Dream Acres

DREAM ACRES FARM

Holding-Out and Holding-On in America’s Heartland

Dream Acres Farm in Bowling Green 2018

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.

Bountiful the Love We Share

PROLOGUE

A small town in the North American prairie . . .

Bountiful lay in a curve of green mantle under the pink gold of dawn. Soft light moved slowly on the broadsides of its homes and stores and played among the trees that lined the streets. Inhabitants cuddled under quilts or shivered in feathered down on a high tree limb or snuggled under a copse of trees in mist-cloaked meadows at its boundaries.

Every dawn was a hushed moment—the briefest pause when earth holds her breath. Then, the day began again as it had since the prairieland had formed. Its people were latecomers, a noisy lot, the birds had long ago concluded. The cattle grazed and watched without comment—a very dignified way of being.

The people of Bountiful were practical folks who lived life by accepting its limitations as well as its potential, planning for all its contingencies, working hard, praying hard, and trying to not take any of it too seriously. Life had been generally good to the people and creatures of Bountiful which went a long way toward explaining why they were so happy, in the main. Yet, this general feeling of wellness might have a subtle formula: early settlers made structures close to one another in grids and circles that articulated meaningfully, keeping families, quite streets, green lawns and gardens safe. It was the custom to give thanks for a land of plenty understanding that certain ways brought order and predictable outcomes. It was a town that retained its youth by raising them to love it. Most returned to Bountiful after college or brief forays into other places. It was just a good place to live and love. In the more complex world around it, Bountiful remained predictable and renewable like the dark soil of its farms. Stretching in ordered rows that hugged the contours of the landform, Bountiful farms yielded good harvests of wheat and corn, and vegetables for local markets. Well-tended farm animals produced excellent grade meat, milk, and eggs. After two-hundred years of existence, Bountiful remained the same kind of place—undisturbed and self-generating.

TIME BEFORE

A sweeping vista of tall grasses higher than any man, the whole of it moved in slow undulations on the breeze, no shade crossing its shoulders. Bright golden green halo giving way to sky—blue dome, white cloud—floating. Above the tall grass stems swirls of yellow blossoms followed the sun on its path across the heavens. Crimson and cerulean wildflowers like shooting stars painted the tall grass prairie on God’s vast canvas. Bees and birds dined and swooped in and out of the movable feast. Into the dark soil the grasses plunged and held in mats and networks thirty feet to bedrock. In the cool, subterranean kingdom the microscopic inhabitants of the soil shared or stored minerals, energy, and water—a prairie dynamo.

In late summer, a strike of lightening ignites the sea of dry grass. Flames burst and rush across it consuming the air unbound. Inferno envelops and burns to the ground all that waved before. Later, seed coats burst open onto enriched soils, rains pour, and the prairie regenerates. Fire is the prairie flower of the gods who reigned over the land where Bountiful now lies.

AND THEN

The people who came to live and to know the prairie came by it in hardship and fear. Surrounded in flames and smoke, huddled in sod huts, shivering in cold or sweltering in heat, they held like the roots of the grasses, held fast in fortitude under the blue dome. They dug and clawed away the grasses that held the land not understanding it but prevailing above it with plow and horse. They laid their furrows in soil so black it swallowed the seed into its abyss. From the seed emerged green shooting stalks and leaves that pushed a flood of kernels into being, golden kernels that moved the dynamo from under the land into the crop of man. The cycle continues. So powerfully wrought, the ghost prairie gave its wealth for centuries even as it renewed itself.

Bountiful lay upon this powered land with only a faint memory from a pioneering past. Few understood what had been before the coming of the Europeans who created the town, mapping streets, dreaming a dream that belonged to a distant land.

It came to pass that a prairie girl would leave Bountiful to become a writer in the distant metropolis of New York City. Her return to her homeland would be prolonged by a successful career and a late marriage. Only upon the passing of her dear husband did she decide to return. It had not been a conscious decision, but the pull of an ebbing tide that swept her back to her origin.

