Nature Writers for Earth Day

My writing practice began with love for nature writers. Rachel Carson in particular seized my imagination with her ability to combine science and lyrical language. No one in my view achieved what she was able to do–immerse readers in nature. Most of us know Silent Spring as her “manifesto” on the interconnections among humans, wildlife, and the earth. But, how many of you have read Under the Sea Wind? In this small book, her first, Carson writes life stories of three particular individuals: a Black Skimmer, a Mackerel, and a Sandpiper during one season bringing each alive as characters in a novel. The Black Skimmer (Rynchops), Sanderling (Blackfoot), and a Mackerel (Scomber) live, breed, avoid predators, and follow the urgings of seasonal changes, migrating, nesting, and feeding–all within exciting adventure writing. Readers dive deep into unseen lives nevertheless connected to them by large forces in seas, winds, and landforms. Under the Sea Wind is an immersion experience much like a 3-D visual experience today. Note: Under the Sea Wind was published about the time the U.S. was drawn into WWII. It was not until a dozen years later that it seized the popular imagination. For a superb biography of Carson’s life, read Linda Lear’s Witness for Nature, and for an excellent glimpse into Rachel Carson’s writing life, read Paul Brooks’ The Writer at Work.

Watch American Experience for the latest film about Carson’s life. It chronicles her writing and features the commentary of her biographers.

http://www.pbs.org/video/american-experience-rachel-carson/

For a regional writer of nature, I can think of no one better than Jack Rudloe who writes about the Gulf near his home and Gulf Specimen Marine Laboratory and Education Center. Jack was inspired by Ed Rickett’s whose work and life were enshrined in the popular imagination by John Steinbeck. Jack Rudloe, the 19-year old would-be scientist and nature writer, corresponded with Steinbeck in the latter year of Steinbeck’s life. Read any of Jack’s books for a another immersion adventure in: The Living Dock, The Sea Brings Forth, and the Search for the Great Turtle Mother. Anne Rudloe, his wife and marine scientist, wrote books with Jack that are reminiscent of Carson in their deep love for and accurate science about the landscapes they love and defend. Anne Rudloe passed away in 2010, and Jack and his sons carry on as Titans for Nature–like Carson in Silent Spring.

Enjoy Jack’s video about his book, The Wilderness Coast.

If you have time to sit down to read the record of Ed Rickett’s and John Steinbeck’s travels in the Sea of Cortez–The Log of the Sea of Cortez–you will be treated to a glimpse into evolving ideas about ecology as an ethical basis for living. Then, treat yourself to the film Cannery Row with Nick Nolte, Debra Winger, and John Huston. John Steinbeck’s novel, Cannery Row, is based on Rickett’s marine supply business in Monterey, California when the coastline abound with sea life.

 

The Writing Vortex: Louisa May Alcott

by Harriet Reisen

When Louisa May Alcott became seized with the idea for a new book, she describes the feeling as being drawn into a vortex. A prolific writer, most of the time by necessity, Alcott might turn out a novel in a month! Often her hand would become paralyzed and she’d have to switch to her other hand, a skill she taught herself in anticipation of her “overdrive” writing style.

Harriet Reisen’s 2009 biography of Alcott–Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women— is an engrossing read. Her extensive research (she read well over 100 of Alcott’s publications) and energetic writing style are only a part of why this book is so readable: she was also that little girl whose imagination was seized by Louisa May’s stories in Little Women, Little Men, and Jo’s Boys. Reisen visited the sites where Alcott lived, and met with editors and rare book experts who have followed the Alcott trail of hundreds of publications (books, essays, letters, short stories). There are still dozens of publications Alcott refers to in her journals and letters that have never been found. In fact, it was only recently that a rare book dealer found a letter squished between the pages of an Alcott book that eluded to one of Alcott’s aliases and discovery of another publication!

For writers it is worth noting how different the publishing industry was during Alcott’s writing life. Yet, for us writers, Alcott’s musings and writing practice still hold value today. She was relentless when she began a new story or novel. She wrote straight through without editing much (a Hemingway style) and she wrote from her own experience. She tried to stay away from contentious political topics (even though she was very much an activist for women, abolition, and all sorts of social injustices), instead keeping her narratives to common human emotions and situations that as time has proved are just as relevant today as when she was writing. Love, jealousy, conniving, friendship, loyalty–its all there in very well defined, unforgettable character. I suppose a writer could do no better than to study this one amazing author and human being as mentor for their own writing.

I highly recommend this biography to all writers but also to anyone who loves Alcott’s novels. The biographer, Harriet Reisen, wrote the script for an accompanying film which eventually PBS aired on American Masters with the publication of the book in 2009. Amazon Prime has it today as well as the film site.

REMINDER: For Mother’s Day, PBS is airing a new version of Little Women. May 13th is the Day. Make your crumb cake and brew the tea ladies and gentlemen.

