A blog for those who desire a more creative relationship with the natural world.


"Your recent blog about the tender return of your loved ones to the earth was moving, graceful in words and inspiration. Your words always come from the heart and intellect. A rare and insightful combination." Rolland Smith, former news anchor for WCBS-TV in New York, recipient of 11 Emmy Awards

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Wednesday, November 4, 2015

If I were to write a novel....

Last night Farside was lifted from the world of the seen, into the world of the unseen. I did not awaken yesterday sensing that the day would be filled with heartrending decisions. I did not envision holding Farside’s proud Arab head in my arms, stroking his neck, running my hands along the length of his still body. Nor did I know when I awoke yesterday that my corral friends, Farside’s human herd, would gather around us during a twelve-hour vigil, or that Dominica, the big white warmblood who has been Farside’s closest companion for seven years, would come to touch noses and bid him adieu. In the end, five women were with Farside and me—offering strength, solace, prayer. “You were his life blessing, Page,” Sheri said. “Send him to the love and light.”  

Farside and Tripp, Wyoming
Before Farside came to live here with me in these green mountain pastures, he and Sheri traveled over 4000 competitive trail miles together—in Utah, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico.  In the last few years, Farside and Tripp, Sheri’s endurance horse, traveled to Wyoming for our annual Literature & Landscape of the Horse Retreat, sharing adventures in the river bottom country of the Medicine Bow Mountains.  Last spring, Sheri’s friends gathered around her as she blessed Tripp to the light, wishing him bon voyage. I envision Tripp there in the world of the unseen now, waiting for Farside…

Farside, Page, Matt
If I were to write a novel about Farside and the life we shared, I would include a chapter about the wedding day he carried me on his back to the mountain meadow where John and our community of friends and family waited, yellow wild flowers braided in his mane and tail, his coat shining from the bath Sheri and my daughter had given him, my son walking alongside us.

Photo by Cyrus McCrimmon
Read Denver Post article
I would want to write about our adventures in Wyoming, and here in Colorado on these mountain trails. Perhaps I would write a scene where Farside gives pony rides during the community’s July 4th picnic. And of course, a scene close to the end of the story out in the pasture with his horse herd and a photographer from The Denver Post clicking away trying to capture the mystery that was Farside.

Farside by Sybil Hill
I would include a scene from last Sunday, when John and I ventured into the high Colorado mountains, crossing the Continental Divide enroute to an art gallery at Beaver Creek. In this scene, we would meet artist Sybil Hill, a painter of iconic horses, and she would give to me a portrait of Farside. We would hug and talk about how handsome and gentlemanly Farside was, how he always greeted me with a nicker.  John would tuck the painting safely in the trunk of our car and later, at home, I would carry it from room to room, imagining where we would hang it. The final scene might show me lighting a candle the next night and sitting on the floor beside the painting, as only hours earlier I had knelt beside Farside, cradling his head in my arms.

Yes, if I were to write a novel, I would include all these scenes. And from them would emerge a grand design, a mysterious and destined love, a blessing from the highest hill in that unseen world. Some readers might scoff at the coincidental timing of the events of the last weeks shared by this woman and this horse. But others would recognize the symbolism arising from the synchronicity. They would turn the last page of the book, and slowly—gently—close its covers. And the love would live on.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Squirrels of Inspiration

It’s morning and the October sky is subdued, the early sun obscured by a veil of haze. The house is quiet. I’m alone. The rascally pine squirrel that John trapped last week and set free near a pond three miles away is back – burying pine cones in my flower boxes, carrying pilfered insulation from the crawl space beneath the house to his nest in a nearby ponderosa. Tufts of insulation peak out from uninhabited bird boxes. He’s creative in his choice of winter larders. At dusk, he’ll retreat to curl up in his drey, nose tucked to tail. At dawn, he’ll be back at it again.

Some of the graduate students at the university taking my “Writing Life” class this fall quarter have been discussing what time of the day they’re most creative—dusk or dawn, or late into the midnight hours. For me, like for the squirrel, creativity comes early, like dewdrops on the leaves of a bleeding-heart. Morning hours are hopeful hours, when no idea seems too insignificant, no inspiration too frivolous, no seed of an idea too small.

All summer, I’ve watched the squirrel run back and forth along the top rail of our old wooden fence in the morning, tufts of insulation or sprigs of juniper berries in his mouth. He’s gnawed down my garden’s penstemons and foxglove, blanket flowers and columbines. John offered to trap him again. “Turn him loose in the next county,” I joked. But we won’t. Winter will arrive here on the mountain soon, and I admire how he’s lined his nests. And though I haven’t found it, I also know that somewhere nearby is a well-stocked midden.  Who am I to rob him of these hoarded treasures?

It’s evening now. The sun cast the ponderosas into dark silhouettes before dropping behind the mountains. I wonder if when I wake in the morning, perhaps even at dawn before the squirrel has roused himself from his nest, if hope will come again in the shape of new stories. Will the dreams I've stored in my subconscious serve as fodder for the new day? What creature of the night will leave dewdrops to quench this early morning yearning?

