Fires, landscape and loss

Our sense of landscape goes deeper than familiar hikes and favorite cafés. The streets we know, personal landmarks we pass, buildings we spend our days in and the views from their windows, they all give our lives contour and context.

When that landscape is incinerated, as it has been in Santa Rosa, in Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties, our inner compass points burn too.

The horizon of losses from these ongoing fires feels endless and is not fully known. Families, friends, animals, and community are what matter most. Losing your home and belongings is its own depth charge of a nightmare. And it’s no small thing to lose the places where you’ve left footsteps and gathered memories.

Map of Evacuation Centers in Sonoma, Napa County and Beyond. From The Press Democrat

Tipping Point Emergency Relief Fund

Extensive listings of organizations helping fire evacuees, places for evacuees and their pets and large animals, organizations accepting donations. From SFGate

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POV & Unreliable Narrators—in fiction & in life

In fiction, stories are often told in the voice of a reliable narrator. It’s a voice that guides us through a story without skewing the nature of the events taking place, the characters experiencing them, or the underlying truths and meanings depicted.

Point of view, or POV, is basically where that narrator’sand the reader’ssight is aimed.

And POV is what jumped out at me about the “echo chamber” memo (full text) written by a junior engineer at Google that went viral early in August. It covered what he saw as Google management’s misconceptions about women’s capabilities, and what he called the Google echo chamber. To back his argument, he presented supporting evidence that appeared carefully cherry-picked.

His memo illustrates what the default setting is for a lot of us:

when we look out at the world, we think of our own first person point of view as a reliable narrator.

But here’s the catch. We forget to examine our assumptions. We forget we’ve even made assumptions. And we forget the ways in which we tend to gloss over or ignore whatever doesn’t fit our constructs.

In the realm of fiction, this is something a good beta reader will cure you of pretty quickly by pointing out gaps and inconsistencies. Most writers are familiar with these wake-up calls from the world outside our own heads.

In the day-to-day of non-writing life, we each tend to create our own POV-reinforcing echo chambers, and there aren’t necessarily any beta readers to snap us out of it.

The second thing that struck me about the echo chamber memo, and has deepened through events surrounding and since the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, is how tired I am of a particular strain of white narrative voice, especially as it’s become increasingly histrionic and exhausting.

It’s a voice that’s been with us always, but its vituperative levels have been rising here in the states since the 2016 US presidential campaign. And it was during coverage of Charlottesville that the weariness finally hit me full force. It’s a tiredness with deep roots, from decades of being raised, schooled, cajoled, ridiculed, and judgedusually unfavorablyby this particular POV.

I think of it as the voice of the Old White Guard, although it obviously has new constituents. And, full disclosure, I’m half white or anglo myself.

So let’s call this POV first person self-reflexive. It’s from a specific subset of white culture. It’s often male. It’s entirely self-referential. It doesn’t question its own accuracy and is certain those who disagree are wrong. It isn’t convinced that all white males are qualified and capable, never mind women and people of other skin colors.

It also has a need to diminish everyone else in the room that’s reached the white-knuckle stage lately. And that’s what has stood out most: in an era of global challenges that demand stepping up with creative, collaborative, and inventive responses, this is a voice that sounds unsurpassably needy and self-focused.

If there’s an upside to this continuum of events, from the echo chamber memo to the violence and invective surrounding and since the Unite the Right rally, it’s that we’ve had the chance to see how limited and how skewed this POV is—a classic example of an unreliable narrator.

They can have their say just like the rest of us, but they can’t eclipse the multiplicity of voices across the breadth of the United States, or any other country.

We need to keep moving forward to a multi-racial, ethnic, culture, religion, gender democracy.

Let’s call that point of view collective-omniscient. It may be noisy and demanding work, but if we keep our eyes, conversations, and POVs open, we’ll get there.

A walk through the Redwoods

Any time you need to get out, get calm, and breathe, I recommend a visit with the Redwoods. They’re some of the earth’s oldest breathing citizens, who count time in decades and centuries instead of seconds.

This is a small tribute to the trees and caretakers of the Armstrong Redwoods near Guerneville, California.

