The Tucson Ghost of Times Past

Readers know that I’ve been blogging about an uncanny web of contacts and events that keep me ever tied to Tucson. Last week I wrote about how I became friends with a fellow ex-Tucsonan through our mutual membership in the West Florida Literary Federation. We both settled in Pensacola never knowing each other while in Tucson.  Threshold book coverVictoria became an important part of the writers who helped me while I completed Threshold which will be released in November by Fireship Press in Tucson.

ANOTHER UNCANNY TUCSON CONNECTION

While assisting the West Florida Literary Federation to bring two major New York City poets to Pensacola, I learned that one of them – Barbara Henning – lived in Tucson (while I was there) and was on the faculty at the University of Arizona Poetry Center. This link to the Poetry Center features a series of upcoming readings by poets with the focus on climate change which is the subject of my novel. I plan to attend Joy Harjo’s reading and then stay on in Tucson to promote the release of Threshold which means I will miss Barbara Henning’s performances and workshops in Pensacola during the Foo Foo Festival — our local celebration of arts and culture.

What is it that draws people to Tucson? To Pensacola? Check back soon to read “A Tale of Two Cities” and my migratory route between them over a 20 year period.

 

The Tucson Connection

My romance with Tucson seems predestined.  This long relationship began in my childhood with Dad’s assignment to Davis Monthan AFB.

Fifty years later, I moved back to Tucson to accept a position as Director of Education at the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum. Little did I know that a future friend and writing fellow was finding her way to Tucson from her home in the Republic of Columbia, in northwest South America. We never met while we lived in Tucson but we would later share our love of the desert in a more tropical habitat.

That is because both of us left Tucson and ended up in Pensacola, Florida. Vicki is a member of the Portfolio Writers’ Group, one of many writing groups in the West Florida Literary Federation. She is a poet and talented painter who not only continues to inspire my writing, but who, by virtue of membership, became an early editor of drafts of  the Threshold manuscript.

For me it was wonderful having a talented writer/friend who knew Tucson and is bilingual. She was able to spot problems and to provide correction to Spanish terms and translations. (Vicki is a Spanish instructor at the University of West Florida and provided instruction for students at the University of Arizona while in Tucson.)

It seems that wherever I go, Tucson follows along. I am so glad because it is a community that won my heart. I even bled for it (see previous blog). That initiation got buried in my unconscious. Good thing. I might never have returned!

My Tucson "Connection"
My Tucson “Connection”

See Victoria’s new book of poetry including her gorgeous painting.

Right of Passage in a Monsoon Storm

moth-daturacroppedWhen I fist moved to Tucson, Arizona, I was new to the high desert. Biologists refer to its flora and fauna as “lush”–a term that up until then I would not have chosen for a desert.

Through colleagues at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, I learned about a poetry reading at University of Arizona by Dr. Ofelia Zepeda, 

Dr. Zepeda is a member of the Tohono O’odham Nation, a lifelong desert dweller, a linguist, and cultural preservationist. In 1999 she was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship for her work creating a Tohono O’odham book of grammar. However, Dr. Zepeda’s poetry is what I wish to focus on and how the chance encounter with her performance in the first week of my residency in Tucson led to my deep feeling for a place and community as culturally rich as any I’ve known.

The poetry reading took place in the circular auditorium (kiva) in the American Indian Studies Department at U.A. In the large room with rows pitched down toward the lectern in its center, a soft voice rose and fell. Dr. Zepeda’s was reading from her book, Ocean Power She spoke in O’odham and English, alternating between each as she read.  I closed my eyes to listen to the language of desert communities at Tucson’s origin.

She explained the relationship of her family and community to rain in the desert, its precious nature, and how, after the long hot, dry foresummer, the first monsoon clouds gather, and people point and wait for the first cold dollops of rain.

After her lecture, I walked to my hot, dusty car to drive home. Not long after I was on the road, a massive monsoon cloud, as black as coal, threw lightening strikes like explosions on the ground, and rain burst from the sky, falling n buckets, cleansing the car and blinding my sight. I had to pull over. Flood waters gushed around drains, cars stalled as the water rose, but all the people smiled behind their windshields or stood outside their vehicles with open arms, letting the storm soak them to the bone. It was a celebration, first delivered through Dr. Zepeda’s poetry and, then, by the monsoon itself.  I believe to this day that hearing about rain on the desert in O’odham made the impact of the storm much deeper for me. It was a true rite of passage. Listen to a short video about Dr. Zepeda.

 

Shhh: my book is about . . .

head in sandAs a new writer, taking on the task of a first novel with climate change as the protagonist is tantamount to declaring failure before lifting your pen.

Many dystopias have been written about climate change, and numerous Armageddon-style films produced which draw large audiences. Their stories are so outrageous that we count them as impossible. It may be an entertaining read or box office hit but these forms obfuscate the real threat we face.