Definition Postscript:
creature (n.)  late 13c., "anything created," also "living being," from Old French creature (Modern French créature), from Late Latin creatura "thing created," from creatus, past participle of Latin creare "create" (see create). 

create (v.)  late 14c., from Latin creatus, past participle of creare "to make, bring forth, produce, beget," related to crescere "arise, grow" (see crescent). Related: Created; creating.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Red Lightning and the Human Heart

“Aim for the absolute version,” editor Tom Jenks advised us during a week-long intensive writing workshop in Denver several years ago.  “Write the story so that anyone can understand it.”  I struggled to understand this advice.  What about the complexities of plot and character?  What about hidden meaning and layered nuances?  Didn’t I want my story to appeal to the sophisticated reader, the reader who sought out intelligent stories?  Surely I didn’t want to write uncomplicated stories that anyone could understand.

And yet, that is exactly what Laura Pritchett did with her novel Red Lightning. I’m not talking simple here; I’m talking uncluttered.  Anyone who has ever known or lost a mother, loved a sister or a brother, given up a child, or regained a piece of lost, fractured heart—anyone who’s own small humanity has shriveled because of large failures—who has ever sought forgiveness—will appreciate Red Lightning for the clarity with which it portrays that universal human experience.

Perhaps a better interpretation of the “absolute version” of a story is the version based on absolute knowledge, on things understood to be true worldwide.  Red Lightning taps into the complex and tangled emotions that are found in almost all mother/daughter/sister relationships.  The beauty of Pritchett’s writing is that she uses lucid prose—clear and unfettered—to convey the shadowy depths of the human heart.

Pellucid:  Adjective 1) allowing the maximum passage of light, as glass; translucent. 2) clear or limpid: pellucid waters. 3) clear in meaning, expression, or style: a pellucid way of writing.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Timothy Egan Comes to Fishtrap

Timothy Egan, Summer Fishtrap Gathering
Photo credit: Sam Traylor, Whitman Intern
"I get afraid sometimes when I've signed a book contract," Seattle author Timothy Egan told the Fishtrap crowd Friday night, "because I start out kind of panicky when I don't know where the story arc is." Pulitzer-prizing winning author of seven award-winning books, including Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis, Egan came to the Summer Fishtrap Gathering at Wallowa Lake, Oregon, to talk to writers who had been immersed in a week of workshops, panels, digital storytelling, and poetry since Monday.

A generous and thoughtful speaker, Egan shared his three-step approach to writing a book. "First, I go out and see if I can find that story arc.  For The Worst Hard Time about the Dust Bowl, I went to places like Texas and Oklahoma and Kansas - places the hardest hit by the worst environmental disaster our country has ever known - and I tried to find people who had lived through it.  I found dozens, but I focused on the story of just seven women."

Earlier that day at Fishtrap, I had flipped through the book's index, looking for references to the Panhandle of Oklahoma, where my daughter and son-in-law live. The women Egan wrote about had been young girls when the nation's "worst hard time" hit. Now, old women bent with age, lines of disaster were etched in their resilient faces. "The earth pushed back," Egan told us, "against the hubris of our nation."

Once Egan begins to understand the arc of a story - the human journey - he begins to research, going into the archives, diving deep into historical documents.  When researching The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America, the heart of the story rose up when Egan read this line in one of Roosevelt's journals, written after Roosevelt lost his wife in childbirth, and later that day, lost his mother. "The  light went out of my life," Roosevelt wrote. "This tragic day changed the course of his life," Egan told us, "and of our nation." Roosevelt entrusts his sister with the care of the infant, and goes West to become a cowboy.  "The West," continued Egan "gave him back his life."

Thus is the power of place.  "You've got to go to the place where the story happened," said Egan of his third step. "Going to the Texas Panhandle, feeling the wind. Come here to this Wallowa Valley," he swung his arm wide, "and you understand the Nez Perce and Chief Joseph."

In a July 17 op-ed for The New York Times, "Heritage and Healing," Egan wrote about his appearance at Fishtrap. "I recently went back to the isolated, alpine hideaway of Joseph, Ore., a little town I’d spent some time in 17 years ago, and was pleased to find a laboratory of hope for small town America... it is a stunning place — set in a cradle of grass and forests in the Wallowa Mountains of eastern Oregon."

Sound like a perfect place for a writer's conference?  Yes, the power of this place was palpable, and no doubt some of the stories and poetry generated at Fishtrap reverberate with this sense of place.  And certainly, Fishtrap reverberated with a sense of appreciation at Timothy Egan's generous storytelling. During a relaxed Q&A session after his keynote, Egan took time to tell us about his latest, favorite book. Anthony Doerr's  All the Light You Cannot See"A novel about the German occupation of Paris in 1940 - a blind French girl and an orphaned German boy - ultimately it's a story about how people, against all odds, try to be good to each other. A remarkable story."

And for all of us at Fishtrap, a remarkable week, giving back to many of us the life we call writing.  Yes, we will remember this place...

Note: Learn more about FISHTRAP: Writing and the West, and the annual Summer Fishtrap Gathering of Writers.