 

Invest in the millennium.  Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit.   Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
–    Wendell Berry,
from Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

published in The Country of Marriage

 

 

Trees are the earth’s endless efforts to speak to the listening heaven.
Rabindranath Tagore, Fireflies

The greatest gift of a garden is the restoration of the five senses.
– Hanna Rion, Let’s Make a Flower Garden

 

Visitors were enchanted by crooked, gnarled trees I would previously have dismissed because of their low commercial value. Walking with my visitors, I learned to pay attention to more than just the quality of the trees’ trunks.
– Peter Wohlleben, from the introduction
to
The Hidden Life of Trees

 

 

 

Restoration ecology is experimental science…. In its attempts to reverse the processes of ecosystem degradation it runs exactly counter…to the whole cultural attitude of regarding the Earth as commodity rather than community.
–   Stephanie Mills 

 

…most individual trees of the same species growing in the same stand are connected to each other through their root systems. It appears that nutrient exchange and helping neighbors in times of need is the rule, and this leads to the conclusion that forests are superorganisms with interconnections much like ant colonies.
–  Peter Wohlleben,
The Hidden Life of Trees

 

 

I frequently tramped eight or ten miles through the deepest snow to keep an appointment with a beech-tree, or a yellow birch, or an old acquaintance among the pines.
–  Henry David Thoreau

 

Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
– Mary Oliver, from When I Am Among the Trees from Thirst

 

In every walk with Nature one receives far more than he seeks. –  John Muir

 

What did the tree learn from the earth
to be able to talk with the sky?
–  Pablo Neruda

 

The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. Some see Nature all ridicule and deformity, and some scarce see Nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, Nature is Imagination itself.
–  William Blake

 

 

Voyages, vacations, and road trips

To celebrate summer travel, some excerpts from Travels with Myself and Another by Martha Gellhorn, an American journalist and novelist who covered wars from WWII to Vietnam.

As anyone who travels much knows, things on the road―or water―don’t always go as planned, and that is often where the adventure begins. The focus of these essays are some of Gellhorn’s voyages that didn’t go so well, and include China, Africa, the Caribbean, and Suriname.

The pictures are my own, taken in Northern California.

 

The airline, called China National Aviation Company (CNAC) consisted of two DC3s and three DC2s, elderly machines and no nonsense about comfort. Compared to passenger planes now, these were flying beetles.

We climbed, as if climbing a spiral staircase, in tight jolting circles over Hong Kong until we reached fourteen thousand feet. All lights went off except the dim light in the pilot’s cabin and we crossed the Japanese lines, brightly lit far below. In half an hour, the storm hit us. I had been watching the flickering exhaust flame on a wing, but the wing vanished into cloud that looked grainy and hard as granite. Hail sounded like a threshing machine. Everything froze including the air speed indicator. Roy explained that if the speed dropped below sixty-three miles per hour the plane stalled and went into a spin, but there was no cause for anxiety; he opened his window a crack and judged air speed that way; he’d done it often.”

 

The dinghy was not as long as I am. Carlton put the hatch cover in it, making a peculiar seating or lying arrangement, a convex curve for two thirds of the length then a drop to a concave curve. I spread the blankets on this surface, placed the pillow at one end, slid my legs under the seat and established myself with umbrella for sunshade. All I had to do was duck when the boom swung over.”

 

With a picnic, water and heavy sandwiches, I set off to explore. St Martin was a magic island. Secret white sand coves indented the shore. I chose one far from town, walled in by thick bush that the rain had polished and framed by swaying royal palms. Under a china-blue sky, I sat naked in the shallows to watch schools of fish, recognizing only silver baby barracudas. And waded out to swim through glass-clear Nile-green water, where you could see below to the sand and more passing fish, into silky deep sapphire sea.”

