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


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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Small Heart of Things

I love what the title and subtitle of Julian Hoffman's collection of essays, being at home in a beckoning world, imply: 

It is the small heart of nature’s wonders as much as the grand vistas that we should seek. 

In his chapter on Karst country, Julian Hoffman writes, “No streams silver the valleys, no pools or ponds collect snapshots of the sky…I’m alone, and waiting for birds. When they come – singing in the near dark of fledging from the meadows – I record their names and details … The songs always reach me before their forms darken the sky.” 

We humans talk too much and listen too seldom.  I remember standing in a crowd at the edge of Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii in a drenching mist that obscured the glowing red embers spewing into the sky.  Loud, complaining voices made it impossible to hear the volcano. We moved to a far corner of the observation deck and straining, could hear the deep and powerful rumbling.  I closed my eyes and listened – Kilauea was speaking.  Every cell in my body felt the eruption, even though my eyes could not see the fiery glow.  I could feel and hear Kilauea’s labored contractions as this new, fertile soil flowed from her womb.

In The Small Heartof Things, Hoffman asks us to be attentive to details, to still our busyness and wait, to tune into the heart of things with patient senses - smelling, touching, tasting, hearing, watching.  But perhaps the most important sense, and the one we humans too often ignore, is our sense of wonder and awe. 
Note:  Watch Julian's 5-minute, inspiring book trailer

Friday, June 20, 2014

All Fishermen Are Liars: John Gierach and the Soul of Simplicity

“We seem to have a real affection for a beautiful insect that only lives for a single day," John Gierach writes about the mayfly in the opening of his book Sex, Death and Fly-fishing, "and whose only mission is to make love just once.”  My father, a romantic and a fisherman, would have applauded the mayfly's life mission (except for the just once part). 

When Gierach’s new book All Fishermen Are Liars brought him to Denver’s Tattered Cover Bookstore, I wanted to meet him.  I tucked my worn copy of Sex, Death and Fly-fishing into my purse and we headed down the mountain.  Listening to Gierach’s stories would no doubt rekindle memories of fishing the channels of Montana’s Madison River with my father.  One of my father’s greatest thrills was the day he snagged three trout in a single cast after tying on three flies.  No lie.  

Usually, though, my father fished like he wrote—with simple equipment.  A Big Chief yellow pad and a pencil, an old bamboo rod, an old fishing vest with the same set of clippers hanging from it, maybe a few nymphs and wooly worms (or whatever was hatching), the same old creel, same old green net.  But as far as I know, my father had never fished tenkara style, at least not since a boy fishing with stick and string. 

Gierach describes this traditional Japanese method as “the soul of simplicity.”  A light rod, a fixed line attached at the end, a single fly with a simple pattern.  The tenkara purist doesn’t ask in the way of tackle, “How much do I need?” but “How little can I get away with?”

As a writer, I should be asking myself the same thing:  How little can I get away with? How few words? How simple a story? Murky, turbulent water is hard to fish—trout aren’t tempted by what they can’t see.  
Several years ago, in a four-day juried workshop, Tom Jenks, editor of Narrative Magazine, gave us this directive:  “Aim for the absolute version.  Write the story so that anyone can understand it.” Do we really need more than a stick and string?  Can simple yearning be enough?  “I can teach your granddaughter to fish with a tenkara in two minutes,” Gierach quotes a well-known fisherman, “and she’ll catch more than you.”

My father will never be able to fish the Madison with his grandchildren, though I know my new granddaughter Carly will learn to love the wilds of Montana just like I did, and just like her mother and father already do.  After Gierach autographed his new book for me, I pulled the worn copy of Sex, Death and Fly-fishing out of my purse and handed it to him.  “Sign it to my father please,” I asked, “to Loren.

Someday, I’ll give both books to my son, and perhaps someday he’ll pass them on to Carly.  When she reads the inscription she might ask, “Did Grandpa Loren know the man who wrote these?”  I hope Matt tells her that all fishermen know each other - in the ways that matter, at least.  Through the simple feel of river rocks beneath the felt soles of your waders.  Through the tug on the fly at the end of your line forty feet downstream.  Through the stories we tell.  True or not.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Growing Paradise and the Process of Life

Remnants of May 12, 2014 storm
Today, paradise lost seems suddenly found—not so much a place as a process.  Green blades of spring grass thrust themselves through a foot of mountain snow and I fall back in love, all over again, with the process of life.

