Category Archives: women’s writing

When Clouds Come Into View

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As my friend and I drove to Ghost Ranch outside Abiquiu, New Mexico, I tried to imagine the dirt road as Georgia O’Keeffe would have driven it in her 1930s roadster. Red rock towers spindled along the narrow highway as we left the Rio Grande valley and ascended the Colorado Plateau. We were on our way to Ghost Ranch as part of the Women Writing the West conference in Santa Fe, but it was a woman painting the Southwest who was on my mind as we drove.

The Ghost Ranch tour was led by Leslie Poling-Kempe, author of Ladies of the Canyons: A League of Extraordinary Women and their Adventures in the American Southwest, a study of the circle of East Coast women who came to New Mexico in the early 1900s to create lives independent of repressive Victorian gender roles. Kempe’s remarkable history of these women is this year’s WILLA scholarly non-fiction award winner and is an impressive work of research that re-illuminates the lives of women whose marks on the Southwest had almost faded from view.

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One of the ladies of the canyon was Carol Bishop Stanley, a trained musician who came to New Mexico on an adventure, married first one cowboy, then another, and never left. Her first gambler husband won a reputedly haunted, remote camp outside Abiquiu from cattle rustlers in a poker game. Stanley became owner after their divorce, named the place Ghost Ranch, and built it into a successful dude ranch and refuge for wealthy families from back East. We toured Stanley’s original adobe home and headquarters with its low ceiling and rustic wooden furniture. Ghost Ranch itself is now owned by the Presbyterian Church and is open to anyone for day or overnight visits. Part of our tour was a preview of a new exhibit at the Ghost Ranch museum about some of the ladies of the canyon, including diaries, photographs, and artifacts of their day.

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Georgia O’Keeffe first visited Ghost Ranch in 1934 and in 1940 bought a piece of the property with a house that had been built by Alfred Pack, who purchased Ghost Ranch from Carol Stanley (read Ladies of the Canyons for the whole story). While O’Keeffe’s house was not part of the tour, we did see the casita she rented when she first came to Bishop’s Ghost Ranch.

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We could also view the Pedernal in the distance, a flat-top mesa in the Jemez range that O’Keeffe painted many times as the colors changed with light and season, joking that it was her private mountain since God had promised to give it to her if she would paint it often enough.

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After the tour and exhibit, my friend and I hiked into Box Canyon, so called for the geological formation that created a natural corral for the rustled cattle once hidden there. We followed red dirt trails uphill, past abandoned hogans, toward a plateau of scrub pine and high stone buttes ringed with cottonwoods, now ablaze in the October sun. As I hiked, I tried to place myself in O’Keeffe’s paintings, imagining what the artist might have seen as she hiked a path much like ours.

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At the top of the rise, before the trail split into two, I stopped. Looking up from where I stood at the edge of a deep arroyo, it seemed the clouds were rising one at a time from the depths of the canyon, rather than floating across the sky. I thought of O’Keeffe’s paintings like Above the Clouds I, a canvas of oval clouds filling the sky to the horizon line, or In the Patio VIII, with its dots of clouds hanging over her adobe home. I could see why these New Mexico clouds appealed to O’Keeffe and how her particular style of painting them straddled a line between abstract and representational, as her work generally did.

On previous trips to New Mexico, I hadn’t noticed how the clouds in that high desert region could differ from the clouds in Colorado that barrel over the Rockies and drape across the Front Range sky. Like the clouds in O’Keeffe’s paintings, the clouds at Ghost Ranch that day were distinct from one another, individual even in their similarity. As my friend and I continued onto the plateau and threaded our way through astounding rock formations towering far over our heads, I kept an eye on the clouds drifting in that trick of the horizon up and over the buttes.

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According to O’Keeffe’s biographer, Laura Lisle, in Portrait of an Artist: A Biography of Georgia O’Keeffe, the artist began to consider painting clouds in the 1960s when she started traveling by plane. Her first oil portrayed a solid mass of clouds under a sky. Next she broke the bank up into smaller clouds, and then placed more blue between them, creating, as Lisle writes, “an inviting path of stepping stones into infinity.” Whether this metamorphosis from large mass to smaller shapes was inspired by the clouds of her New Mexico home, I don’t know, but the evolution from clouds by plane to clouds over her own patio does seem likely. Whatever its inspiration, the oversized cloud panorama she exhibited in 1966, Sky Above Clouds IV, was unlike anything any artist had painted before.

