Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Not exactly dead white guy stuff, but another artsy interruption nonetheless

As a product of the American West, and a confessed biophiliac, I have something of a soft spot for naturalist artists from the West and Southwest. While many people are probably passingly familiar with the brilliant Edward Abbey, and I too love his writings, no naturalist seems to speak to me and my experiences in the West more than Terry Tempest Williams, a Utahn, a naturalist, and a gifted poet and essayist.

Williams was on my local NPR affiliate's morning talk show Radio West this week, talking about her new book, Finding Beauty in a Broken World. Even listening to her on the radio was lovely enough to almost lull me to a pleasant sleep at my cubicle (and I don't just mean when she was giving readings directly from the book), so I went to the nearest bookstore afterward to see if I couldn't pick up a copy for myself. Well, lame ass Borders that it is, did not yet have the book. So instead, I walked away with Williams' most highly acclaimed book to date, Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place.

Here's the back-of-the-book blurb:
In the spring of 1983, Terry Tempest Williams learned that her mother was dying of cancer. Tht same spring, Great Salt Lake began to rise to record heights, threatening the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge and with it the herons, owls, and snowy egrets that Williams, a poet and naturalist, had to come to gauge her life by. One event was nature at its most random, the other a by-product of rogue technology: Terry's mother, and Terry herself, had been exposed to the fallout of atomic bomb tests in the 1950s. As it interweaves these narratives of dying and accommodation, Refuge transforms tragedy into a document of renewal and spiritual grace, resulting in a work that seems certain to become a classic in the literatures of women, nature, and grieving.
Yeah, I know, how can we possibly resist? The product between the covers doesn't disappoint. It's just beautiful and painful and then beautiful again.
The light begins to deepen. It is sunset. I open the shutters, so Mother can see the clouds. I return to her bedside. She takes my hand and whispers, "Will you give me a blessing?"

In Mormon religion, formal blessings of healing are given by men through the Priesthood of God. Women have no outward authority. But within the secrecy of sisterhood we have always bestowed benisons upon our families.

Mother sits up. I lay my hands upon her head and in the privacy of women, we pray.


It's the Fourth of July, and the family decides to celebrate in the Tetons. Mother says she is sick of lying in bed and needs a change of scenery. I wonder how far she can push herself.

Brooke and I, with Mother and Dad, hike to Taggart Lake.

The Taggart-Bradley fire of last fall has opened up the country. It is a garden of wildflowers with fireweed, spirea, harebell, lupine, and heart-leaf arnica shimmering against the charred bark of lodgepole pines.

I have never been aware of the creek's path until now. It feels good to be someplace lush. The salt desert is too stark for me now because my interior is bare.

We reach the lake, only a mile and a half away, but each step for Mother is a triumph of will. She rests on her favorite boulder, a piece of granite I have known since childhood. She leans into the shade of the woods and closes her eyes.

"This feels so good," she says as the wind circles her. "It feels so good to be cool. I feel like I'm burning up inside."

A western tanager, red, yellow, and black, flies to the low branch of a lodgepole.

"Look, Mother! A tanager!" I hand her my binoculars.

"You look for me..." she says.


I am retreating into the Wasatch Mountains. I cannot travel west to Great Salt Lake. It is too exposed, too wicked, and too hot with one-hundred degree temperatures. The granite of Big Cottonwood Canyon invigorates me as I hike from Brighton to Lake Catherine. Glacier lilies blanket the meadows. Usually they are gone by now. I pick one and press it between the pages of my journal.

"For mother--" I say to myself, rationalizing my act, when I know it is for me.

Hiking the narrow trial up the steep slope massages my lungs. I breathe deeply. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale.

I climb up the last pass and break down into the cirque. My lungs and legs feel strong. I hve the lake to myself. My ears begin to throb with the altitude. My eyes water in the wind. I take off my rucksack, pull out my windbreaker and lunch. I can see the rock I am going to sit on. I hike down a little further and settle in.

Peeling an orange is a good thing to do in the mountains. It slows down. You bite into the tart rind, pull it back with your teeth and then let your fingers undress the citrus. Nothing else exists beyond or before this task. The naked fruit is in your hands waiitng for sections to be separated. Halves. Quarters. And then the delicacy of breaking the orange down to its smallest smile.

I lay out these ten sections on the flat granite rock I am sitting on. The sun threatens to dry them. But I wait for the birds. Within minutes, Clark's nutcrackers and gray jays join me. I suck on oranges as the mountains begin to work on me.

This is why I always return. This is why I can always go home.
It's all I can do to make myself stop excerpting at some point, and not just go straight on to transcribe the entire thing for you to read. If you want more TTW, check out one of my favorite of her essays, which you can read for free here at her site.

There are a few things I can name about what I love about (and so maybe this is a justifiable "interruption" in a way) this kind of writing: 1-The high standard of justice naturalists hold themselves and our world to. 2-The recognition that community and relationships--not just with other humans but with the world and with non-human creatures--are important to achieving that justice and peace. And 3-The escapism from capitalist relationships, the ability of naturalists to connect people and animals and nature to one another independent of capital and profit. Sure, they eventually have to climb down from the mountain and go back to the exploitation, but I still think this sort of escapism can play an important role even by envisioning for us another way of living and coexisting.

No comments: