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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Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Vengeful Heart that Drives Moby Dick and The Revenant

Reading my father's copy of Moby Dick, The Limited Edition's Club, 1943. First line: "Call me Ishmael." (#1 of 100 Best First Lines from Novels)

Before the monstrous sperm whale “reaped away Ahab’s leg,” the raging Captain had “dashed at the whale with a six inch blade to reach the fathom deep life of Moby Dick.” So wrote Herman Melville. And ever since that fatal encounter, Ahab had “cherished a wild vindictiveness against the whale…. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down, and then as if his heart had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.”*

Rage. The desire for revenge. “Gnawed within and scorched without," Ahab was intent on "an audacious and supernatural revenge." It drove Captain Ahab some said to madness. And surely Herman Melville inhabited a bit of that madness as he penned the novel now considered an American classic.

The Heart of the Sea Trailer
Not a single reader in 1943 had to scratch his or her head, wondering what motivated the one-legged Captain Ahab to venture back into the sea to hunt down the monster that had torn him asunder. And every decision that vengeful Captain Ahab made on the fateful voyage, which only Ismael survived, was driven by this desire for revenge. Does the new movie The Heart of the Sea adhere to Melville's rendering? No. Director Ron Howard's movie is about the true story that inspired Melville to write Moby Dick and includes a love story not in the novel,  but doubt not, the white whale had a starring if not vengeful and monomaniac role in both.

Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant.
Melville called Ahab's obsession with the white whale "mono-mania," a fitting term for Leonardo DiCaprio's portrayal of mountain man Hugh Glass in The Revenant. Here was a man equally obsessed, not with fear after being ripped to shreds by a sow grizzly, but with the desire for revenge on the men who left him to die.

The Revenant, Michael Punke
I first read Michael Punke's novel (on which the film is based) in 2002 when he asked me if I might be willing to provide a cover quote. His publicist at Carrol & Graf sent me a review copy, I read the first line, and was hooked. "They were abandoning him. The wounded man knew it." Fitzgerald and Bridger robbed him of his possessions and left him to die. "Murdered him, as surely as a knife in the heart or a bullet in the brain. Murdered him, except that he would not die. Would not die, he vowed, because he would live to kill his killers. Hugh Glass pushed himself up and continued his crawl down the banks of the Grand."

Rage. The desire for revenge. A driven man, Hugh Glass tore himself from death's grip again and again. Readers and moviegoers did not need to scratch their heads here either, wondering what emotion was driving the character's actions. We were too busy hanging off the edge of our seats.

When I get back to writing my novel, this is a lesson I want to remember. Lyrical language is not enough to move a story forward. Whatever the desire driving my character's actions, it better be deep-seated, its edges well-honed, and it better not be a knife in the abstract. If I try to reach the reader's heart with a six-inch blade, as Ahab tried to reach "the fathom deep life of Moby Dick," I will surely find myself washed overboard and ill-equipped.

NOTE: For a more humane view of our relationship with whales, I highly suggest Linda Hogan's novel People of the Whale, and the movie Whale Rider about the young New Zealand Maori girl Pai*Melville, Herman, Moby Dick, Copyright 1943, The Limited Editions Club, Inc. Heritage Press, NY, page 195.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Heaven Must Have Sent You

Chuck Pyle, fly fishing  
When musician and song writer Chuck Pyle passed away on November 6th, he'd been fly fishing on a lake close to home, casting out across the water, no doubt watching his line arc and loop as he reached for the shadowed depths. When Chuck didn't come home at dusk, his sweetheart Terri followed her own heart line, that mysterious filament that links two souls as surely as a nylon line links rainbow trout to faithful angler. Near dark, she headed out to the lake to find him…

Chuck Pyle, Lambert wedding
But that story is Terri’s to tell, not mine, and when she’s ready, I know her own poetry will lead her back to the peace and joy that Chuck’s music brought to the world. The story that is mine to tell is of the friendship that evolved between Chuck and Terri and John and me over the last ten years, and of the song that he sang at my daughter’s wedding. 

As my daughter walked arm in arm with her father toward the young cowboy to whom she had already given her heart and was about to commit her future, Chuck's voice floated out over the crowd. “High, wide and handsome... swept her up on his horse…keep her steady, cowgirl...don't let go of the are ready now, girl, never mind the growing pains...”* 

A few moments later, her father sat down and the minister asked the bride and groom to sit apart on either side of him. Beyond them rose the Colorado mountains while Chuck's lyrics floated out across the canyon below. "Worlds out there are waiting, big and wide as the sky, no more hesitating, it's now or never, do or die...."

Bucking Horse by John Gritts
After the wedding, John gave Chuck a print of his pen and ink drawing, "Bucking Horse." That year for Christmas,Terri framed it and they hung it over their bed.  

Lives and stories interweave themselves in mysterious ways. Four years after Chuck sang at my daughter's wedding, my faithful horse Farside left this world suddenly, galloping up the path to the Milky Way. Four days later, Terri went looking for Chuck at the lake. The following day, my daughter gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. I like to imagine that my horse gave Chuck a ride to "the far side" and from that mysterious place, Chuck once again serenaded my daughter, this time as she brought baby Jayde into the world with her husband beside her... keep 'er steady cowgirl, you are ready now girl...

A Cowboy's Christmas Dream
Chuck Pyle
This week, John and I have been listening to some of Chuck's favorite holiday songs on his CD, A Cowboy's Christmas Dream. And we've been reading tributes from musicians around the world. “He was a consummate writer,” musician Jim Ratts is quoted in Denver's Westword Magazine. “He was writing all the time. It wasn’t just songs. It was poems. It was notes. It was letters. It was journals. It was anything that he could do to put words together. I just think he was crafting his art..."

Terri Watson and Chuck Pyle, Sitka, Alaska
Chuck was not only crafting his art, he was crafting the way his admirers might view the world. Affectionately known as the Zen Cowboy, he rode that "trail of inspiration" on a spiritual quest that he shared with all of us. And at the heart of that quest, was Terri. He did not ride that trail alone, yet her trail now is a solitary one, the lonely journey grief-filled. 

Terri Watson,
photo by Chuck Pyle
I wish now that during all those times I had thanked Chuck for his music, that I had also thanked Terri. Theirs was not solely a partnership of love, it was also an artistic partnership. Perhaps it's not too late to say, "Thank you, Terri, for riding alongside Chuck, for keeping 'er steady." In Chuck's words, Heaven must have sent you...

John Gritts and Page Lambert
And thank you, John, for walking alongside me as I travel this literary path, trying to put those words together, trying to craft my art. I would sing to you, if I could. Instead, let's put Chuck's CD Romancing the Moment in the stereo and dance to I found a dream, and the dream was you... 

Note: Donations may be made to the Chuck Pyle Memorial Fund, P.O Box 726, Palmer Lake, CO 80133. *"Keep 'er steady" song lyrics from the CD Higher Ground--Songs of Colorado, copyright Chuck Pyle, used with permission.

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.