Last weekend Myron and I went kayaking on the Baraboo River in Wisconsin, which we’d never heard about before, but found by typing “kayaking” and “Wisconsin” into Google. I highly recommend the Baraboo River Rentals, run by a couple of enthusiastic and interesting college students and their grandparents. At first I couldn’t understand why we were driving all the way from Chicago to Wisconsin for this four-hour kayak trip when we could have gone downtown and rented from that place at the mouth of the Chicago River and Lake Michigan, but when we got on the water and it was so calm and quiet–we didn’t meet another soul for hours–I understood that getting into the stillness can dramatically change the experience of being home in the city.
A couple of things stayed with me. The blue heron that kept flying ahead of us, perching on a rock or tree, and then moving on when we caught up, but it almost seemed as if he was waiting for us, looking out for us somehow. And the driver of the shuttle bus who took us to and from the put-in spot. He was in the midst of a master’s degree in rehabilitation studies, he told us, meaning he was looking into alternative ways to help people with depression and people with PTSD, soldiers and victims of anything from rape, to child abuse, to police brutality, cope in ways that dramatically improved the their lives. It seemed so miraculous that a twenty-two year old would devote his life to something like that–flying ahead, perching on a rock or tree, looking out for us somehow.
Today–a writing day, a revision of my book about the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. I’ve been working on this story for fifteen years and I finally think I know what it’s about. On long writing days I move venues every few hours, from dining room to study to family room to coffee shop. Today’s gorgeous weather and my 100-year-old grape made the perfect office.
I’ve been rereading Faulkner–The Sound and the Fury–and some Thomas Bernhard–The Loser. A study in contrasts! Faulkner is stingy with his reader (or that’s how I felt last night as I read in bed), and Bernhard generous, or maybe effusive is a better word, which is how he’s able to unravel something as ineffable as the death of someone you don’t know well:
So many in his circle had already died, he said, so many relatives, friends, acquaintances, none of these deaths ever shocked him, but Glenn’s death dealt him a deadly blow, he pronounced deadly with extraordinary precision. We don’t have to be with a person in order to feel bound to him as to no other, he said. Glenn’s death had hit him very hard, he said, I thought while standing in the inn. Although one could have predicted this death more certainly than any other, that goes without saying, so he said. Nonetheless we still can’t grasp it, we can’t comprehend, can’t grasp it.
Yesterday I pulled six sheets with embedded kelp I collected from the beach where William Blake lived for three years, from 1800 to 1803, on England’s south coast. I’m planning to make a tunnel book using his image of Newton, whose design–particularly the lichen and moss–resembles the kelp.
Rough draft of a block from my project called “Slime.” Kozo, abaca, embedded with seaweed I collected from Watchet, England, and lines from Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner printed on regular typing paper.
Today I pulled some mitsumata sheets, which are drying downstairs in my Oak Park house. Mitsumata is a fiber used in Japanese paper making. The species is also called edgeworthia chrysantha after the 19th-century British writer Maria Edgeworth, whose brother was a botanist and worked for the East India Company. I embedded bits of gorgeous seaweed and kelp I’d collected on the beach at Felpham, a few yards from where William Blake lived and worked for three years. I adore Blake but I never could get very far with Edgeworth.
This article on marine algae has a couple of fascinating ideas: oxygen comes from slime; kelp is not a single plant but a group individuals; there are 7,000 species of algae, and they produce 330 billion tons of oxygen per year.
The photographer Edgar Zippel has produced 100 images of young people from across Europe, including Portugal, Iceland, Italy, Germany, Albania, and England. The portraits are medium close-up. You can see head and torso, with background blurred.
The participants are aged 18-24. They look edgy and unsure, but also full of energy and grit. They are the face of the new Europe, the just-barely adults who will look in the mirror in 20 years having inherited a world. The Museum Europäischer Kulturen in Berlin ran the show in 2014, and now there is a book based on the show.
I’m most interested in Zippel’s use of oral history/ethnography along with the photos. I unfortunately couldn’t find much of the ethnography online, but I read in several reviews that he asked each person three questions: What do you want to do? What are you looking forward to? What are you afraid of? To the last question, one of the participants answered, “I’m not afraid of anything!” which became the title of the exhibition and book. The phrase is probably used ironically, but judging from the handful of images online, I’m not so sure. There’s something of optimism in it, too. Actually, the images communicate a lot of hope.
In fact, what I love about the questions is their thrust, their forward momentum. There is no pastness in them (except maybe the question about being afraid). Even though I’m squarely in middle age, I could feel something ignite, a spark of new, when I read the questions. The images themselves capture the now, the pure, momentary presence of these young people.
I’m drawn again and again to Melody Jue‘s talk about kelp, oceans, and how to think like this magical underwater plant. She says that out of every five breaths we take, four of them are thanks to kelp. And she quotes Sylvia Earle: the planet’s lungs are blue.