Matt Lambert with 4-day old Carly Rose
Only a few days ago I held my first grandchild in my arms.  Later, I watched my son cradle her in his arms for hours, enraptured, lost in the fleeting twitch of each newly found and endearing expression. Carly's newborn sleep seemed ripe with discovery.  What’s this? A smile? How pleasurable!  Newborns, the breath of heaven.

Paradise—not a place but a process—the intricate regeneration of hope and desire.  How carefully Carly’s mother grew her, each morsel eaten nourishing the soil in which Carly’s life took root, one eyelash at a time.  Nature makes this growing seem effortless.  Green grass sprouts beneath a blanket of snow and we hurry past, rarely awed. We read a poem so fine it takes our breath away, yet we rarely contemplate the effort expended for each word to find its way onto the page.

Growing Paradise by Ann Filemyr
What an anachronism, in this digital age, to find a hand-bound book of poems like Ann Filemyr's GROWING PARADISE  (LaNana Creek Press, Texas) —each stitch pulled taut by human hand, each illustration painted in vibrant color, each word a seed, each seed a poem, each poem the pulsing poet, laid bare. 
LaNana Creek Press director Charles D. Jones

Books such as these become literal works of art yet how easy it is to forget that the process itself is an art form.  Easy to forget, also, that no matter how lonely and frightening the process of creating is, we never ever create alone. There is sunshine and rain and the grand turning of the seasons, all in cahoots, all dipping their sticky fingers into the great cauldron of creation.

Big Horn Mountains, Wyoming
Driving home to Colorado from Montana after welcoming Carly into the world, we passed herd after herd of cows grazing the spring pastures with their calves.  On the ranch, I used to love watching the older cows take turns babysitting the calves.  When the calves tired of their playful bucking and chasing, they would settle down forming an impromptu nursery, lanky legs curled under them as they napped under the watchful eyes of a few older cows.  The rest of the herd wandered away, grazing far afield until intuition (and full milk bags) drew them back to the fold.  The calves would awaken and leap to their feet, ravenous, alive, eager. 

Fine press tradition of LaNana Creek Press
To be engaged in life is to be a part of this ongoing, never ending process.  It is to see ourselves, and our works of art, in relationship to the world around us—not isolated, not solely the product of our own creative efforts but intricate parts of the greater whole. 

Each of the 19 poems in Ann Filemyr's collection Growing Paradise begins with the image of a fruit and then ventures out into the larger world.  “Peach" begins with these lines...

Near the cliff dwellings in Frijoles Canyon
where the Cochiti lived before Spaniards brought peaches
in the time before she knew what she wanted
she changes
                        water to blood to milk
for the fertile moon has already touched her

The poem ends, asking this question... 

What is this incredible sweet flesh
This tenderness? This delight?
                        We make it ours
in the verb and tongue
of that doing, for she is now
                        bent to birth
breathing every shade of light
from the heart’s dark passage
                        as peach trees
flowering all around her
                        push life

Daughter-in-law Anna Lambert with Carly
And so it is that while we labor with our own private endeavors, the peach trees flower and the grasses grow and paradise is both lost and found.  Inspiration comes to us in our dreams and we tell our stories and in so doing, life regenerates itself.  Sons become fathers and daughters become mothers, and somewhere in between there is the artful coming together of heaven and earth. 

Poet Ann Filemyr
NOTE:  Ann Filemyr, author of GROWING PARADISE (LaNana Creek Press, Nacogdoches,Texas) is currently the Academic Dean at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico.  The poems featured in Growing Paradise are available in Ann's collection The Healer’s DiaryAnn's most recent book Love Enough is available from Red Mountain Press in Santa Fe.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Young Girls with Eagles, When Women Were Birds: Svidensky in Mongolia

Caters News photo of Ashol Pan by Asher Svidensky, used with permission

In the fall of 1998, Taukel Sultan, a member of the Mongolian Parliament, traveled 6,000 miles to visit Wyoming, Mongolia’s Sister Province.  When he arrived in Sundance, my daughter and I went to meet this exotic visitor. "Do you ride horses?” he asked her, his Mongolian interpreter at his side, a few town locals gathered around us.  Her dark eyes lit up.  “Ah,” he smiled, using both his hands to shake hers. “In my country, every year, we hold a horse race for the children!  Six-year-olds race bareback 35 kilometers! You should come see our horse races!” 

