen on the ice near Stockholm. A check of the paper date shows it was last year, Christmas. Another story I recently read reported a cougar traveling through the area. I consider for a moment the possibility the large tracks across the front yard are cougar tracks. I know it’s unlikely, the animal generally staying away from humans and their habitations. Still I argue, there is enough wildlife in the yard and surrounding woods to lure a hungry cougar. I review the possibility- access by ravine to Little Plum Creek and the narrow valleys that open out into the Chippewa River and the Wildlife preserve where the smart cougar would go. They figure the owl was starving. Seeking food and warmth, doing what has to be done. Food might motivate a cougar up this way.
Over the layer of newspaper crumples I place small pieces of dry wood, pyramiding them like I learned from childhood campouts. The wooden match scratched across the sandpaper surface of the match box provides the spark. Fire! Bright yellow white flames that flash in the morning shadows. The faint ticking of the metal stove, expanding in the sudden heat. One fire started and I move to the kitchen and another set of headlines, wood pieces and sparks.
For the next hour I move between rooms, back and forth, encouraging flagging fires. If I am unlucky or the chimneys reluctant to draw I will have to start over and over again with paper, wood, and matches.
In the living room as I blow forcefully on the smoldering paper I wonder if the bellows we decided not to buy would be useful right now. With my face in the door of the firebox I think maybe with bellows there would be less smoke stinging my eyes, less ash and soot settling on my face. It is a strange balance between closing dampers and doors and allowing enough air in the fire box for the wood to burn. I jiggle and adjust doors and grates, accessing the fire’s progress toward heating strength.
The kitchen stove catches first, flames forming around the smaller sticks of wood. I know this stove’s idiosyncrasies, how to regulate the air supply, when to shut down the damper. I switch to operating the gas stove for the heating of water and the making of coffee. The twist of my hand and the burner under the coffee pot flares. Heat, immediate and steady. Coffee, essential to the morning routine, does not wait for the cookstove to reach its potential.
As water heats I add wood to the fires, a small piece here, and another piece there. The woodbox in the living room is nearly empty; t hauling wood is the next chore on the morning list. In the kitchen woodbox there is enough wood for the day, given the weather report and the promise of a warming. Maybe after my next cup of coffee I will go outside and carry in the wood to keep the fires going. Boots, hat, gloves, and the big green coat will keep me warm until the sun moves up in the sky a little further- enough to shine in the windows of the sunroom and warm the air.
Its warming up, the stoves, the house, the day. Feed the dog. Text Dennis: Can you bring home eggs? Pancakes for breakfast. Get out the cast iron griddle to warm on the stove. Text Dennis again: I’ll make bacon too. Sunday morning, let the warming commence.
January 14, 2010
Everyday I pass it on my way to the mailbox. Its been abandoned for years. Once there was a small pasture behind the barn, a horse chewing away at the weeds. The horse left a few years ago. One day it was there, and the next it wasn’t.
The barn gets grayer and more decrepit every year. The roof is rotting and the lean-to leans too much. The silos are still covered, so they will stand, probably long after the barn falls. But inside them there is more decay, dry dusty disintegrating silage- the stuff of brown lung condition.
What you don’t see is the farmhouse that used to be in the center of the copse of maple trees on the other side of the barn. The house was nearly an exact copy of the one I live in, at the other end of the road, in another copse of maple trees. One farmstead per quarter section, on opposite sides and opposite ends of the road that divided them.
In the summer tiger lilies and wild roses fill the ditches along the road. Two grain farmers plant the fields on either side of the road. Some years there is corn growing on both sides of the road and by mid summer I can’t see the barn or the farmyard over the cornstalks.
Sometimes I wish the house was still there and someone lived in it. I think it would be nice to walk over after picking up the mail, knock on the door, and say “hello.” Most times, I just turn around and walk back home, keeping to myself, and my side of the road.