Why Reading is Essential to Writing

Half Price Books in Bowling Green, KY

Finding Annie Proulx’s Accordion Crimes (1996 Penguin Paperbacks) at Half-Price Books in Bowling Green reminded me again why reading great writers is an essential component of a writing practice.

Proulx’s research into the immigrant experience and  the historical setting  animates her use of language.

Hour after hour the noisy dragging mass shuffled up the gangplank onto the ship lugging bundles, portmanteaus, parcels and canvas telescope bags. ~The Accordion Maker, The land of alligators, Accordion Crimes by E. Annie Proulx, Scribner’s Paperback Fiction.

Proulx’s novel is a textbook on originality in structure, use of language, and approach to the subject. Her writing reminds me of Vachel Lindsey and Carl Sandburg whose poetry about industrial America contains similar energy and rhythmic force I experience when reading Proulx’s work:

The din of commerce sounded in a hellish roar made up of the clatter of  hooves and the hollow rumble of wheel rims on plank, the scream of whistles and huffing of engines, hissing steam boilers and hammering and rumbling, shouting foremen and the musical call and response of workgangs and the sellers of gumbo and paper cones of crawfish and sticky clotted pralines, the creaking of the timber wagons and the low cries of the ship provisioners’ cartmen urging their animals forward, all blended into a loud narcotic drone.” ~ The Accordion Maker, Sugarcane, Accordion Crimes by E. Annie Proulx, Scribner’s Paperback Fiction.

Songs of Ourselves – Great Read

In 2015, Blue Heron Book Works published a collections of blog posts, journal entries, and other writing forms from writers across the nation. Bathseba Monk, the intrepid and visionary editor of Blue Heron Book Works, and her editor Mary Lawlor, put together a book of American voices as varied as the landscape between our coastlines.

Songs of Ourselves is a real trip into and across Americana. If you haven’t read it, I compare it to about two dozen Blue Highways wrapped into one volume.

Listen to Tomas Benitez: Quietude in the Gully. No moaning animals or ruckus. It’s as if the Pomona Freeway Ocean knows and slows to a steady heartbeat rhythm. The waves rumble with a distant peace. La Luna is framed by the dark outline of the palm fronds on the left, the Yucca tree on the right seems to be reaching up like a hand holding her aloft. She is so beautiful tonight; it is all about her I suspect. Maybe the animals are huddled in their shadowed hollows also watching her. Not even Jinx is dancing in her moonlight. We’re in church. ~ pages 15-16.

Well worth the read. A treasure of American voices across our land. Buy it here.

 

The Wonder of Fiction

The year the youth novel Wonder was published, I lost my father and was still grieving the loss of my sister. At the time I worked full-time at the University of West Florida, and somehow I missed the wonderment of Wonder.

Here is the 2012 NY Times Book Review.

I am about through and savoring its completion. The narrative, characters, and the real life circumstances of each middle-schooler, especially August, are true to life. The story has the effect of healing my own wounds from that period of youth that is so very difficult. It is the time when we truly differentiate from our childhood identities, our birth family, and move into the harsh realities of life.

R.J. Palacio, the author, put this book “out there” and it has since been translated into many languages, and used in classrooms, and other educational venues. Palacio created one book with a narrative for our culture, and cultures worldwide  about being “different”.

Auggie Pullman’s disfiguring genetic disorder causes conflicting feelings. Palacio provides personal narratives of Auggie’s sister and his classmates to sensitively show us how we deal with difference depending on our family, experiences, and personalities. Reactions to Auggie when he enters middle school range from fear to revulsion. When we learn more about each character, readers explore similar feelings in themselves.

Palacio takes adult readers on a poignant journey to our preadolescent selves when we asked, Who am I? We present ourselves to the world with our face and expression. We experience Auggie and his peers grow and change as they deal with Auggie’s condition and his bright, true persona which they discover over time.

Auggie’s facial deformities are extreme. Yet, he is a pretty normal tween and a cool guy once you get to know him. His experiences are tenderly created by a talented writer who was raising middle schoolers at home. She had once encountered a small girl with a similar genetic disorder at an ice cream shop. That encounter led to the creation of Auggie Pullman and her first ever novel.

At a time in world history when fear of the other is strong, this book provides a way to understand how we react to difference but how our differences help us grow and make the world a more wonderful place.

Maybe it’s time for a National REREAD of Wonder.

Read about Treacher Collins Syndrome

See the movie after you read the book.

Celebrate KY Youth Writers and Artists

Last month I was privileged to be a juror for local and regional youth writers during the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. We have great budding talent as well as youth whose voice is already powerful with portent of great works to come. Poetry filled the majority of entries, short stories and essays less so yet entries were stellar. Themes varied from an essay about surviving the digital tsunami to family and personal narratives. As jurors, we listened for a distinct voice, for use of language, and other indicators of a writer’s talent and potential. See the accompanying press release about Bowling Green SKyPAC awards ceremony and reception. I hope many of our community members, teachers, and leaders can join us March 3rd at SKyPAC to celebrate our youth and the cultivation of the imagination.

Scholastic Press release 2-9-18

Wendell Berry Poetry

From Tennessee Watchable Wildlife

Wendell Berry is by far one of my favorite writers . . . 

In his 2005 book of poems, Given, this one is printed on the back of the volume:

“The yellow-throated warbler, the highest remotest voice of this place, sings in the tops of the tallest sycamores, but one day he came twice to the railing on my porch where I sat at work above the river. He was too close to see with binoculars. Only the naked eye could take him in, a bird more beautiful than every picture of himself, more beautiful than himself killed and preserved by the most skilled taxidermist, more beautiful than any human mind, so small and inexact, could hope ever to remember. My mind became beautiful by the sight of him. He had the beauty only of himself alive in the only moment of his life. He had upon him like a light the whole beauty of the living world that never dies.” ~ Wendell Berry

LEARN MORE ABOUT WENDELL BERRY 

Healers of the Land

One of the best activities of my mature life has been an association with the Aldo Leopold Foundation and the Land Ethic Leaders. In 2012 I traveled to Baraboo, Wisconsin to attend a training to become a Land Ethic Leader in my community.

Leopold’s now famous essay on The Land Ethic is excellent guidance for our time.

The Land Ethic_A Sand County Almanac

I’ve continued to learn from leaders and staff at the Foundation but mostly from my fellow Land Ethic Leaders. John Matel is one who is blogging about the restoration of the Long Leaf Pine Ecosystem on his land. He is doing the careful, long term work of bringing fire back to the land to awaken long dormant seeds for the sedges and grasses on the land, grooming the understory and the pines themselves.

Read his latest blog and explore others to appreciate that there is a man, and many others like him, who are working on the long term solutions to our environmental crises. For example, read about the Panhandle Watershed Alliance and the Bream Fisherman’s Association led by an intrepid water ecologist and friend, Barbara Albrecht in Pensacola, Florida.

So, take heart that there are these menders and planters, stewards of land and the human spirit OUT THERE working against the tide of destruction.

Future Home of the Living God: A Masterpiece

Louise Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living God is a masterpiece of contemporary  American literature. After 16 novels, books of poetry, and memoir, and nominations for the Pulitzer, and winner of the National Book Award, this novel is a culmination of her storytelling, use of language, and imagination.

I’ve read and studied Erdrich’s works for at least 15 years, eagerly awaiting each new novel. Some have exceeded my expectations, others have not but are still excellent reads. But this one, THIS is an achievement — not just for her as a writer and artist — but for our times.

The writing is beautiful and flows with such ease, concise yet vivid description, that reading is seamless. The plot moves with tremendous pace and at times I was so full of suspense that I had to put my hand over the next sentence to keep myself from jumping ahead. As a woman with a daughter and sisters, and nieces, I was drawn to the main character, Cedar, who writes a diary for her unborn child — a record of a time when all that people assumed would never change was upended overnight.

If you are a woman of child-bearing age or a woman concerned about protection of women’s rights, if you are a a man who values women, a person of faith, or a citizen who wishes to understand this age, this time on earth, then you need to read this book. The earth is changing, we are changing.

In the dystopian tale, so prescient for today, she manages to still uplift the reader. She is a weaver of legend, personal destinies, and her own cultural perspective. Louise Erdrich manages to show us there is still hope, still good to be cherished and brought forward in all of us. Yet, Erdrich bravely portrays a potential future that threatens all we hold as good and right in human behavior, and the fate of the earth.

Hildegard of Bingen, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, scripture from the Bible, and Ojibwe elders all find voice in this story.

Find it at Birchbark Books, Erdrich’s independent book store; Indie Bound, or other online book vendors. Read the New York Times book review.

A Bountiful Land

Painting by Heather Hufton

For our national Thanksgiving holiday, I want share what I am learning about Kentucky farms, farmers, and the New Agrarians.

There are many young farming families starting new ways of farming that build the soil communities for richer top soil, healthier produce, and (whether they may know it or not) solving global warming by their practices.

With no till or low till farming, crop rotation, and companion planting, more carbon ends up in the soil. That improves nutritional value of the food but also takes carbon out of the air. A new movement is slowly happening around the world — The New Agrarians. You can get a true idea of what it is by visiting The Land Institute website and listening to their videos. You can learn about Perennial Farming — planting seed varieties that do not need to be replanted from year to year. This is the true revolution that is under research in the U.S. and Africa. It is the front end of the next revolution in farming! Its promise also gives us one of our best win-win strategies for a sustainable way of life.

HAPPY THANKSGIVING ALL!