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.

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.

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.

Spirits of the Mountains

Mt Humphreys at 12, 800 ft. in San Francisco Mts.

The spiritual nature of the San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff was an awesome experience for me. The sight of these sacred mountains took me off guard when they first came into view, and indeed, were the focal point of the sky all the way to Holbook, Arizona. I can see why so many first nations hold these mountains in such reverence, when from anywhere for hundreds of miles the shimmering white peaks are a beacon of light and orientation. The Hopi believe the Kachina spirits live at the top of the peak. Looking at this forested hillside on the way up the mountain to Snowbowl, I can almost feel the spirits there.

Birches and Pines on Mt. Humphreys on the way up to Snowbowl.

Following the Trail of Water

Mark Hainds, Border Walker

A friend of mine, Mark Hainds, is a forester and author, who has challenged himself to walk the entirety of the U.S. – Mexico Border. In doing so, he is noting the conditions of the landscape, meeting the people who live there, the people who are passing over the border in hopes of a better future, and experiencing the deep peace from long hours of silent walking. Be sure to visit his site above.

On Friday morning I dropped him off at mile marker 40 on highway 82 near Sonoita, Arizona. This is grasslands – basin and range territory – home of historic ranches, antelopes, and hardy people who love the land.

Grasslands of SE Arizona

To a visitor is can seem very still but to locals who know its subtle changes, it is an exciting place to call home.

Patagonia Lake State Park

Luckily, the Nature Conservancy and the Bureau of Land Management had foresight to preserve large tracks of riparian habitats (those areas where water flows near the surface of the ground, and in wet seasons, runs in streams and rivers). When you gaze out across expansive grasslands and see a line of bright green trees, you have found water.

Cottonwood Gallery Forest

Today I followed the traces of water across the landscape by looking for those trees. While I walked the fields and paths, small herds of tawny pronghorns on far hills bounded in the high grass, white rumps flashing in the sunlight.

At the historic Empire Ranch, I listened for the voices of families, ranch hands, and cowboys lingering in the old structures of the house, cottages, corral, and barn.

Old Barn
Empire Ranch Grounds circa early 20th century

Wandering the paths into a cottonwood gallery, I felt spirits walking next to me. A time gone but with lingering energies, whispering to us modern day visitors.

What are they telling us?

Would it be a cautionary tale? The ranch was passed through many hands, each family working it for 35-50 years, then to developers, and finally into the protection of the U.S. Department of the Interior.

The ranch and 42,000 acres of riparian corridor and grasslands is now Las Cienegas National Conservation Area which we all can visit.

Yet these images show a time gone by, when the big cattle ranches reigned, and then died as water receded, and the demand of beef declined.

Perhaps we live in a more enlightened time. But, that remains to be seen. Will we remember the lessons of the past, or are we doomed to repeat mistakes with forgotten memories?

The ghosts of the land whisper to us. What are they telling us?

One whose spirit speaks to me is Aldo Leopold: “Conservation is getting nowhere because it is incompatible with our Abrahamic concept of land. We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”

When the cows and the buffalo roamed…

Our Lady of Guadalupe – Patroness of the Americas

from http://www.sancta.org/intro.html
from http://www.sancta.org/intro.html

Our Lady of Guadalupe inspires millions of believers, offering a mothering balm of love, peace, and forgiveness through her Blessed Son. Read the legend of the appearance of the Holy Mother on Tepeyac Hill near Mexico City. Her apparition was witnessed by Juan Diego who had gone to the hill at the request of his Bishop to gather roses for the church. The Bishop’s actions were inspired by a request for a sign from the Holy Mother after she asked the Bishop to build a church on the hill. When Juan Diego returned with the roses, an image of the Holy Mother was embedded in his tilga–a garment that has remained without any sign of wear or age for the last 485 years.

Miracles do happen but we never know how or sometimes why. The universe and the Earth herself are imbued with numinous qualities that we intuit but can never “prove”.

guadelupe-tumamoc-hill
Guadalupe Shrine on Tumamoc Hill

In my novel Threshold, Dolores Olivarez is a devout Catholic who recites the Rosary as she hikes the mountain to the top.

At the summit, she looks out over the vast metropolis, and then down at the Birthplace of Tucson at the base of the mountain. cropped-cropped-mission-a-mt.jpg

From a place of reverence, Dolores seeks to understand the meaning of her time and place, much as Juan Diego climbed to gather his roses.

The Path We Choose

Paths We Trek
Paths We Trek
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Book Sales and Readings in Tucson

Tomorrow I will be a Bookman’s on Wilmot and Speedway from Noon to 2 pm for their Authors’ Fair. Hope you can drop by and chat and take a look at Threshold.