Two weeks after visiting Ghost Ranch, I hiked with my partner John in Rocky Mountain National Park just a half hour drive from our home. I wanted to compare our clouds with the ones I’d viewed in New Mexico. Just as I remembered, small clouds are rare here except as part of a larger pack. What’s more, in the Rockies, the mountains are so dominant, it’s easy to overlook the sky. Each time we hiked up and around a switchback, a new vista stretched before us, like another layer of a painting hidden, until then, from view. As I tried to let the majestic peaks recede in my vision, the clouds suddenly came forward, reversing background for foreground, earth for sky. With surprise, I realized that the clouds before me were as big and even bigger than the mountains, so massive in size, even their shadows could cover an entire mountain from peak to base.

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One mark of a great artist is how they inspire us to look at the world in a different way. I love O’Keeffe’s work for many reasons—her fierce commitment to her art, the trails she blazed for women, her recognition of beauty in common or traditionally “feminine” objects, and the emotional sense of place she worked to portray. But it wasn’t until I visited the land on which she walked that I understood the way her art inspires us to transcend what we see with our eyes into a larger vision. Whether the genius of her work is found in color, shape, scale, juxtaposition, or craft, her paintings capture something more than the sum of their parts. They offer us the opportunity to see both into the essence of an object and beyond its earthly form. O’Keeffe’s work teaches us that new perspectives are within our reach if we take the time to look.

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Photographs by Kayann Short

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May Your Days Be Sunny and Bright, May Your Nights Be Filled With Light

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Dear Pearlmoonplenty Readers,

As the solstice approaches and preparations for holiday cheer proceed with estimable vigor, these back-of-Christmas-card messages from a hundred years ago offer curious glimpses into the season’s joys and tribulations.

The first contains a complaint folks today can appreciate, even with all our “time-saving” devices:

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I’m not sure whether the next card is gossiping, joking, or complementing the receiver, but it seems an odd holiday sentiment:

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This writer makes good use of a leftover Christmas card, although the message is a little confusing regarding “the Baby”:

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Apparently all kinds of images appeared on Christmas cards 100 years ago, just as they do today. I’m glad this young man wanted to visit his grandmother, even if his reason seemed less to do with her than with his current circumstance:

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This creative homemade card (look closely at the candles) contains the best message of all, one I wish to share with you in this season of light, laughter, and love.

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Until the New Year,

Kayann

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Should the Haunting Remain: A Review of An American Ghost by Hannah Nordhaus

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My first encounter with ghosts was at the Avery House, one of Ft. Collins’ earliest and loveliest homes turned event venue and arts council office where I volunteered once a week. I’d heard a vague rumor about the Avery family ghosts but wasn’t expecting to run into them on the second floor when I was alone in the house one day. I can’t say that I saw them, only that I felt their sad presence, more sorrowful than malevolent. I wasn’t frightened but I slipped quietly back down the stairway anyway, thinking it best to leave them alone in their grief.

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My second ghostly encounter was in a Queen Anne-era bed and breakfast in Denver when I woke one night to an angry spirit hovering near the four-poster bed. Although the light, or aura, I suppose it’s called, of the ghost was bright red, somehow I knew it wasn’t there to scare me and I went easily back to sleep. Since I hadn’t felt threatened and no one had ever claimed a ghost in that house before, I didn’t mention it when I checked out the next morning. If a ghost isn’t bothering me in particular, I guess I’m willing to leave it alone.

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These experiences seem to make me less a sceptic than Hannah Nordhaus in her recent book, American Ghost: A Family’s Haunted Past in the Desert Southwest. But perhaps it’s easier to believe in a former resident haunting an historic home when the ghost isn’t one’s own great-great-grandmother.

As with the best of genealogical narratives, American Ghost by award-winning journalist and historian Hannah Nordhaus is really two stories: the story being investigated and the story of the investigation itself. In American Ghost, Nordhaus researches the life of her great-great-grandmother Julia Stabb, who followed her husband Abraham to Santa Fe after their 1865 marriage in Germany. The elegant home Abraham built for Julia is today known as La Posada, a hotel believed to be haunted by Julia’s ghost.

Using family diaries, historical biographies, and government and church records, Nordhaus reveals how Julia’s life was intertwined with the early days of Santa Fe’s settlement, from city planning to religion to commerce, for the Stabbs were a leading family in Santa Fe’s history, helping establish its development from a Western outpost to an important cultural and commercial center.

