Readings and Themes
Introduction and Context
Peter Turchi, “Metaphor: or, The Map” from Maps of Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer
Matt Roberts, Mary G. Robins, Steph Ceraso, Deborath Fries, “Conceptual Maps” from Ecotone
Walking and Memory
Joshua Dolezal, “Selway by Headlamp” from Fourth Genre
Rebecca Solnit, “Open Door” from A Field Guide to Getting Lost
Janet Cardiff, “The Walking Body” from The Walk Book
Fear and Survival
Pam Houston, “On (Not) Climbing the Grand Teton” from A Little More About Me
Evelyn White, “Black Women in the Wilderness” from Norton Anthology of Nature Writing
Laurence Gonzales, “The Rules of Life” from Deep Survival
Water and Family
Terry Tempest Williams, “Whistling Swan” and “White Pelicans” from Refuge
Elizabeth Stone, “Fairy Godmothers and Patron Saints” from Black Sheep and Kissing Cousins: How Family Stories Shape Us
Rod Giblett, “Philosophy in the Wetlands” and “The Swamp as Monster” from Postmodern Wetlands
Intimacy and the Wild
Ursula Le Guinn, “Coming Back to the Lady” from In the Blast Zone
Mary Austin, “Land of Little Rain” from The Wilderness Reader
Ellen Meloy, “The Second World” from Eating Stone: Imagination and the Loss of the Wild
Note: I am in process of gathering and posting all of the submissions. Thank you for your patience! EJ
I wish I had the scent of balsam to magically transport me back to Eagle Cap Wilderness. Back to a time and place so far from my life and responsibilities here in Moscow. It was 57 days ago, but it seems longer.
My refrigerator is plastered with pictures from our trip. The meadow we camped at the first and last evening, Swamp Lake, and a stream reflecting the morning light.
Emily and I took a dip in Swamp Lake. We wore nothing. It was so… refreshing. Ellen, Susan and I bathed and washed out our clothes, and dried them on huge granite stones warmed from the sun. The peppermint soap replaced the sour smell of our sweat.
The sound of Ellen and Susan laughing like sisters with secrets, the site of Katie in yet another yoga pose, the dance of Sheila’s movements like a butterfly, the silent tear that escaped the bluest of eyes, the strength, compassion, kinship and sisterhood, the endless bags of gorp, these are the things I remember the most. I have all but forgotten the sore back, hips, and heels, or the fire that branded perfectly good clothes.
I will never forget the feeling of my spirit filled to overflowing that lasted long past the winding road home.
“Weeping may endure for a night but joy comes in the morning.” Psalms 30:5
Last night was a long night. Stuck in a hotel in Hermiston, Oregon, the last place on earth I desired to be, I fought to open my eyes when once again one of my children woke and cried. They both have colds so one or the other was awake every hour all night long. Head aching, I lay thinking about the different nights in my life that seemed even longer than this one.
The feeling of cold hits me first, bone-penetrating cold that chills even the memory of the night at Swamp Lake, six weeks ago. I lay huddled in a borrowed sleeping bag, its unfamiliar contours limp against my shivering body. Fumbling with numb fingers, I pull the drawstring tighter around my face in a vain attempt to construct a better barrier between myself and the freezing night air. The rain begins. I hear it hitting the tarp above my face, the sound like tiny dancing feet, the sound of the rain on the roof of the old trailer I slept in as I snuggled my week-old daughter on the couch all night, holding her body against my chest, my body heat the only thing keeping her tiny frame warm. Those raindrops danced above my head.
They danced on the roof of a tiny rental in Fresno the night I lay waiting for news that my mom had died.
I was eleven, my new baby sister but three weeks old. The long hoped-for and prayed-for baby lay in her laundry-basket crib because the new cradle was not yet done. How my mother hated placing her new tiny treasure in a laundry basket. And now she was dying. Her face had gone gray after dinner and she had gone to lie down. That was hours ago. And I lay still in the dark in bed waiting for the phone to ring.
The dark presses on my open eyes, staring up at the unseen silver underbelly of the red tarp. Not my tarp. Someone gave me the tarp for the night to keep the freezing rain off my sleeping bag and I had stretched it tight hoping its shelter would keep me warm that night. I am not warm. I am shivering with the deep, gut tightening clenching that makes me wish I had not eaten any of the green soup I cooked for dinner. That soup churns in my shivering gut. Take my mind away. With the rain comes tears. My own rain, the tears are the wetness that the tarp cannot stop and they coat the inside of the limp sleeping bag. I cry for my babies whom I miss desperately. I cry for the man I love who is far, far away. I cry for the loathing of the weakness that has once again betrayed me on the trail. I cannot stop the tears. This time.
