Thursday, December 19, 2013

To Find Stars in Another Language: poetry and the video art of ice.

At this time of year, when we have reached Winter Solstice, the great turning and return of the light, a time of year when, in the midst of the darkest days in the Northern Hemisphere, there are so many celebrations of light, it seems fitting to share with you two creative collaborations about the interplay of light and ice, the interplay between word and image.

Collaboration with the natural world, collaboration with other artists: to me, this is key to growing creativity. Poet Elizabeth Bradfield and video artist Demet Taşpınar teamed up to create three powerful word and moving image creations: To Find Stars in Another Language, Travel of the Light 
and Deliquescence

So, take a look: watch Demet's film and listen to Liz's poems in the two videos below. And read my interview with Liz, who was beyond generous in describing their collaborative creative process. Then learn more about both artists through the links in their bios at the end of this post.

Happy Winter Solstice.

Marybeth:  What sparked the idea for a collaboration between you and Demet?

Liz:  We were working together on a ship in the Antarctic -- maybe it was the first day, in Chile, when we were checking guests in to the ship and I noticed she had amazing purple streaks in her dark hair which seemed unusual for a ship's doctor, which was her position, and we struck up a conversation and she mentioned she was an artist and I was curious. We talked loosely about the weirdness of being an artist and science-minded, about being inspired by the high latitudes, about why we loved working on boats.... and we talked about possibly doing something together. But I'm a very reluctant collaborator. My work is very deeply personal, and it's hard for me to open it to another voice or vision. Once I saw Demet's films, though, I knew it would be more than ok---it would be inspiring and exciting.

Marybeth:  I'm guessing that your work on Broadsided helped you imagine the possibility of a collaboration, right?

Liz:  Yes, I think so. I envy the collaborations that I publish on Broadsided, in a way. To see your words refracted by art. To use art as a springboard for inspiration-- much of that is the goal of Broadsided. In fact, Broadsided was in part inspired by seeing art-making in process. I was deeply moved by a residency I had at the Vermont Studio Center, where writers were in the minority. I spent a lot of time haunting the studios of visual artists, and loved being around their energy and art. I think, in part, I started Broadsided to make sure that I kept in touch with visual artists--both the artists themselves and the palpable vitality of their making.

Marybeth:  Once you two decided to work together, how did you do it?

Liz:  I've tried collaborations in the past, but they haven't quite worked. There was something about the moving image... the dream-state of video and of Demet's subject-less, lyric films in particular that felt like a door into another poetic world that I really really wanted to step through.

On the ship, Demet gave me some files to look at. We watched the films together, talked a bit about what both of our visions were. It was very loose--text over the image? alongside it? something else? That was January. It took me a long time until I was ready to look at the videos and engage with them. Summer. July or August. Then I played them again and again, staring at them, trying to invoke (it wasn't hard) a trance-like state. I loved falling into that state. I wrote the poems to the motion and time of the videos. Keeping the final collaboration to voice and image ended up seeming right. Both the video and the poem, I hope, stand on their own. And then they become a different thing altogether upon their conversation.

I sent Demet sound files of my reading the poems. We wrestled a bit with technology -- Demet has some better software than I do, and we both have strong opinions about design. After a few email exchanges and Skype calls, which helped us a lot over our language barrier -- Demet is fluent in English, but we communicate better by speech than by email -- we found our place.

Marybeth:  What came first, the poem or the video?

Liz:  The video. I wrote the poems to Demet's videos. What a rush and release! I had never before set out to write a three minute poem, a nine minute poem.... I had never considered silence and motion as much as in writing to Demet's amazing and evocative videos. I watched and watched her videos, trying to find a voice and story that would pace with them, speak with them.

Marybeth:  What have you found are the benefits of collaborating like this? How has it affected your own work, how and what you create, and how you get it out into the world?

Liz:  It was so exciting to write to Demet's work. It was a thrill to approach a poem not from my own experience but through the vision of someone else. I don't know that it's affected my own writing in other regards. Perhaps only time will tell. I can't write the kinds of poems I wrote for Demet's videos without their invocation. I love the deeply inward, dreamy, reflective and associative state they put me in. I hope I can do more video-poem collaborations and, in fact, I'm working with another video artist whose work I love. We'll see what happens there.

Getting it out into the world -- I'm finding there's a whole community of video-poets I didn't know of. I haven't quite entered into a conversation with them, but I'm lurking on the edge. There's a festival in Berlin, the Zebra festival, that is all video-poems. I'd love to see what they're doing and, at the same time, I'm intimidated. This feels so raw and personal and vulnerable... I'm not sure I'm ready to be in a room full of other people doing similar work. I think I'd be too swayed by their opinions and ideas and right now this feels very personal and private to me as a creative process.

Marybeth:  What's next for you two? And what other great collaborative ideas do you have simmering on the back burner?

Liz:  I'd love to do more with Demet, but we've both got a chaos of boat work, art/writing work, and personal lives to negotiate. I am hoping that the next time I work on boats for this particular expedition travel company, Demet is the ship's doctor again and serendipity can strike twice.

Elizabeth Bradfield is the author of two poetry collections: Approaching Ice and Interpretive Work. Her poems have appeared in The Atlantic, Orion, The Believer, Poetry, and she has been awarded the Audre Lorde Prize and a Stegner Fellowship, among other honors. Founder and editor-in-chief of Broadsided Press, she lives on Cape Cod and works as a naturalist and teacher. She is the current Poet-in-Residence at Brandeis University.

Demet Taşpınar is a video artist and painter from Turkey, currently studying for her MA in Fine Art at New York University. She has shown work at Art Bosphorus and Canakkale Art Biennale in Turkey, Auto Center in Berlin, and Kingsgate Gallery and the Tate Modern in London. She works as a ship’s medical doctor on expedition ships in Antarctica, the Arctic, and elsewhere, looking and filming and responding as she travels.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Poetry of the Wild: of recycling, nature, sculpture, and words.

Poets and Writers recently featured this project - which is an astonishingly brilliant and effective amalgam of poetry, sculpture, nature, and recycling. What a way to connect people to the places where they live.

From the Poets and Writers feature:

"For ten years ecological artist and sculptor Ana Flores has been bringing "Poetry of the Wild"—a project that combines poetry, visual art, and nature in an effort to connect people to the land around them—to locations both public and wild. Each installation features a box or sculpture, built by artists and community members using recycled materials, that contains an original or classic poem as well as a journal for passersby to contribute reflections of their own."

And here's one of the installations, entitled "It is Born." This poetry box was erected along the Mystic River shoreline during the summer of 2011. The box is by Ana Flores, and it contains the poem "It is Born" by Pablo Neruda.

It is Born
It is Born
Here I came to the very edge
where nothing at all needs saying,
everything is absorbed through weather and the sea,
and the moon swam back,
its rays all silvered,
and time and again the darkness would be broken
by the crash of a wave,
and every day on the balcony of the sea,
wings open, fire is born,
and everything is blue again like morning.
Pablo Neruda, from "On the Blue Shores of Silence."

See more of these installations at Poets and Writers and at the facebook page of Poetry of the Wild.

Get inspired. Start a project like this where you live.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Martha Graham: Keep the channel open.

"There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action. And because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. If you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost. The world will not hear it.
It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how valuable it is, nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours, clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.

You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you.

Keep the channel open.

No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive."

Friday, August 30, 2013

Gordon Haber, Grace Paley, and Satyagraha.

I hold in my hands an advance copy of Among Wolves: Gordon Haber’s Insights into Alaska’s Most Misunderstood Animal. It feels good to have this tangible evidence of the last few years' of work, feels good to have it be more than words in my head, images on my computer screen. It's here, it's real. Velveteen rabbit come to life.

It’s a different kind of book for me: on it, I’m listed as co-author with Dr. Gordon Haber, a wolf biologist who died four years ago on a research flight. This book was not something I had been looking to do. It simply arrived, a project that needed doing, one that no one else was willing or able to tackle.

At first I resisted it, having plenty of my own projects clamoring for precious writing time. But I wanted this book to exist. I wanted Gordon's forty-three years worth of insights to not disappear, but to reach a greater audience. Because I knew that his insights into wolves need to be heard, now more than ever.
Gordon Haber was a scientist, absolutely grounded in hard fact. But he was one who never lost his initial sense of wonder for the subject of his studies: the lives of wild wolves. Having an undergraduate degree in the sciences myself, having worked with scientists as a research assistant and then as a writer, I’ve met all too few scientists who have retained the wonder that first propelled them into their chosen work.

This blog’s link name, “artandnatureand,” points to what happens when art and nature combine – what grows from that. For me and many of those whose work is featured here, this combination often leads to direct activism. Consider Rika Mouw, James Balog, and Mimi White. It's that famous line many attribute to Lenin: “What then shall we do?”

Among Wolves describes a mirror equation: science and nature and – activism. Gordon Haber is best known for his tireless, fearless advocacy on behalf of wolves. Every single bit of his advocacy is grounded firmly in the results of his research, and yet it took that untrammeled wonder, that unbridled passion, to give him the fearlessness to stand up, again and again and again, for what he knew to be true.

It’s so easy to let fear shut us down and close us off from our own unique source of expression, insight, passion. It’s so hard to stay open and fearless, so hard to resist the pressure to be silent and conform. I’ve often thought of each person as a piece in a giant world puzzle: just think what would happen if each of us stayed true to our unique shape, and expressed that unique self into the puzzle we call life.

So I’m always filled with gratitude for those who express what Mahatma Gandhi called satygraha: standing truth to power. I’m grateful for scientists and artists, people in any walk of life, who stand for the truth. It reminds me of something Grace Paley once said when asked if writers had a moral obligation:

“Oh, I think all human beings do. So if all human beings have it, then writers have some, too. I mean, why should they get off the hook? Whatever your calling is, whether it’s as a plumber or an artist, you have to make sure there’s a little more justice in the world when you leave it than when you found it. Most writers do that naturally, see that more lives are illuminated, try to understand what is not understood and see what hasn’t been seen. “

Friday, August 16, 2013

Grief/Honor/Gratitude: A Guest Post by Rika Mouw

Welcome to guest blogger Rika Mouw, whose passion for nature and the arts is infectuous, and whose art jewelry made entirely from natural materials inspires a more profound connection to the natural world. And, yes, that's one of Rika's masterpieces on the far right of the blog's banner - a piece about ocean acidification composed entirely from mussel shells.


I could not write more perfect words than poet Stanley Kunitz's for my thoughts around what I want to express with my art making: 
"When you look back on a lifetime and think of what has been given to the world by your presence, your fugitive presence, inevitably you think of your art, whatever it may be, as the gift you have made to the world in acknowledgment of the gift you have been given, which is the life itself. And I think the world tends to forget that this is the ultimate significance of the body of work each artist produces. That work is not an expression of the desire for praise or recognition, or prizes, but the deepest manifestation of your gratitude for the gift of life.”
                          ~The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden, by Stanley Kunitz


By the late 1990's, we Alaskans lost 70-80% of the mature spruce forest on the Kenai Peninsula to a spruce bark beetle infestation. I continue to grieve deeply for those lost trees………. and for the ongoing trend of conifer forest die-offs around the world due to warmer temperatures and drought brought on by climate change. These stressing conditions result in trees being more vulnerable and susceptible to increasing populations of varying species of bark beetle. There are dozens of well documented forest die-offs around the world, from western North America (Mexico up to Alaska), Europe, Africa, Australia, and Siberia. The trees are dying in such large numbers, former U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, spoke of the Western U.S. die off as the West's Hurricane Katrina.
The die-offs are now so large and so rapid that it is having an unusual effect on the ecosystem. The whitebark pine, once largely protected from the beetles because it grew at high altitudes and was shielded by cold, is nearing functional extinction in large portions of its range and may no longer be able to feed grizzly bears and other species that rely on its high-fat nut. In Mexico, bark beetles are beginning to kill oyamel fir trees in a rare 139,000-acre biosphere preserve where the majority of North America’s monarch butterflies travel each fall to spend the winter. In 2008, so much of British Columbia’s forests have died they went from being a net carbon sink to a carbon source. While bark beetles attack conifers, now even deciduous trees like the aspen groves in Colorado are dying.
Scientists believe the cause is hotter temperatures and drier weather. It’s not only killing mature trees, but the root mass as well. An aspen grove is the offspring of a large single underground clonal mass, when the roots die, groves that are hundreds or thousands of years old aren’t going to be there anymore.
From a personal perspective of loss, the absence of the giant spruce trees in our neighborhood, some purported to be the largest on the Kenai Peninsula, gave us privacy and protection……….especially protection from the intrusions of human-generated noise, city lights and neighborhood activities. Before the beetle infestation, our town of Homer had a forest character. There were areas that felt as if we lived in a rainforest. 
I watched trees dying at a breathtaking rate, helpless and in disbelief. It was shocking to see how rapidly people were clear cutting their trees and hauling them away, often times before the trees were even 'taken' by the beetles. Once gone, the landscape was transformed, naked and revealing a human footprint I could not have imagined. Climate change came directly to our front door and changed me forever. 

As the trees on our property were being cut, I saved the bottom sections of the largest trees with the intention of making sculptural pieces that would honor these giants and to pay tribute to a very special habitat lost.
As the sections dried, the central core rotted and fell out of each of them, leaving a hole. By standing the stump sections up so their widest diameter faced upwards, they became vessels. I hollowed them to create, giant offering bowls……..female receptacles that speak of Life. Making these 'bowls' has been cathartic, as it is physically demanding and is giving me a chance to appreciate the wood inside, revealing personalities with stories to learn through their growth rings, colors and imperfections.

As a jewelry maker I tend to see things through the lens of intimacy, preciousness and handing down to the next generation, so each of these tree 'bowls' holds an offering of a piece of jewelry, ceremonial in nature, made from naturally occurring materials in this habitat, evoking the preciousness of the connection and relationship they have with the trees. It is all connected.

The project is ongoing and eventually I will create a 'forest' of these tree bowl offerings to honor the complex living connections in which the trees play such an important role. The greater question will eventually unfold as to whether this will indeed be a forest or an Arlington Cemetery type of grouping………… a life or a death perspective. Either way, an honoring. 

                                            Life Line
Simultaneously, I have been committed to another two-pronged landscape project of rehabilitating/healing our land and protecting the wetlands that we live adjacent to. Since the large shade-giving spruce have been lost, my 'gardening' entails staving off invasive weeds and the advance of the tenaciously aggressive grass commonly referred to as Blue Joint (Calamagrotis canadendis) grass that quickly moves in, choking out the former forest vegetation. In our yard that includes species of blueberry and cranberry, cloudberry, bog birch, ferns, Devil's Club, and an array of ground covers and flowering plants. In many incidences in the general landscape, the wave of blue joint grass has not only choked out less aggressive plants but has also impeded new trees from reestablishing, thus creating something close to a monoculture.
My slow, methodical hand removal of this grass has allowed a diversity of plant species to remain. After years of nurturing the volunteer birch, mountain ash and spruce trees they are beginning to once again shade out the grass and allow the fern, wild iris, bog orchids, and a number of other species that have sprouted up over the years to thrive as they once did.
We live right on the coast of Kachemak Bay and adjacent to a large wetland complex that is habitat for water fowl, moose and even bear. While much of the wetland complex is still intact, with some of it being State designated as critical winter habitat for moose, the rest of it is zoned to be developed for commercial/industrial use.
With the knowledge that the best way to heal Nature is to connect it with Herself, over the last 12 years I have focused on protecting the wetlands from further degradation by fighting development proposals that diminish wetland function and partnering with others to purchase parcels from willing private land owners to connect parcels together. Some of these wetland parcels were already filled in and piled with junk so we are cleaning them up and re-wilding what we can with willow and trees.
I am repairing, weaving and stitching back together a landscape tapestry from ocean to forest and wetland. Cultivating resiliency. It is an act of love and of gratitude for Life. Climate change is here, there is no question. What can I, as an artist, do? What can any of us do?
Perhaps by connecting people of like mind and passion, we can only encourage and support one another for the strength we need to keep doing our work. Just as connecting Nature with Herself gives Her more resiliency, connecting Nature-loving people with others can strengthen our resiliency to continue our work.

Rika Mouw is an artist and a passionate advocate for the arts and for the natural environment who lives in Homer, Alaska. Her life is interwoven in these endeavors, often overlapping and becoming one and the same. She earned a degree in landscape architecture and worked for several years in that capacity for a small mountain municipality in Colorado where pedestrianizing the core of the town was a priority. In addition to design, her focus was to prioritize the use of native plant materials and find better ways to integrate the human built environment into the landscape rather than dominate it. Later she turned to the arts, and for the last 25 years, art jewelry has been her primary form of art making. Traditionally, jewelry is a way to express preciousness, beauty, sentiment, celebration and a possession of value to be passed down for generations. Rika's one-of-a-kind jewelry highlights natural materials she finds or gathers that speak to these same ideas regarding the natural environment. More recently her work has become less wearable as she now only references jewelry, using it as metaphor for these expressions in advocating for the precious web of life upon which we are utterly dependent. Her work has been exhibited and collected across the country. The Anchorage Museum and the Pratt Museum in Homer have several pieces of her work in their permanent collections, as well as the National Park Service where one of her works is displayed in the Denali National Park Visitor's Center. She also designed a memorial reading garden for the Homer City Library. Rika has served on the board of Bunnell Street Arts Center since 1998. Recently the Arts Center has spearheaded a community project creating a vibrant waterfront pedestrian district and gateway to Bishop's Beach in Old Town where the Arts Center anchors the neighborhood. Partnering with the City of Homer, the Alaska Maritime Refuge and area businesses, the project is bringing the neighborhood together to calm traffic, improve parking and signage, introduce public art, a People's Garden, artful benches, trails and creating a human scaled gathering place for recreation and cultural events. In the same spirit, her efforts in protecting the natural function of the Beluga Wetland Complex by partnering with others in purchasing parcels for conservation will eventually maintain a natural and vital habitat area in the center of Homer where people can continue to enjoy open space and wildlife viewing.


Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Art, Science, and Extreme Ice Loss.

James Balog: Time-lapse proof of extreme ice loss


This is an excellent 20-minute Ted Talk by nature photographer James Balog, who speaks here of the importance of combining science with art - how art can inform society about environmental issues like climate change. He also shows and comments on some of his jaw-dropping time-lapse footage of retreating glaciers in several parts of the world, including North America, Greenland, and Iceland. As he points out, ninety-five percent of the world's glaciers outside Antarctica are receding. These time-lapse images are vivid illustrations of the scale of these changes. Watch to the end; it is both beautiful and terrifying.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Q&A with Mimi White.

(Schoodic Peninsula, Acadia National Park, Maine, USA.)