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However, it’s not just Julia’s life that stands at the center of Nordhaus’ book: Julia’s death and its probable cause take Nordhaus into the realm of psychics, 19th-century “women’s cures” and charlatans, and a family history of mental illness and suicide.
This second story in American Ghost of Nordaus’s efforts to find the truth of Julia’s life and death is just as interesting as the first. Here we follow Nordhaus to some seemingly seedy places as she consults those who claim the ability to commune with Julia’s ghost. We follow Nordhaus, too, as she travels with her mother to visit her family’s burial ground in the Jewish cemetery in Lugde, Germany, and to Theresienstadt, the infamous Nazi propaganda death camp where some of Nordaus’s relatives perished. Even though these events happened after Julia’s death, the weight of Nordhaus’s family history draws us further into Julia’s sorrow.DSC_0814
Like all good ghost stories, American Ghost doesn’t attempt to persuade us as to whether ghosts really exist: we can enjoy the story while still remaining a cynic. I don’t intend this review to be a spoiler, so I won’t share what Nordhaus does and does not find. You’ll have to read the book to find out how Julia died and whether Nordhaus believes in her great-great-grandmother’s ghostly presence or not. But I will share Nordhaus’s conclusion about the role ghost stories play in our early 21st-century fascination with “reality” driven narratives: “This is what I’ve come to understand about ghost stories: it’s not so much the ghost that keeps the dead alive to us as it is the story.” For Nordhaus, “intuitive and emotional truths lie at the heart of most of the stories we tell ourselves. It is the truths between the facts that tell us who we are.”

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In American Ghost, Nordhaus does provide her great-great-grandmother Julia a voice through uncovering her story, but will gaining a voice quiet Julia’s troubled spirit and set her free from haunting the La Posada hotel? That’s a question beyond Nordhaus’s book, but one connoisseurs of ghost stories should consider. In the end, don’t we want some mystery to remain, some trace of the ghostly presence to linger? After all, we may run into one ourselves someday, leaving us with our own ghost story to tell.

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Tenders of Heart

To my readers: Be sure you read all the way down to the end of this blog post where you’ll find a wonderful gift.

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“Farming is risky business, but so is love.”

A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography

If farming’s risky business and love’s the same, what happens when two people chance both?

My grandparents and great-grandparents were farmers. Some of my great-great grandparents worked the land in Norway, England, and Ireland, as well. My father’s grandparents on his mother’s side—Josephine and Martin Jacobson—homesteaded and farmed together for almost 50 years. They grew up near each other in a Norwegian community in Swift County, Minnesota, married in 1904, and raised wheat, barley, turkeys, 11 children, and their own food in Hebron township, Williams County, North Dakota, starting with a quarter section of 160 acres that grew to a full section eventually—a lot of land to farm in those days.

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Their lives were hard: they lost two children to tragedy; had to sell their horses during the Dust Bowl; and lived in a homestead shack from 1907 until their sons built them a “real” house in 1946. They worked side by side on the farm until Martin’s death in 1952. Here they are on their 35th wedding anniversary and at a less formal moment around the same time. See that twinkle in their eyes? I think that comes from joining their lives on the land.

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Last week I walked out to the fields with some new friends and, once again, felt the weight of the memories this farm holds for me. My mind returned to the first planting of garlic, the harvesting of herbs for a first dinner, and the turning of a flower garden for a solstice ceremony so many years ago. Everywhere I look, I see the work John and I have accomplished together, often with friends who share our vision of community supported agriculture and farmland preservation. Still, at the end of the long day, it’s John and I who plan the next day’s work, and the next’s, and the next’s, as far as our dreams will take us.

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Stonebridge was one of the farms selected by the Firehouse Gallery in Longmont this summer for pairing with artists who bring their talents to our land by creating a new view of what our farm means. One of the artists with whom we worked is Jenny Ward Hodgson, a singer/songwriter from Lyons who tends her own beautiful garden on her family’s small homestead in the middle of town (see more of Jenny’s work on her blog, The Song-Knitter). We were honored to have Jenny write a song, Dance the Seasons, for Stonebridge. When John and I listen to Dance the Seasons, it brings tears to our eyes. Thank you, Jenny, for putting into song the joy that happens when two people risk both farming and love together.

 

 

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The First Earth Day . . . and Still Counting (with video)

To my readers: If you receive Pearlmoonplenty via email, yesterday’s post did not include the video. Click here to view it at the end of the post. 

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To mark the 45th anniversary of the first Earth Day in 1970, I participated in a pre-Earth Day program at our local library to promote the Youth of the Earth Festival, a community event organized for the first time last year by the Youth of the Earth Council and Sustainable Revolution Longmont. The free festival this Wednesday at the Boulder County fairgrounds from 4 to 7 PM will include music and dance performances by local schools and youth groups; recycling; storytelling; education about bees, birds, and energy; healthy food prepared by an on-site chef; and games with locally donated prizes.

At the library event, I read my chapter “The First Earth Day . . . and Still Counting” because I wanted to share the early days of Earth Day with the students involved this year. I created a visual background video to show 1970s Earth Day images, as well as more recent photos from our farm connecting that time to the environment today. In the essay, I talk about planting an apple tree in memory of my fifth grade teacher, Mr. Osborn, in whose class I celebrated the first Earth Day, so I included a visual sequence about growing, picking, and pressing apples for cider on our farm.

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Forty-five years isn’t much time to turn around the ecological problems confronting our planet. In fact, today’s it’s clear that the state of the earth is worse than anyone imagined forty-five years ago. It seems we’re facing a tipping point from which we must push harder for the changes needed to adapt and survive. This is no time to abandon hope. It’s only time to hold hope closer as we work together—finally–toward a more sustainable future.

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Norwegian for the Holidays

My sister says I get “Norwegian-y” around the holidays. She means I go a little overboard with my Norwegian sweaters and “prairie tree” made by my father from dowels to imitate the twig Christmas trees of early Norwegian immigrants. I unwrap the Norwegian Nisse doll knitted and felted by a newfound Nordic cousin. John and I fire up the Norwegian woodstove in the milkhouse sauna for chilly winter nights. We even make lefse—a thin Norwegian potato pancake–for Christmas eve dinner using my Grandma and Grandpa Short’s lefse griddle and fancy rolling pins. My holidays wouldn’t feel complete without these Nordic customs.

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This year I’m feeling even more Norwegian-y because I’ve been researching my father’s Nordic heritage on my grandmother’s side. Her father—my great-grandfather Martin Jacobson—came from Oslo as a young child in 1883. Her mother—my great-grandmother Jossie Dokken Jacobson—was a first-generation American daughter born to Norwegian immigrant parents. It’s these great-great-grandparents for whom I’ve been searching recently, aided by Jean, an expert genealogist who keeps me pointed in the right direction with her generous guidance and lightning-fast retrieval of archival information; Janet, my dad’s cousin-in-law who shares her own valuable discoveries; and a handful of Minnesota historical librarians and genealogists. With their help, I’ve reconstructed a good bit of information about these ancestors.

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Genealogical research is one part methodical fact-finding (pouring through census and other records; checking and rechecking names, dates, and places), two parts sleuthing (following up leads, pursuing hunches) and three parts serendipity. Jean reminds me that some of the best clues are found in places where we aren’t even intentionally looking for them. I enjoy this meticulous kind of work, and the connection to my own family makes it even more satisfying.

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Searching for Norwegian ancestors in the winter makes a certain kind of sense because Norwegian immigrants settled first in the colder mid-Northern areas of the United States. Norwegian immigration is really two movements: emigration from Norway, where economic opportunity was limited by lack of land for the growing population, and immigration to the United States, where land was becoming available as states like Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa “opened” (a euphemism for claimed and taken by settlement and force from Native people) for white, European homesteaders.

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Norwegians immigrated to the rural northern climate to continue the agricultural work they’d known back home. Garrison Keillor jokes that Norwegians came to the US to try horizontal farming, meaning they were leaving the mountains of Norway behind. These immigrants weren’t daunted by the cold winters of the mid-Northern states. In his 1909 study Norwegian Immigration to the United States, scholar George T. Flom remarked on the affinity of Norwegian immigrants to colder climates: “Even Kansas is too far south for the Norwegian.”

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My great-great-grandfather Ole Olson Dokken came to the United States in the late 1860s or early 1870s with his older brother Arne. Census records show two different entry years for Ole—1868 and 1872. Census records are notorious for imprecision and error, but at least we have a range of dates from which to work.

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We have yet to find the entry year for my great-great-grandmother Anna Engebretson Dokken and we may never find it. Women in those days weren’t usually asked for such details on the census since the husband was considered the head of household whose information was most important. I’m still searching for Anna’s death record. My great-grandmother Jossie—Anna’s daughter–noted on the back of her own wedding license that Anna died at age 50 in Swift Falls, but research there has yet to turn up anything with Anna’s name. The last official document we have for Anna is the 1895 Minnesota state census in which her name appears with her husband and children. By 1900, she was gone and Ole was remarried to Karen Thompson, another Norwegian immigrant.

