One of the greatest gifts of my father was that of a B flat clarinet when I was in third grade. Perhaps this is why I’ve remained partial to woodwinds in orchestral arrangements. When I was a young teen, I played this concerto in a competition in New York State while living in Plattsburg. This clarinetist, Sharon Kam, plays Mozart’s work for clarinet with tonal shades and a lively spirit that brings the work to life. Here is her performance of one of the maestro’s works indelibly etched in my right brain from a year of practice. And for those of you who remember the theme from Out of Africa, listen for it here.
Robin Wall Kimmerer is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and a botanist who explains her knowledge of an indigenous worldview about plants with that of the western worldview. In that process, Kimmerer embeds whole Earth teaching along with botanical science. Here in this beautiful essay, ” Corn tastes better on the honor system” published in Emergence Magazine, is one of the author’s best teaching contrasting indigenous ways of knowing with western perspectives about the Earth. At this ragged time in American history, return to sanity. Listen.
Robin Wall Kimmerer is a mother, scientist, decorated professor, and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. She is the author of Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teaching of Plants and Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses. She lives in Syracuse, New York, where she is a SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor of Environmental Biology, and the founder and director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment.
DREAM ACRES FARM
Holding-Out and Holding-On in America’s Heartland
Golden meadow grasses wave in the afternoon breeze along a far bank of dark green pine and hardwoods aflame in fall colors. The trees form the meadow’s northern border. Lover’s Lane, Old Towne Apartments, and Interstate 65 serve as other borders to Dream Acres Farm—a sliver of Kentucky farmland and noble hold-out against development.
The white picket fencing, farmer’s house, and rolling green lawn that face Lover’s Lane were built when this land near Bowling Green was “the country”. I imagine teenagers romanced in a car along a moonlit dirt shoulder, and that dense forests still grew to the horizon. The farm’s 15 acres are worth millions now that the town has grown up around it. Everyday another few acres of Lover’s Land churn under the blade in becoming hotel, medical center, nursing home…
Every day I thank the farmer for holding fast to his farm amidst the pressure of land sales. He tends a dozen fine steer and occasional cow and calf to graze and grow in his meadow. Because the windows of my small apartment face the meadow, I am a constant observer of the herd’s movement, their presence or their absence. When the first hard frost arrives, they are gone to groceries and restaurants, and suddenly the meadow feels abandoned. Slowly, I’ve learned much about bovines: how they form attachments with the farmer, running and frolicking around him whenever he drives his rusty tractor out to inspect fences. I never knew cattle could move so fast. I’ve sketched their charcoal-black postures in the emerald grass of springtime and photographed them hip deep in a field thick with golden grasses in the fall.
This spring a community of swallows took up residence at my apartment complex, nesting on windows and gables facing the meadow and from which they emerged and returned with lightening-speed, providing me with more entertainment. After some time, I realized why they had come. As the cattle moved in the high grass, grasshoppers and gnats rose in swarms. The swifts careened in and around the thick calves and heavy hooves like fighter pilots after targets. When the insects’ life-cycles ran their course, the swifts disappeared into thin air.
Daily observation helped me discover the diversity of life in the meadow beyond the obvious farmer-bovine-grass relationship. Black silhouettes circled in the late afternoon sky portending prey moving in the grass sea: rodents, rabbits, snakes, perhaps frogs. I am sure there is an owl perched in the far border of trees whose throaty hooting I cannot hear over the constant roar of I-65. The life in the meadow also includes a neighbor’s acre of goats attended by sheepdogs that escort them in and out of a sagging, grey barn. Dream Acres Farm has its own barn from which the cattle emerge and return, but most days they sleep out under the stars.
When the farmer dies, will his heirs sell the farm and make millions? Probably—in the way of progress. When they do, I will disappear as the swifts to find another teacup of wild. And then, when no teacups remain, shall we all disappear like the swifts, into thin air?
I pray for the old farmer to live another day—my knight, my muse.
Wangari Maathai grew up in her homeland in Kenya, living close to the earth and learning traditional Kikuyu values and practices. Her memoir, Unbound, describes her daily activities as a child, her mother’s teachings, and how her people regarded the streams and forests in a land where the balance of nature is delicate, not to be abused without serious consequences for its inhabitants.
In Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World, Maathai’s wisdom is distilled onto each page, every sentence the next drop in the flow. Wangari describes herself as working practically to solve problems she learned about in discussions with communities and among women’s groups. Their need for clean water, and for access to earn a living, were her daily concerns. Eventually, Wangari and the women she served established the Greenbelt Movement that planted over 30 million trees in Kenya.
In Replenishing, Wangari’s concerns about the destruction of the environment in Kenya are examined in light of the world’s sacred traditions. Always a practical perspective, her observations and reflections give readers much to consider often through humor. For example she writes that God in his wisdom created Adam on Friday. If he’d created him on Monday he’d have perished for lack of food!
Wangari Maathai’s clarity of thought is invaluable in this age where massive destruction of oceans, rivers, wildlands, and forests have imperiled life the world over. She and the women of Kenya remind us of the earth-shaking power of people to replenish the earth, if we choose to do so.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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”.
In my novel Threshold, Dolores Olivarez is a devout Catholic who recites the Rosary as she hikes the mountain to the top.
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.