When I first conceived the idea for writing Threshold, it followed on a years of reading climate science, talking to local scientists about changes they were seeing in local and regional environments, and reading the latest popular books written for the public’s understanding. The Weather Makers is one that comes to mind. The author, Tim Flannery, is an imminent zoologist who has continued to write about world-wide environmental issues related to climate change.

Yet, a great percentage of people still do not accept that climate change exists. Are we hard-wired to not accept climate change? What is it that defies logic, what we know, to respond instead to what we believe? Does it strike at our deep seated need to protect home and family, to disbelieve something as uncertain as uncertainty?

George Marshall devotes his professional life to studying these questions. In his recent book, “Don’t Even Talk About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change”, Marshall presents the results of interviews and research that make a credible case that our natural inborn defenses and beliefs keep us from responding. But, Marshall is hopeful because what we share in common is so much greater than what separates people about climate change. That fact may be key to bringing about a consensus to act in time.

Planning the book I had to consider who I was writing it for, who would be my readers. How could I write a popular story that gains the attention of people who normally would not read about climate change, may even vociferously deny it (like Ed Flanagan in Threshold). How could I invite everyone into a discussion about it, and what would I learn in doing so? These questions have occupied my mind over a decade, as I drafted, edited, put aside, and finally returned to finish the story.

TO BE CONTINUED

 

 

A Prophet for All Seasons

This film about Aldo Leopold’s life and the development of his thinking about our relationship with land is a true gem. I could not find when it was created, however, the people interviewed are his biographers and scientists who knew and worked with Leopold. It was shown on Wisconsin Public TV. A special treat is narration by Lorne Greene best remembered as “Pa” on Bonanza.

The film gives viewers an in depth history about Aldo Leopold’s life and how his ideas about The Land Ethic evolved over his lifetime.

WATCH EARLY THIS YEAR TO SET YOUR COMPASS TOWARD TRUE NORTH.

Go Set A Watchman: Firecracker that Fizzed?

Just completed listening to Reese Witherspoon read Harper Lee’s book, Go Set A Watchman--a superb rendering of grown-up and 6-yr-old Scout.

Several years ago I read a wonderful biography of Harper Lee, Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee by Charles J. Shields. In the biography I learned that the first draft of To Kill A Mockingbird was one in which the publisher (Lippincott) recognized a unique literary voice. The subsequent work with editors resulted in rewriting the story to include more about Scout’s 6-year old self and her beloved Atticus.

Yet, Go Set A Watchman is an entirely different story. The setting and the flashbacks of grown-up Scout to her childhood are familiar and the wonderful writing we treasure. But the latter chapters of the book are an ABSOLUTE SHOCKER.

Atticus Finch of To Kill A Mockingbird, is our national model of how we want to be, or how we want an educated Southerner to reason and act. In the pages of Go Tell A Watchman we confront the raw truth: the South bred, and in some places, still breeds, its own brand of racial denigration and violence. In Go Set a Watchman, Atticus sounds like a fine member of the Klan: What would happen if all those black folks got into politics? 

Uncle Jack tries to explain it all away through his twisted logic about why southerners still feel slighted by the nation and still distrust Liberals, Yankees, and Blacks. Then he pulls another illogical stunt: Scout should not leave town and shake the dust off her feet, but stay — because when people close to her are wrong, that is reason to stay — purportedly to change their minds. Huh? That just feels like Harper Lee did not quite know how to end the book. Well, it was her first.

But the whole experience left me wondering: just how much was the original edited? Also, think about this: did the editors believe that the nation, especially the South, wasn’t ready to view racism so unabashedly on stage? Did editors radically reshape the novel that we all came to love and cherish? Or, did they simply make it a better book?

Have you read it? What do you think?

Book Clubs Rock!

book club 2 If someone told me I’d be facilitating book club discussions this year, I would have thought they had the wrong person. But it’s true. I now facilitate three books clubs with a fourth possible. The book club discussions are part of my work as a Land Ethic Leader for the Aldo Leopold Foundation in Wisconsin. Leaders create ways to spark discussions about Leopold’s Land Ethic which addresses how communities can come together to protect and conserve human and natural resources. Leopold’s writing, published in A Sand County Almanac (Oxford University Press, 1949) is considered a classic on land and wildlife conservation. I carried a thumb worn copy through 25 years as an environmental educator.

book club meeting with Jean Sparks and Susan FeathesBut why book clubs? New cognitive research shows storytelling and fiction as the most powerful agents for engaging the imagination. I realized novels might be a fun and effective way to engage people in land ethic discussions. However, I did not anticipate how readily people embraced the idea! Two book clubs in the Pensacola area are reading more than one novel. The discussions are vital and personal.