Walking alone in the dark. I headed into town instead of out of town, where I usually go, past the overfull creek, the old railroad ties, the new hospital, and ended at One World Cafe, hardly a soul in the place, but a guitarist was playing something light and soothing. I sipped peppermint tea, listened for a while, then slipped back into the dark, into a cold spring warmed by tea and music.
Sled dogs have their own houses in Ilulissat, Greenland. One day last summer, I walked along the outskirts of town toward the Kangia Icefjord, the stench of urine and matted fur. The puppies run free, while the adult dogs fight against their chains, crying for seal meat, for freedom, for snow, for love. Listen, you can hear them even now.
Two bicycles were laying on the Moscow-Pullman bike path near Sunshine Road. I was worried. A black mountain bike, it seemed, had collided with a blue road bike and the two had fallen in a scene of violence. Wheels cranked in odd directions. Seats twisted toward the ground. There’s something tragic about the sight of a bicycle mangled on asphalt. As I rounded the corner, I saw the bikes belonged to a couple. It had been no wreck; the bikes had been placed there on purpose. The couple sat on a cedar bench bolted to the edge of the path, knees bent toward one another. Their helmeted heads touched. Their shoulders seemed welded together. They were squinting at something plucked from the natural world, something green–a blade of grass, maybe, or a flower. As I passed, they looked up and nodded, as if acknowledging my humanity.
Political news has overwhelmed the week. I cherish these small, lovely moments.
I organized a panel at the Western Literature Association in Big Sky, Montana. The conference theme was “The Profane West.” Shout out to my fellow panelists whose literary readings I thoroughly enjoyed: Mary Blew, Liz Stephens, and Peter Chilson.
Mary Blew, “Ruby Dreams of Janis Joplin”: In my first published novel, Jackalope Dreams, I examined the experiences of a middle-aged woman who was brought up according to the traditions of the Old West (school-of-hard-knocks, taciturnity, self-reliance, masculinity), who values her past but longs for a means of self-expression as she encounters the New West with its transcience and its overlay of glamor and romanticization. In my current novel-in-progress, tentatively titled Ruby Dreams of Janis Joplin, I explore the experiences of a young woman who also longs for a means of self-expression, who knows nothing of the Old West, but has grown up in a degraded West: packaged, oversold, abused, and environmentally exploited.
Liz Stephens, “The Lost Coast: Los Angeles”: My personal essay asks why we continue to move West despite its instability. The 1994 Northridge earthquake only verified something I’d suspected for a long time: the earth was alive, as a body. I found this comforting. That I could not control the earth as a body was absolutely unsurprising, a given. I knew how that worked. Rather than leave, I bought a $500 Chevette. I signed a lease on a dark first-floor Hollywood apartment. One of my roommates stood outside the window of my Silverlake bedroom every morning barefoot in the dew with her waist-length red hair down and waved her cigarette with deliberation as she turned slowly south and east and north and finally west, gesturing to her pan-American gods, offering them smoke to let her start every single day new. This was my introduction to how it was done, Los Angeles style, and I took its possibilities to heart. Just as I wished, time passed full of new starts, with very few middles and no ends at all, and took me with it.
Peter Chilson, “Sahara in the Alpine”: Combining narrative and reportage, my essay explores how globalization has changed the American West in surprising and uncomfortable ways. One recent morning near my hometown of Aspen, Colorado, I was skiing among across miles of forest and meadow near the house where I grew up in the 1970s. Back then, this stretch of land belonged to deer, bear, and coyotes. I recognized the familiar way sunlight tumbled through branches, casting bright, fractured stains on the snow, but there were other things I didn’t recognize. I’d been away for many years and now I found that dozens of new homes had invaded the forest, houses with great picture windows, wraparound decks, hot tubs, and high stone walls. Then, I rounded a corner near one of these huge houses and heard voices speaking in Bambara, a language of West Africa, where I’ve traveled and worked over two decades as a reporter and Peace Corps volunteer. I stopped, peering through the trees, about to meet a side of the American West about which I was shamefully ignorant.
DJ Lee, “Life After Life”: My creative nonfiction essay weaves my experience of watching the full blood moon lunar eclipse on September 27, 2016, with accounts of near-death from the eighteenth-century to the present day, as well as with the catastrophic forest fires that scorched the West in 2016. The essay takes the form of a walk down the Latah Trail in Moscow, Idaho, where I met a stranger who was also on the trail to see the eclipse. He told me about the time he had died and rode his motorcycle into heaven and was later revived by doctors. His near-death account matched other accounts I had been fascinated with since I was ten years old, including that of my great grandmother. Because he told me his story in the shadowy atmosphere of the lunar eclipse and the extreme forest fires burning all around our town, I began to think about how near death our planet was and what life after might be like.