As I lay in the dark long ago I did not cry. I lay awake listening to the baby in her laundry basket breathing softly, waiting. Waiting without tears. Waiting for her to wake again, waiting for the phone to ring. Waiting and trying not to see in my mind the face of my mother drained of color, of her fainting, slumped against the wall, of my dad’s strong hands lifting her and her unsteady steps to the car. Of his hurried and jumbled words telling me nothing, of the words hospital and don’t know and call you. Grandma will take care of you. I will call. I lay flat in the dark and waited. I lay on my back.
Usually I sleep on my stomach. In a clinging cold bag I cannot lay on my stomach and let the cocoon of sleep roll over me so I lay on my back, my eyes open, staring at the cold as if it is something I can actually see instead of something I feel on my wet eyeballs. I lay on the ground, hard and cold and flat under my tarp. The red tarp in the dark that is not mine. I lay and wait for morning to come, for my salvation from the gut-churning cold and the missing my family. I lay and count the miles between me and home. Home and warm. Home and soft and arms enfolding me and small hands holding mine. So many miles. Hundreds of miles. One mile for every minute of that interminable night.
The minutes ticked by in the dark and still the phone did not ring. I counted the miles, following in my mind the car as it drove to the hospital, wherever that was. The strong hands against my mother and the brightly lit windows of the emergency room pouring their garish florescence out into the quiet night. The grayness of her face. The scratching of a pen against paper. More minutes crept by as I lay in the dark on my top bunk three weeks after my eleventh birthday listening to my sister breathe.
The red tarp seems to breathe. Air sucks it in and out above me and I watch it in my mind, in and out, concave, convex, concave. Dancing footprints of rain have gone away and in their place stillness. Quiet, the quiet of outdoors where lurks the noises of small animals, the sound of space, the sound of the cold which is everywhere, not just in touch but also in sound. The sounds ought to bring fear but instead they bring comfort. In a world where sight is blurry and unpredictable, sound is my lifeline. And prayer is my lifeline. Counting the miles between myself and the ones I love I know that God is with both and the thought brings comfort. I know that my prayers, whispered between shivering lips, still salty with a coating of tears will reach them via the One who loves them even more than I.
Many a night my prayers have been sent heavenward but never so despairingly as the night I waited for my mother to die. As I waited for a phone call. As I waited to know what was wrong. I prayed. I did not believe that the fervency of my prayers would make any difference to a God who already knew the answer to the questions in my heart but it did not stop me from praying them. I trusted God with the unshakable faith of an eleven-year-old child but even then I did not expect the answer to necessarily be yes. I hoped, oh yes, how I begged God, but I knew it often is no. I knew even then that God gives us no’s and I was preparing my heart, protecting my heart from what I knew might be coming.
The phone call never came but at last morning did. Light crept into the room; the baby woke and needed to be fed. My dad, the sort of person who does not call unless he has something to say never called. Grandma and I fed the baby. We still waited to know.
Dawn creeps in slowly after a cold night. It seems stiff and creaky like an old cat who stretches herself upon waking, long and slow, working each muscle in turn. I wait, knowing there were still hours to endure before breakfast and a fire. Light comes into my tarp reluctantly, heat comes even more slowly. At last, voices. Someone is awake. I lay still, listening.
Every sound made me look up, ears unconsciously waiting for news, for my dad, for a neighbor, something, anything. Without warning, the door opened and my dad came in. Tired. He wanted the baby, he said. He needed to take the baby to the hospital to mom. No, mom had not died in the night. No, they did not know what was wrong. The doctors were running tests. He needed the baby. He needed her clothes and diapers and a car seat. He looked tired.
I have to force stiff limbs to move. Tears still hover close and I don’t want to take them down to the camp fire where voices drift up to me on the blue haze of woodsmoke. I push back the limp and slimy bag, halfheartedly extricating my aching legs, my numb feet. I am now that cat, moving each stiff muscle as if I am swimming in syrup, thick and sticky and dragging at my body. I trudge a meandering path toward the voices.