The Interesting Women book club in Melbourne, Florida read Caleb’s Crossing (Geraldine Brooks, 2011) about early American history. One book club member’s husband is an 11th generation descendent of a Wampanoag woman and Puritan settler (married in 1635). The book focuses on these two cultural groups and how they evolved a land ethic. A special meal was served including Mock Whale—chuckeye steak, beef liver, and fish sauce! All the food served related to a scene in the novel.

Update: One of the members of the book club in Melbourne sent this note: “This appears to me to validate your idea of changing attitudes by encouraging reading about it in fiction/stories.  Sounds as though you’re on the right track.

http://www.npr.org/2015/05/01/403474870/does-reading-harry-potter-have-an-effect-on-your-behavior

One of my professors long ago was of the opinion that Mao Tse-tung overthrew Chiang Kai-Chek’s regime in China in the 1930s and 1940s by using folk songs to sway the opinions of the largely illiterate peasants, folk songs being another form of story…”    It’s an interesting world.”

The Aldo Leopold Foundation will feature these activities in their blog about Land Ethic Discussions. Serendipitously, I stopped by the Marjorie Kinning Rawlings State Park on the way home. In my tour group I met eight women from Sarasota. We ate lunch at the Yearling Restaurant. When I asked how they happened to be traveling together, you might guess the answer. Yes, they’re a book club!

Don’t Forget Florida’s Forgotten Coastline

20140217_100305The Forgotten Coast of Florida near Port St. Joe, on the St. Joseph’s Bay, is one of the remaining intact ecosystems in the state and well worth a visit. This photo is near an Indian midden where you can view layer upon layer of broken shells left behind by Indian communities that shelled and fished on the productive bay.

Near the Old Salt Works Cabins on highway 30E, the bay is accessible down long weathered boardwalks. Visitors walk out into the muddy recesses or shallow waters where they can see urchins, tunicates, fiddler crabs, and juvenile fish that use the area as a nursery. 20140216_095052_4_bestshotPeppered through the sea grass beds we found the casts of horseshoe crabs from molting seasons before. My friend, Barbara, is an ecologist who spent the four days of our trip collecting casts and abandoned urchin shells. She described the sea grass beds along the bay as a treasure of Florida’s natural environments because they function as a nursery for numerous species of crustaceans and fish that are important economic species for the Gulf region and primary filters of pollutants that keep the water quality high.

We met a young family from the Atlanta area who were putting together a small catamaran to sail around an enclosed area of the bay on the St. Joe’s Peninsula that arcs like a curved arm protecting the shoreline from storms. Their young sons were busy seining for fish and other sea life. My friend joined them to teach a little ecology in the best environment in the world where children can see the ecosystem at work.

IMG_7142Earlier we had visited the Gulf Specimen Marine Laboratory and Education Center founded by Jack and Anne Rudloe, two of Florida’s important writers and educators about Florida’s marine wildlife. Priceless Florida, The Living Dock, In Search of the Great Turtle Mother, and Shrimp are just several of their many books. The lab and education center are filled with touch tanks and aquarium where families can learn about many species not easily seen from shore such as loggerhead turtles, and octopuses.

20140217_115901Later we visited the St. Andrews Marina which is a working marina where you can observe a variety of fishing vessels. The one pictured here has turtle-excluder devices (TEDs) that allow fast escape of turtles when they are caught up in the netting. Before this apparatus was invented, sea turtle deaths were much more numerous.

St. Joseph’s Peninsula State Park is a wonderful place to snorkel, kayak, fish, camp, and bike. Carl, Barbara’s partner in life and biking enthusiast, enjoyed the 27-mile round trip on a newly completed bike path from the Old Salt Works Cabins to the entrance of the wildlife refuge. The refuge on the last seven miles of the peninsula is a terrific walk where you can observe thirty foot dunes – how much of Florida’s coastline once looked before massive storms and human activities have diminished their size and capacity to shelter the coastline.

Jack Kerouac in Florida

Florida is still a mysterious place to me. It may be red neck, a senior haven, conservative, environmental disaster, but it is also sophisticated, energized, liberal, and gorgeous country more varied than any state in the union.  I have discovered to my surprise that Florida is a haven for great writers. Riding home last night our public radio,WUWF,  featured Bob Kealing— an Emmy award-winning journalist and author. Kealing wrote Jack Kerouac in Florida: Where the Road Ends to chronicle events in Kerouac’s life that are little known. Kealing as journalist found people who were close to Kerouac and was able to find manuscripts and letters that fill in blanks in the life of the beat generation’s guru. He also helped establish the Jack Kerouac house and writer’s residence in Orlando where Kerouac lived with his mother. Explore this site and then listen to Bob Kealing’s 25 minute presentation at University of Central Florida where he talks about how he found the Kerouac materials and the establishment of the Jack Kerouac house.