If you have a church group or book club that might wish to read a story about Tucson, with familiar settings and characters, give me a call at: 520-400-4117 or email me at susanleefeathers@gmail.com

Threshold makes an enormous contribution to contemporary literature by teaching readers—in engaging and utterly consumable terms—about the physics of “the planet’s human induced fever.” Susan Feathers stages the need to know as part of the narrative dynamic. Key characters —academics, school teachers, museum biologists—understand only too well the processes by which the earth is growing hotter, while others don’t. The latter are in some cases too young or inexperienced to know; in other cases they’re complacent or too far in denial to face them. Those who know teach those who don’t. Through lively dialogues concerning, for example, how sunlight gets converted to electricity; or how oceans absorb solar energy; or how neighborhoods can set up electrical generating systems, we learn along with the characters. We’re invited to go through the same processes of recognition and assimilation that the various students in the story experience. READ A REVIEW     ~ Mary Lawlor, Muhlenberg College

 

Supporting Youth in Climate Change

My novel, Threshold, was written over a ten-year period due to a period of care-giving for my father. I decided to revise the original story from one in the distant future to a more immediate story. Climate science improved over that period, and I realized that what we do now was the focus I needed.

In the new draft, two teenagers emerged that were not in the earlier draft. I believe my concerns for young people and years of teaching middle school and high school students in the Southwest resulted in three characters I love: Daniel  – Junior Docent at the Desert Museum; Luna – emerging youth leader of the Tohono O’odham Nation, and Enrique – a troubled youth with a brave heart.

The story lines follow my conviction that we all play a part in the development of young people in our lives. We may even play a key role by just doing simple things like showing up with a platter of burritos (Mrs Carillo, Enrique’s neighbor), or offering a  kind word at a particularly potent time (Harold Liebowitz with Daniel). Often, it is helping your child by letting them struggle (Luna’s mother). Youth need encouragement in ways that fit them.

They also need adults to clear the path by breaking down social and economic barriers that keep real talents from blooming or dying on the vine from poverty and hopelessness (Congressman Ramirez with his community). And some youths who have lost a parent or suffered an equally dramatic blow, just need us to be around dependably until they can get back on their feet (Ed and Carla for Daniel).

With the uncertainty of climate change, what can each of us do to empower and support the kids in our lives? What skills do they need, what can we change or strengthen while we are here that will enable them as they meet their future?

If it means changing a way of life, using different forms of transportation, giving up some of our sacred cows, will we be willing to do so for them, and all the children who follow? Read Threshold to learn what the adults in Daniel, Luna, and Enrique’s lives do to help them make a bright future.

Youth who are empowered and making change:

Changemakers High School

Our Children’s Trust

 

 

A Brand New Kind of West

In 1878, John Wesley Powell submitted A Report on Arid Lands to the U.S. Congress. In it he proposed that land grants to settlers in the arid lands of the country be determined by the geology and physiology of the land. That may seem perfectly logical to modern readers, but in that time, myths about the productivity of the land dominated over reality. Manifest Destiny was a locomotive roaring across the lands of the west.

Powell’s ideas were based on science, as Wallace Stegner, in his brilliant biography of Powell’s service to the U.S., Beyond the 100th Meridian, dramatically illustrates.

NPR’s 2003 Program on The Vision of John Wesley Powell

Powell proposed that tracks of land for raising cattle or sheep be 2, 250 square acres, and irrigable land for farming be only 80 acres with water rights. Both of these proposals were based on the aridity and productivity of landscapes in the west which, for grazing, required much more than the 160 acres provided in the Homestead Act to find enough water sources for animals to thrive. He also demonstrated that the productivity of desert soils with the addition of water required only 80 acres–all one farmer and his family could reasonably manage.

Had government agencies deeding land to settlers west of the 100th meridian used scientific reasoning, we would have a different west today. As we did not, most of the settlers who obtained 160 acre allotments soon failed. Their land was not returned to the U.S. lands in public trust but rather it went to the banks who financed farmers production. Powell points out that the Homestead Act resulted in millions of acres of public lands going to corporations. Again, using scientific research Powell busted another popular American myth.

Powell further proposed that the government require land owners planning to use a given water source, such as a river, be required to form an irrigation district made up of nine potential land owners, to demonstrate they could successfully share the water over a three year period before obtaining title and water rights.  He based his recommendation on successful models of the Mormons in Utah and Spanish land owners of New Mexico Territory with their ejidos resource commons.

Science was the basis of Powell’ prescience regarding the development of the western lands of the U.S.  Today, science must help major Southwestern cities and regions rethink how to manage water among themselves. We will not be able to return to zero, but we can try to develop policies today that fit the landscape.

For the entire history of water development in the west, science has not dominated decision making but rather economics. Millions of Americans now live in cities where a reliable source of water is threatened, and millions of acres of agricultural lands, supporting American households and the world are on the brink of collapse due to long term drought conditions projected to last hundreds of years.

What kind of thinking and planning will be required to move us in the direction of a sustaining system for water usage in the West? How will our economic models need to change to run concurrent with the physical realities of the land and resources we wish to use?