Wednesday, August 21, 2013


My strategy as a writer has been to follow certain threads on, writing at least a thousand words a day, and then to gather those threads into categories that can be rewritten or just left intact if edited, so that they can be more formally “published”, meaning that they will constitute a manuscript focused (more or less) on one thing.  I’ve made a list of these threads at the bottom of the main page of the blog.  They are not based on what will sell, but on what interests me enough to write on the subject.  Rhizomes and the stolons that join them.

I have a legal pad beside me headed “Posts that are memoir.”  Nothing is listed yet.  Maybe I’ll get at it this afternoon.  I wasn’t consistent about tags, so I have to look at each post, but then -- it’s hard to know what is and is not memoir.  Mostly people expect a neatly organized trajectory through a career to fame and fortune, with enough certified facts to win a court case.  Even educated people who know better.  Or maybe one could do an anti-success, all the failed attempts that end with alcoholism in a sordid hotel.

I believe that geography/geology/ecology underlies all of human life because we, like all other life, are evolved out of and controlled by the planet itself.  So let me speculate on how this might structure my memoir.

First, I was conceived on a San Juan Island in a dramatic thunderstorm: so claimed my mother.  Then there’s that little trope that begins with the fact that my parents were there to visit my father’s previous girl friend who had bright red hair, and my hair was indeed red, which proved to my mother the whole theory about three-in-a-bed, two real and one conjured.  But what did it prove about red-headed women?

Portland, the good gray city at the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia Rivers, where in my earliest years, the WWII industry of creating war ships and planes had attracted the dark people -- blacks and Indians -- to do the hardest work.  The sounds of pounding and shearing and test combustions filled the night.  By high school they were one-fifth of the student body.

In the Cold War years (1945 to 1957 or later) public schools were taught by women in late middle age, many unmarried, dedicated to teaching as the highest calling, and sturdy in their allegiance to solid American values.  I read Anya Seton novels and inhabited the heart-pounding sweepaway land of romance, but also Westerns and Transcendentalists.  The family traveled as a small quarreling group back and forth across America, visiting monuments, observing a victorious but maimed and traumatized people, sleeping along the road in a tent-trailer.

Chicago was key: theatre, acting, objectivity overruled by the inhabitation of other people’s minds and hearts.  In 1961 Kennedy became president and noticed the Indian reservations.  (Eisenhower wanted to end them. K. wanted to redeem them.)  I went forth afire.

While others found drugs and rocknroll, the Blackfeet woke from 19th century poverty to the first flickers of awareness.  I slept by the side of a man born there in 1914 but not Indian, just potent and driven.  We lived in local history, anthropology, natural history, and sex.

In the wind on the high east side of the Rockies, we shared the spirituality of old ways.  I also sang in the tiny Methodist choir.  “My” territory was now the old Blackfeet range: Rockies to the Black Hills, Edmonton to Yellowstone.  But also the route of Lewis/Clark, who killed Blackfeet.  I died.

The L/C trail (NOT the Oregon Trail) led back to Portland where I learned a whole new dimension of the city going door-to-door in the nabes as the first female animal control officer.  Dogs came with me, one way or another.

1975 - 1988:  Unitarian Universalist ministry.  Chicago education again.  Small prairie fellowships.  AIDS killed a colleague minister who came to meetings with a beeping pillbox.  Formal prairie theology quickly evolved into something pre-theological and un-institutional, pushing me back to the rez.

Trudging on the L/C trail, pick-up work.  Three years teaching on the rez again, six years as a clerk for the City of Portland, the disintegration of family, then at last writing in this little house in Valier.  Free at last, my God almighty, free at last.

It’s not that I haven’t written until now.  All those years it involved human beings and high aspirations -- religion courses, even.  On the street there was nothing much written about animals yet, but I taught report-writing to the other officers and wrote a training manual for us.  Seminary was ALL reading and writing, but the thinking was different from any I had done: near mathematical, with an entering edge of post-structural thought.   At the same time I kept a public journal before there were blogs:  “The Scriver Seminary Saga,” a page a week, single-spaced on my red Selectric and sent by snail mail. The causes of me end here: the rest is consequences.

Except for one thing: a semi-secret conversation with a heart on fire, a man so similar and so different that the consequences are alchemical, transformational, consuming.  I only travel the L/C path, but he went around the globe and even along the Milky Way, which was my secret way as well.  No others knew that.  We met underground.  I whispered, “feral, guerrilla, poet maudit, counterculture, subculture, transcendence, immanence, sacred, labyrinth, catacomb."  He spoke in tongues, saying I couldn’t understand, never would.  Maybe.  It wasn't about writing; it was about courage, the courage to really write.

Under the continents are tectonic plates that float on lava.  Continents are marked by ruptures and continuities, ancient seas and new volcanoes.  First peoples lived in sunlight, but also in caves and shelters.  “What is the spine of the character?” asks AK.  It is always the need to survive, but who knows which strategy will keep you alive?  By now I’ve seen many die, beloved and despised, lazy and diligent, virtuous and evil.  The Great Implacable Paw of Fate comes down on everyone in the end.  Some don’t feel it until it’s too late to do anything about it.  We live in its sandbox.  That’s all metaphor, unscientific, playful, not true, nasty to the point of stinking.

Years ago I told my mother I had started a memoir that I called “Dark Trees, Silver Rain.”  She sneered.  It scared her.  She thought memoir was the divulgence of secrets and apportionment of blame.  I said, “I’m riding a white horse along a high ridge and I don’t know where I am going.”  She sent me a print of Winslow Homer’s “Bridle Path: White Mountains.”  She did understand.  Sort of.

 I’ve been walking across the ancient, now grassy, sea that formed the sediments that were uplifted into Glacier National Park.  The majority of the rocks forming the mountains of the Peace Park are the result of the deposition of sediments into an ancient inland sea that existed over 1600 million years ago during the middle Proterozoic Era. The ancient Belt Sea covered parts of present-day eastern Washington, northern Idaho, western Montana, and nearby areas in Canada.”  I’m leaving footprints in an ancient beach.  Whether they are an alphabet depends on others, enchaining meaning just as we do with the stars.  Now the more relevant painting would be Winslow Homer’s “Campfire.” 

“Look at nature, work independently, and solve your own problems.” -- Winslow Homer

1 comment:

Bret Rothwell said...

I thank you for this day's piece. As a geologist whose career is now in it's fifth decade, my curiosity is rekindled by the occassional road trip with grandchildren, the conversations seasoned with how local geologic history and its consequences have shaped generations of our human adventures. In revisiting old haunts I am underwelled by how unsustainable exploit of the Planet's resources has had its consequences. As the Earth struggles through continuing cultural genocide, our communal vision for survival is indeed near-sighted, to a fault. Thank you again for your wordsmithing. Sharing it with us uplifts us ...