 

[Paramaribo Grand Hotel, Suriname]

“I was swooning with happiness by five o’clock when I settled on a ruptured cane chair in the lobby to listen to the going gossip. At five o’clock promptly the mosquitoes arrived. ‘Union mosquitoes,’ a soldier observed. ‘They work from 5 p.m. to 5 a.m.’ They were the biggest mosquitoes I had met anywhere and fearless, they zoomed in to cover one’s arms and legs and died feeding while others replaced those you had beaten to death. When the blazing sun went down, the air refused to cool despite nightly rainy season cloudbursts. The rain was lukewarm, encouraged the mosquitoes, turned the streets into quagmires which dried to deep dust a half hour after sunrise. Between five and six in the morning, there was a very faint freshness to breathe.”

Find the book here

Read about Gellhorn, and the journalism prize awarded in her name, here

Writing what we know vs. going where the writing scares us

A few days ago, wading through a tsunami of belongings at a storage unit, a thought about writing jumped out at me. There is a danger in writing what we know, and I was basically surrounded by the physical manifestation of it.

Over-writing, narratives loaded with enough detail to make the most patient reader wince. I’ve certainly read a lot of work like this and have produced computer files full of it myself. The problem with writing what we know and staying on familiar ground is this: we can end up like guides who know so much about their subject that they can’t get out of the way of the story.

When we’re writing about something we don’t know, something we’re not sure we have the CV to take on, we haven’t got that life’s worth of detail to immerse ourselves and our readers in. It’s like trekking toward a summit we’ve caught a glimpse of. We take only the bare essentials along, and don’t waste energy or oxygen on the unnecessary.

Yes, we have life experience. We have cultural, historical and personal perspectives we can layer insparingly. But we let the path and the scenery speak for themselves, because they are so new, so fresh, and so bare-knuckle present, we don’t want to obscure any of it.

 

Stepping away from busy brain syndrome

…where every detail, thought, and idea is pinned like a specimen to an organizing structure, every minute has its task, and every day has to account for itself in a hierarchy of accomplishments.

 

Sometimes, you just have to drop all that, get away, and drift without a mental itinerary directing every move.

 

 

 

 

 

For me, zoning out in front of TV shows doesn’t help. It makes me feel pinned and immobilized like a specimen on a display board.

 

 

 

 

My definition of getting away means settling down into the depths, away from the noise, long enough to remember how to breathe.

 

 

 

 

Some days that’s made possible by disappearing into a good book or into music that carries me off into its own specific world.

 

 

 

 

Some days it requires a car, a camera, and a country road.

 

 

 

 

 

Writing report:

Nothing was submitted in March. The story I worked on for submission felt a little too incendiary and is getting reviewed, to make sure that it makes its point instead of just setting off fireworks. For April, two stories are nearly completed, in the sense of feeling fully edited and cleaned up, and at least one of them should be ready to send out by the end of this week.

Wisteria & Winter’s Tale

The only connection here is that I’ve been fascinated by them both lately, and thought it was possible that others might appreciate pictures of the flowers and quotes from the book.

Mark Helprin’s writing is as precise as the wisteria blooms and as inspiring as their scent. Reading his work is a solid lesson in great writing.

 

“He had never been in a building. For all he knew, when he opened the door he would see a new city within, as vast and entertaining as the one he had just discovered.”

“Each tower had a minute of free view, after which it would spend the rest of eternity contemplating the shins of its competitors.”

 

“The new year was rolling at them as wide and full as a tide racing up the bay, sweeping over old water in an endless coil of ermine cuff.”

“It would take a day at the blackboard to figure out the theory of this alarm system. He had no hope of controverting it in the dark at six degrees above zero. Impressed and even delighted, Peter Lake went around the side of the house and climbed onto the broad ledge of a window.”

 

 

“Peter Lake had heard Beverly say that the greater the stillness, the farther you could travel, until, in absolute immobility, you achieved absolute speed. If you could hold your breath, batten yourself down, and stop every atom from its agitation within you, she had said, you could vault past infinity.”

“…of all the means to the tranquility he now sought, a quiet snowfall was the most elegant and the most generous.”

 

“…she was familiar with the vast billowing nebulae in which one filament of a wild and shaken mane carried in its trail a hundred million worlds.”

Visit Mark Helprin’s website here, and look for a copy of Winter’s Tale here.