Voices hovered around me as I walked down the gray-carpeted hallway of the hospital. Hushed voices trickled from rooms beside me, breezy voices from behind me on the left where we had passed a nurse’s station. I carried the three-week-old baby in my arms, her fiery red hair tousled against my shoulder, her warm limpness sinking into the crook of my elbow. Walking beside my towering father, I carried her carefully, looking up only when an old man passed us. That your baby? He asked. I shook my head no in wonderment and disgust. I was only eleven. I still needed a mother myself; I was not the mother to the tiny bundle I carried. We arrived at her room. She lay in bed, on her back like I had been while I waited. I did not cry as I handed the baby to her. I had not cried from fear and I did not cry from relief now. She was alive and would live, she wasn’t going to die, she explained to me. She’d almost died. There were blood clots in her legs, she said. She’d almost died when the ER doctor wanted to run a scope. But he hadn’t done it. She’d almost died when the circulation had been completely cut off to both her legs. But she hadn’t. She would still have years of pain ahead, of therapy, of not being able to nurse my sister because of the blood thinners, of chronic fatigue from no circulation in her ruined veins, but she would live. She would live to watch my sister grow and to guide me through the turmoil of high school. A deep gratitude punctuated my prayers that night, knowing that God did not have to let her live.
In the moment gratitude feels as heartfelt for smaller things as it does years later for the larger. As I stand next to the fire at Swamp Lake, a gratitude fills me for the simple life-sustaining warmth of sun, of fire, of people. Frost coats the slippery surface of rocks and the steep side of my red tarp. But it doesn’t matter now, every minute the sun reaches more of it, melting it away and warming the patches of grass. I still feel numb, outside and in, dreading the day’s work ahead after a sleepless night, yet knowing that once I warm up a kind of euphoria will hit, a triumph. It is over. The long, long night is over and I made it. The long trek out looms ahead of me but I know I will make it through that also. I am a different person than I was when I went to bed the previous evening, stronger and more vulnerable.
This morning came all too quickly, my son with his little nose running and his little whine unending climbed up on the hotel bed next to me. I asked and was informed that it was nearly seven; I knew in spite of my fuzzy brain that I needed to rise and begin my day, giving up hope of having any sleep. There was a family birthday party to attend, a four-hour drive ahead with these same cranky children and an evening event. No matter. It was morning and whatever else the day held, it meant the long night was over.
A Most Dangerous Place This is a story-in-progress.
Plant, step, plant, step is what I’m saying as I walk the Grand Canyon’s south rim. I’m aware of the tiniest lisp of breath on my lips as I say the words, and the hushed crunch of scree as I stab the trail with my hiking poles, and the rafters camped below on the northern bank of the Colorado River and that their boats look like buttons from this height. Can they see me? Do they know how close I am to the edge? Do they know I could actually die? Wait. Am I ready to die? Once I spent a year in London studying at the British Library and got so lonely I wanted to die. This is different. This is real. And I’m doing everything I can to keep from dying.
My dad, who is ahead of my by twenty paces, calls out: “There’s no room for error,” and I wonder what he feels, wonder if this is why he’s so attracted to wilderness, and why of all the places in the Arizona we could be hiking, he picked the most dangerous, a remote Grand Canyon trail called the Beamer that starts at a Lava Rapids and winds along an exposure for miles until it reaches the Little Colorado.
I know there’s no room for error but I don’t call back to him. I can’t afford to lose a second of concentration. Plus I’m breathless. Isn’t it weird I’m breathless and aware of my breathlessness and thinking about the awareness of my breathlessness all at the same time? And I’m not afraid. Isn’t that amazing? I really am not afraid.
A few days earlier, on a sign at the trailhead, my dad and I had read about a young woman named Margaret Bradley who had died in a place named Cremation drainage, where the estimated temperature was 120 degrees. She had started off on a day trip without a map, or enough food and water, and so when she took a wrong trail, she was fatally ill-prepared. But my dad and I were prepared. We were hiking in mid-March, the safest time of the year in the canyon when temperatures don’t rise above 80 degrees. Before we left our base camp that morning, we dressed in khaki pants, short sleeve wicking shirts, and Asolo boots. We threw several bottles of water, ten power bars, the topos map, a first aid kit, and a couple of headlamps in a day pack. What we didn’t realized is that we’d be hiking on the extreme exposure of a crumbling trail, something neither of us had done before.
A swallow dives a few feet below me, snatching up insects. She twists and twirls in the air then cuddles into the canyon wall, reminding me that there’s a parallel world here, where one life form is safe, and another is in great danger.
One bird that doesn’t live in the Arizona desert is the nightingale, but I associate it with the Grand Canyon state because I first learned the story of that bird at the University of Arizona in Tucson. I was sitting in the office of my professor and mentor, Terry. Terry looked a lot like my dad—they were men of the same era, of average height and weight, with light-brown, nondescript hair. What did stand out about both was their intensity, the way they leaned toward you as they talked, like what they were saying right then was the most important thing in the world.
I needed to know the story of the nightingale because I was specializing in John Keats for my PhD exams, and I would have a question about the poem whose origins I didn’t know. PhD exams are the final hurdle. They’re more stressful than anything else students endure during their graduate career. They make or break candidates. I had already failed my exams once, and Terry was doing his best to help build my confidence.