Her family’s farm had been the center of her world as a child and youth. Now, it held an unexamined power over her. Compulsion, yes, that was how it felt to Charlotte, like she had no control over the surprising decisions her city friends could not fathom. An ad in the New York Times, the sale of her gorgeous townhouse on the upper East Side of Manhattan and leaving art and culture for the agrarian life of a senior community at Green Fields Farm. Was it self-destructive? A compulsion spawned by grief?

“Not at all,” Charlotte had said to her friends. “Somehow it feels natural to return to quiet and openness of Bountiful. It just feels right.”

Keep Up with Publication Dates on Bountiful’s FB Page:

 

Jodi Picoult Explores Racial Injustice In “Small Great Things”

Published in 2016

Kudos to Jodi Picoult for taking on America’s most entrenched injustice. and helping readers discover in themselves how he or she may perpetuate racial injustice. Small Great Things is sheer bravery by a white American writer.

This novel bravely goes where few white writers would venture without the risk of their white privilege bleeding through the narrative, or of committing cultural appropriation. Jodi tells us readers that is exactly why the original idea and partially written manuscript were put aside for more than a decade.

Before Picoult decides to take up the gauntlet, she joins a white privilege workshop to delve into her own prejudices, she gathers to herself men and women from the black community who speak the hard truth to her and help her understand her role in perpetuating injustice. She interviews reformed white supremacists. Picoult dives deep to show how racial injustice is sustained by a thousand small cuts a day, carried out by whites who are often clueless to their own complicity.

Small Great Things explores how racial privilege, even more than outright discrimination, pervades white consciousness.  A person may think “I’m color blind,” or “race makes no difference to me”. However, Picoult’s book reminds us it is easy to think that when you are a beneficiary of the culture’s every advantage.

Yet, Picoult also shows how “minorities” can play into perpetuating the injustice by remaining silent to hold on to tenuous advantages they may have and that are working to help them accomplish goals like owning a home and sending their child to college. The main character, Ruth Jefferson, demonstrates how that works.

Picoult shows in the character of Kennedy, Ruth’s public defender when Ruth, a respected labor and delivery nurse, is accused of killing the baby of a white supremacist couple. Prior to their son’s death, they demanded that Ruth, an African-American, be forbidden to touch their child (Davis). Ruth is removed from the family’s service after Davis is born. She is mystified. As one of the most capable nurses, she can’t imagine why they do not want her to help care for their son. Then she observes the tattoos on the father’s arm and head, and she realizes he is a white supremacist. As the story advances, Baby Davis is discovered to have an inherited disorder that contributes to his death.

By following the developing relationship between Ruth and Kennedy, Picoult takes  readers with her on the discovery of white privilege, peeling it back layer by layer until finally Kennedy is seeing it in herself. We also follow Ruth’s discovery that she has blinded herself to racial assumptions that arise regularly in her peers. Ruth’s determination to discuss the role of racial hatred in her case — a strategy strongly opposed by Kennedy — is a result of finally understanding her complicity in the persistence of racial discrimination by remaining silent.

The story of Turk Bauer and his wife Brittany, both white supremacists, brings to light the complexity of racial hatred. We learn the circumstances that led to Turk’s induction into the Aryan Nation. We  go to events where racial hatred is cultivated, taught to youngsters, and how it is organized across the nation. Inside Turk’s head, we see how he is influenced by fear and anger in his particular life circumstances. We witness Turk’s the awful suffering from the loss of his child. We see his humanity even when his beliefs and actions are despicable to us. Jodi is showing that racial relationships in America are complex and nuanced.

Critics have reviewed the novel’s sometimes cardboard stereotypes and slow action, but really, Picoult took on a monumental task as she worked through her own racial biases and white privilege, inviting her fans to do the same within themselves. This is how hard it is. Picoult is a skilled writer. We can give her a little slack if at times the characters may lack realism or the plot slows here and there. She took on America’s deepest wound, most entrenched injustice, and one that is still festering in the hearts of us all.  We must get at it in ourselves until we can live a free nation. Picoult offers us her experience as one way we might get there.