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I may never know much about my great-great-grandmother Anna but I’m willing to keep looking until the all leads are spent. Finding connections between the women in my family helps me understand my own life better. In A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography, I wrote of how my Great-Grandma Flora Hunsley Smith’s teaching and farming life was passed down to me. I hope to find a similar resonance with Great-Great-Grandmother Anna. After all, she came to a new country as a young, unmarried woman and raised her seven children on a farm. She must have valued education since her daughter Jossie went to school through eighth grade, which was equivalent to high school in those days. I imagine she made the most with what she had without complaining because that’s the ethic I observed in the Norwegian family and community of my youth.

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I’m further south than my Norwegian ancestors, but it still gets cold here on Colorado’s Front Range. If I feel like whining about the frigid, snowy weather that occasionally descends on these dark winter days, I remind myself that I come from hardy Norwegian stock. When the snow’s falling and the days are short, I can put on a Norwegian sweater and stoke up the Norwegian woodstove.  I can get “Norwegian-y” for a while and warm myself with the customs passed down to me from ancestors who took a long ship’s ride across an ocean to reach new land where they could make a home.

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Writing from Nature’s Artifacts

 

I’m one of those people who look at the ground when they hike, not to see where I’m going but to scout out rocks. At the beach, I scour the wrack line for shells and other treasures the tide has washed ashore. I’ve collected rocks, shells, nests, and bones from all my travels, including to big cities where artifacts of the natural world are harder to find.

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In my memoir A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography, I wrote about childhood memories of my grandparents’ farms and the mementos I gathered during summer vacations there:

“As a young girl, I was a rock hound and my grandparents’ farmyards were my stalking grounds. I scouted petrified wood, round picture agates, and red and gold siltstone flinted like arrowheads, bringing a pailful home to Colorado each summer to polish in my tumbler on the tool bench in our garage. For years, I kept a small dark brown stone, like magma from the earth’s core cooled in the swirled shape of a horse’s head and mane. My Grandma and Grandpa Smith’s neighbor shared pieces of larger rocks he’d gathered on his own farm and from forays in that region. One was a polished oval picture agate, a horizon of shadowed trees landscaped across a champagne sky. Decades later, I had it edged in spiraled sterling with a silver chain, a memento in miniature of the land I’d left behind.”

Now on my travels, I’m more likely to take photographs than artifacts. Still, the fascination is the same. I’m trying to understand my place in the ecosystems that remain. Perhaps because I spent childhood vacations on my grandparents’ farms, built environments don’t satisfy and comfort me the way natural systems do. What I’m searching for, I think, are the ways my body and my writing are connected to the earth.

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We live surrounded by human-made things—objects made of plastic, metal, and fabric shaped through mechanization. Even though these materials may have started out in some natural form, the consumer items they produce are artificial in that each is exactly like the other.

Shells and rocks, pinecones, feathers, and bark all share one attribute: none of them is exactly like another but instead vary in magnificent and intimate ways. Each carries a unique trace—or memory–of the world it inhabits.

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Writers, too, want to create a unique record of their experiences in the world around them. Some use writing to understand and describe their place within a particular ecosystem or encircling planet. Nature’s artifacts can serve as reminders of experiences or relationships with the natural world, helping to create stories of what Thoreau called “something kindred” between humans and nature.

In a workshop I taught in Colorado, an outdoor adventurer wrote of his obsession with heart-shaped rocks. He carried them home from all corners of the world and kept them piled on shelves like cairns marking a trail, yet he wasn’t sure why he collected them. It wasn’t until he showed us the only picture he had of his mother, who had died when he was very young, that the heart came into view in the shape of his mother’s face. There we saw the heart that had been beating for and in him through the rocks he’d carried home, a memory captured in stone.

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Stories like this illustrate how the distinction between humans and the natural world is finer than we think. From cells to bones, we all carry within ourselves some trace of our ecological origins. Through writing, we can examine the world around us for the juxtapositions that complexify the distinction and, in turn, forge new understandings of our place within this ever-changing world.

sitkaviewI’ll be helping writers explore this rich terrain in a workshop at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology on the Oregon coast, September 27-28. Bring a natural artifact or image of your own to inspire writing from poetry to fiction to environmental advocacy amid the beauty of the Sitka campus.

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