“I think we need to rest a while,” my dad says. In my peripheral vision, he throws himself against the bank and grabs a spindly shrub. I get there and sit next to him. He wears a visor and I’m in a yellow bandana. We lean against the bank, stomachs taut and legs bent in a squat, our feet rooted to the trail. We’re not safe. Stopping just gives us a chance to affirm to one another that we are still alive. “I don’t know about this trail,” he says. “Some of this, mountain goats wouldn’t even attempt.” A few inches beyond our toes the south rim drops six hundred feet straight down. Across from us, the north rim looms, still snowy.
I’d been on dozens of hiking trips with my dad, and I loved them because it was our father-daughter thing in a family where most activities were father-son. I have three brothers and no sisters. When I was growing up, I learned to ride motorbikes and climb trees and talk about hunting and basketball, and more than once I lay in bed at night wishing I were a boy. It’s not that I wanted a penis or had questions about my sexuality. I just felt like I’d fit into the world better if I were—well, a man. My mom was pretty male-centered too. A tom-boy in high school, she loved horses and sports and camping more than clothes and cooking and entertaining. It was as if we were a family of boys. But that changed when we came of age. Each of my brothers took his place in the family plumbing business. I went to graduate school.
My parents watch the baby ducks: one, two, three, four, five. Small, furry balls of yellow and brown floating behind the mother with subtlety and grace.
“Look,” my parents say. “They’re so cute.” Meanwhile, their two children are grown and gone, giving them the courtesy of one more trip to the lake.
We canoe to the beach on half moon island. We rest our canoe on the sand and wade to shore, knowing this is the side with the leeches. We have red hot dogs to grill, and we wish the dog who swam laps in the lake was still alive. We build a fire on the beach and cook the red hot dogs on skewers. How long do we have? A storm is brewing.
We take turns swimming. Watching and swimming. Feeling safe. Unsafe. The lake we’ve known for so long now dangerous. White caps. I remember how my brother jumped in to save me. I’m not sure how close I was to drowning – maybe not close at all – but that was the story we told, that he had saved my life.
My Great Aunt sends me a birthday card with a hummingbird on the front, just like the hummingbirds that buzz around the outside of her camp in Maine. My great aunt bathes in the lake. It is a familiar image: her white, plastic bathing cap decorated with fake flowers. She uses a bar of soap. Now, I can’t help but think that one of the last great bodies of water is polluted with soap. Instead, I’ll try to remember the water that is wide, flat, forgiving.
It begins with a cold starry night, camped beside the Lostine River
She murmurs to herself as she dances down the mountains
I fumble with my tent pole and my chest seizes in terror. Breathe.
The sun is climbing towards his perch in the sky
Dew drops on delicate pink petals promise renewal
A little hiking lifts my burden. I breathe in.
Pure still water reflects jagged granite peaks
While shifting clouds tease all who yearn for sunlight
Naked I feel vulnerable and free. I breathe out.
More dead branches to feed the fire
Surrounded by 10 warm women, 10 different stories
I absorb them, and the warmth, with wonder. We breathe together.
Snow plops down from the black sky and by morning the mountain meadow is white
My fingers ache with cold as they snap the buckle at my sternum closed
Hiking down the mountain our breaths trail behind us, laughing in the mountain air.
Smoke and Paper
I don’t remember the year the fires came and took the trees and houses from the top of Mount Lemmon. I was absorbed in bookmaking, signature binding, gluing davey board to cloth.
You didn’t know it, but I wanted to quit smoking. Smoke from the fires billowed up like a ghost, the monster from my conscience, intimidated and frightened and familiar.
One morning, I thought a monsoon was coming, and my bookbinding friends glanced out the window. “No, it’s the fires on Mount Lemmon,” they corrected me nonchalantly, turning attention back to sewing pages together.
It was monsoon season, and I made a tiny accordion book about the weather. It was easy to do, didn’t require much. As the fires raged on, I cut and glued blurry photographs, perfect squares. The final page was a rainbow – a blurt of brilliance crammed into a two-by-two inch accordion.
Quitting meant so much to me. To let go, but to grab something new. A reach into the unknown. The switch from pessimism to optimism.
You were gone then, where—making movies, sitting in trees?
Carefully and late one evening, I transferred your image to a fancy piece of paper. The printing press squeaked as I cranked the handle, squeezing you onto the page, the orange solvent stinging my nose. You didn’t know it, but I had also carved your face on a woodblock, bobbing down a river like a memory, gushing with red and black ink.
I heard from Steph that you passed the bar and you’re working at the hot dog cart, just like old times.
Your face lives on in smoke and paper.