MORE RESOURCES FOR READERS:

Michael Eric Dyson: Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America

Watch Frontline: Documenting Hate which aired on August 10. It is a documentary of the white supremacists at Charlottesville, VA uprising over confederate monuments. It was so much more, of course. This ProPublica investigation helps us learn about how a permissive environment ushered  hate groups into the American mainstream.

Read Jon Meacham’s book “The Soul of America, the Battle for Our Better Angels”.  In the Introduction, Meacham compares Strom Thurman’s Dixiecrats to Trump’s nationalist movement.

Extremism, racism, nativism, and isolationism, driven by fear of the unknown, tend to spike in periods of economic and social stress — a period like our own. Meacham, p. 4 of Introduction.

POD SAVE THE PEOPLE

 

 

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.

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.

A Good Book

A Good Book
A good book

There are few pleasures that reward better than a good book. I read both for pleasure and to learn how authors develop characters and move their plots along. One of my hobbies is reading the first and last lines of books. How does the author grab the reader’s attention, then hold it? How does he or she use language?

Yesterday I stumbled on a $6 copy of Ken Follett’s Edge of Eternity. Many of you may know Follett from his long lasting historical thriller, Eye of the Needle. Follett bases his fictional tales on assiduous research. Edge of Eternity is a contemporary suite of stories happening on several continents. Follett weaves characters active in the Freedom Bus Rides and civil rights movement with characters in East Germany when Khrushchev decides to build the Berlin Wall. It begins in the year 1961 and moves through the ’80s encompassing the civil rights movement, assassination of John F. Kennedy, and our fears and efforts to prevent a nuclear war with Russia. I stayed up very late last night reading.

What are you reading?

 

Marjorie Rawlings: Warm or White Christmas?

Florida Humanities Council posted a wonderful story about Marjorie Rawlings learning to love Florida at Christmastime. It took some time for the writer to adjust to warm air and green plants at Christmas but once she did, she was in it lock, stock, and barrel. Great article.

Paralleling Rawlings, but humbly drawing no comparison in talent, I am spending Christmas in Tucson to promote my new novel, Threshold, in very warm BUT DRY weather. Here we might be sipping margarita’s with lots of lime.

Below are photos I took at Rawlings’ Cross Creek home, now a Florida State Park, and great place to visit on your way down to Key West.

The cherished indoor bathroom.
The cherished indoor bathroom.
All the original furniture.
All the original furniture.
Garden and Trip to Silver Springs 149
Ernest Hemingway slept here and maybe Scott Fitzgerald. A steady stream of writers stayed at the Rawlings’ B&B.
Marjorie wrote at this table, probably with an icy margarita!
Marjorie wrote at this table, probably with a whiskey near at hand.

 

Garden and Trip to Silver Springs 154

Creating a Character: It’s a Wild Ride

A friend recently asked me how I created the characters for Threshold, my first novel. As all new writers do, I took classes, read books about character development, and read great character writers. Yet, nothing prepared me for what happened as I began to write the story.

Carla takes over!
Carla takes over!

In Threshold, Dr. Carla Connor took over. She did not follow the path I had planned for her. She emerged as a person who changes considerably over the course of the story, finding new parts of herself not even in her own plan for her life. She impacted other characters so that I had to reshape them as well. Yet Carla was perfect for my intent.

Nobody tells you about this phenomena. Just Google “How to Develop Character” and see what comes up. There is nothing about the character coming alive and driving the narrative.

Louise Erdrich, whose characters pop from the page, explained this phenomenon recently with the release of her National Book Award novel, The Round House. Listen to this interview. If you do not want to listen to all of it, advance  to 4 minutes where she explains how a 13-yr old boy took over her story, how she lived his experience, and even how she misses him now that the book is “out there”

So go be kidnapped by characters; let them show you the way to the end. Just a warning: the process also comes with mile-high drafts, buckets of sweat and tears, emotional ups and downs, and slings and arrows.

Wonder who I will meet in my next book?