He turned his attention back to the small crowd and then suddenly turned back to Sarah.  “Do you drink milk?” he asked.  A little embarrassed, she grinned and nodded.  “Ah,” he smiled again, “our yaks have the fattest milk!  Like your beef cows, our yaks graze the open grasslands and uplands of the mountains.  We have wrestling matches and archery competitions, too!"  

Ashol Pan, cropped from above
Had I seen Asher Svidensky's astounding photos of the Kazakh eagle hunters back then, I surely would have asked him about the young girl Ashol Pan.

After Mr. Taukel left Sundance that day, Sarah and I drove back to the ranch.  Crusted snow covered the hills, lit by a cold blue sky.  A few hundred yards from the house, we saw a bald eagle perched on a small knoll close to the road. A larger, second eagle, probably the female, stood on a half-devoured deer carcass just beyond the knoll.  Crows mulled around, one venturing within a few feet of the carrion but none brave enough to snatch a morsel.  Later, I would hike to the knoll and find downy white breast feathers fluttering between bare ribs.

Sarah Mease photo by Kyla King
Like the women at the Festival of Naadaam in Mongolia, Sarah had learned to handle a bow when she enrolled in the University of Wyoming's 4-H Shooting Sports program.  After she took the Wyoming Hunter Safety Course, she hunted with her father and older brother.  And, like the Mongolian children, she sat a horse like she’d been born to it—which, actually ... she had been.  Years later, she would join a woman's ranch rodeo team in Oklahoma. 

Her brother, a skilled bow hunter, would marry a beautiful young woman who prides herself on clean kill shots and does her share of keeping their freezer stocked with wild game. 

She knows intimately the animals that gave their lives to nourish my soon-to-be-born grandchild.  I am grateful for the relationship that they all share with nature, and especially grateful that my grandchildren will grow up knowing what it is to sleep under the stars in a forest alive in the night - if they're lucky, they might feel the swoop of air from an owl's wing.

When I first saw Asher Svidensky’s photos of Ashol Pan, the young girl eagle hunter of Kazakh, I had just finished reading Terry Tempest William’s book When Women Were Birds.  In the book, Terry creates a mosaic of metaphors about relationships between women and birds, and about the cultural code of silence imposed on females.  Terry’s writing is always striking, but I was particularly struck by this:  "Can you be inside and outside at the same time?" she asks.  "I think this is where I live.  I think this is where most women live." 

Asher Svidensky photo, Caters News
Svidensky’s story about Ashol continues to mesmerize me.  She is the first female to learn this ancient Kazakh tradition.  Traditionally, it is the sons whom the fathers teach.  Svidensky’s photos capture the birth of a new, evolving tradition—and they capture relationship—Ashol’s relationship with the eagle, the relationship they both share with the layers of purple mountains and pink sky, with the jutting rocks and wide open steppes.  It is far more than a thin, leather tether that connects girl to bird. Here, again, is one of his incredible photos.

I hope you will read Svidensky's entire story "Eagle Hunters of Mongolia" and view all his breathtaking pictures. When I sent them to my daughter-in-law, she wrote back, "I have had eagles eat meat from my harvest before and we like to set the heart and liver aside for them."

That reminded me of something I learned from Svidensky's story.   After an eagle hunter has hunted with an eagle for eight years, in the spring time, "the hunter will take his eagle to the mountains, will lay a butchered sheep on one of the cliffs as a farewell present, and he will send his eagle away for the last time. That’s how the Kazakh eagle hunters make sure that the eagles go back to nature and have their own strong newborns, for the sake of future generations. That is the Kazakh tradition’s way of living in harmony with nature."

When Svidensky asked Ashol's father if he would continue teaching his daughter the ancient tradition of hunting with eagles, he said, "I wouldn't dare do it unless she asks me to do it, and if she will? Next year, you will come to the eagle festival and see her riding with the eagle in my place."

Can we be both inside and outside at the same time?  I have no doubt that Ashol's interior life will be rich in ways that perhaps her mother, and grandmother could not have known.  I hope that someday, Ashol will write her story.  "I know this is where writers live," Terry tell us in When Women Were Birds. "Inside to write. Outside to glean."