Walking today in the Idler’s Rest Nature park, I came upon a message from the molting Ponderosas:
The Darkness Conference in Longyearbyen, Svalbard. I don’t know if I could ever get used to 24-hours of sun below the horizon, but maybe someday I will get the chance. At first I thought it was calming, soothing, not to be confronted with light and its pressure to get things done. But then I realized I just wanted to crawl into bed, found myself drooping and wilting, curling into hibernation position as soon as I opened the door to my hotel room. After five days, I was feeling suffocated by the dark. It was a shroud, like forest fire smoke every August, that I couldn’t shake off.
There were plenty of bright spots, though. One being the dogsled into the polar night. One being the bakery on Main Street. One being the ideas and interesting discussions during the panels. One being the aquamarine lights that danced outside my window all day and night. One being visiting Polar Permaculture Solutions and getting to plant herbs in bright purple dome.
We were at 79 degrees north in a three-masted ship called the Antigua sailing up the west coast of Svalbard. Thirty artists, people from all over the world, whose art took different forms. Painters, sculptors, photographers, those working in performance, installation, and mixed media, hand paper makers and writers, like me. Everyone was clicking a camera, jotting down a line, sketching something. The tools of art were never still.
And then someone said, “I think we need some quiet.” Seven of us piled into the rubber zodiac and set off on a meditation tour. The engine purred quietly as we moved through the ice, the only sound the chunks knocking against one another in a hollow fullness that felt like the center of our own souls. We were there to observe, we knew implicitly, to be with the water and the glacier and the sky and the air, to be apart from the incessant documenting. It was the last place, we had been told that morning, where there would be a lot of floating ice in the meltwater next to a glacier. It was a last chance to document, be we seven wanted it to be something less–a moment and that was all. Not a moment we were taking note of, not one we were narrating as we were living it.
I had brought my book of Buddha’s teahings. I opened it gently to a random page and read: “To think that there is one absolute truth, and all other views are inferior, the monks call a fetter.” I pondered the idea as I floated, the seawind on my cheek, my hands curled into my mittens. The ice was moving and crackling, the sun glowed on the water, setting it on fire, blazing between each individual chunk. The Arctic was melting, we could see it, but we couldn’t see how fast. We didn’t know what was normal melting and what was extreme, but we could feel something changing in those moments in the meditation raft.
To think that there is one absolute truth, and all other views are inferior, the monks call a fetter.
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.
Sometimes–often, actually–being on screen and connected makes me feel queasy. I found this meme online (ironically!) and use it as a landing page to remind me to turn off and go for a walk.
My nonfiction essay “A Syntax of Splits and Ruptures” was published by the fantastic Superstition Review.
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.
I just returned from teaching a course with my good friend Karen Houppert for the Johns Hopkins University Summer Craft and Science Writing Conference in Bar Harbor, Maine. We walked in Acadia National Park, along the rugged beaches, and in the labyrinthian gardens, the perfect inspiration for writing about the natural world.
On June 23, 2017, I served on a panel at the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment Conference in Detroit. The conference theme was “Rust and Recovery.” Thanks to my fellow panelists and the amazing questions from the audience.
Panel Chair: Scott Slovic, University of Idaho
Aaron Moe, Saint Mary’s College, Toward a Poetics of Gaia: Biosemiotics and Jody Gladding’s Translations from Bark Beetle
Anna Banks, University of Idaho, Drinkers of the Wind: The Autopoiesis of Grandfather Cuts Loose the Ponies
Courtney Kersten, University of California, Santa Cruz, Sea Otter Gawking in Monterey Bay: A Hybrid Exploration of Human- Animal Relations
D.J. Lee, Washington State University, Polar Bear Watch
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.
Letter to America, published in Terrain: A Journal of Natural and Built Environments
The essay appears, along with a photograph and audio reading, in Terrain.org.
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.