I recently had the great pleasure of meeting New Hampshire poet Mimi White. Her poems and activism on behalf of the natural world are exceptionally inspiring, both for their attention to the details of a rural life in New England and for their far-reaching vision. No wonder that Mimi’s poetry collection, The Last Island, won the 2009-2011 Jane Kenyon Award For Outstanding Poetry. She’s also published two chapbooks, one of which was selected by Robert Creeley as the winner of the 2000 Philbrick Award.  Mimi has taught at several universities and was poet laureate of Portsmouth, N.H. And on the direct activism side of the equation, she was also chair of the Rye, N.H. Energy Committee. She was also Artist in Residence at the Schoodic Peninsula of Acadia National Park in Maine.

Here are Mimi’s generous answers to a few of my questions, followed by two of her  luminous poems.

Marybeth: Tell us about the path have you walked to become the poet you are today.

Mimi: I grew up in suburban Boston with little access to anything one might call “wild”, but I was lucky enough to live around the corner from Crystal Lake which in the late 1940’s and early 50’s was still crystal-clear. There I learned to swim, ice skate ( the lake no longer freezes), and fish for all species of warm water fish including pickerel, sunfish, hornpout, and carp. I explored most of my neighborhood and beyond on foot. I think these early explorations set me on a path of inquiry into what else the world might offer in the way of a less tamed universe. Later, when I was in my early teens, I went to Camp Blazing Trail in Denmark, Maine. There I fell in love with the wilds of western Maine. This all girls camp was a training ground for learning how to live in the wilderness. We felled small trees with axes ( I did get a rather nasty cut.), built fires, cooked and baked over an open flame, created hiking trails, learned how to navigate white water in our large canvass covered canoes, and hiked several mountains, including Mt. Katahdin, the tallest mountain in Maine. I was just beginning to develop my reading life and it was at camp that I declared myself a Transcendentalist.

Marybeth:  Ah, you and Thoreau. How does the natural world inspire and inform your creative work?

Mimi: I live on a small farm, 11 acres, in a small NH seacoast town. The land informed me and created the avid gardener and orchardist, really my husband tends the fruit trees. Over the years I have walked thousands of miles back and forth to the harbor with a dog always in the lead. I have weeded, pruned, planted, harvested, canned and tended. Maybe it is the tending that connects to writing poems. I started writing poems at about the same time we bought this home and the two have always been entwined. A few years after we bought the farmhouse we bought an island home on a lake in Western Maine, my old camping stomping ground. Both the island and the farm stimulate my imagination, root me in place, and give my writing a true sense of home.

Marybeth:  What do you do to keep that inspiration alive and flowing?

Mimi: Walking and swimming make me happy and keep me sane in a world that often feels foreign and unfamiliar, snowless winters, shrubs flowering in January.

I once read that what the world needs is more people who feel alive—to find the thing that does that for you and do it. Walking, swimming, and writing make me feel most alive—they feed off of and nurture each other.

Marybeth: How does your love of nature and your creative work intersect with advocacy?

Mimi: Of course I am saddened and shocked by our changing climate. And that we are responsible for these drastic changes—that we may take so many species with us as we destroy where we live— is almost beyond comprehension. About 7 years ago my husband and I started the Rye Energy Committee—its mission is to educate town residents about climate change and what actions they might take to lessen its effects. I worked five years on that effort until I knew the committee was self-sustaining and then I resigned. Poetry??? I had so little time to address that issue in my poetry when I was working on the committee, yet I kept writing. Now, when I look back on what I wrote, I see I was struggling to make sense of the world I was living in. Birds, orchards, bats, dogs, my daily walking, trees—I recorded in my poems the land as I knew it. I think I was trying to save it as if it were a snapshot or memoir in brief lines.

Marybeth: How do you see the role of artist in advocating for nature? What unique ways of thinking and acting does an artist bring to the task?

Mimi: The poet lives in two worlds---the one we see with our eyes open, the one we see with our eyes closed. Both carry the freight of being human. Poets and other artists ask questions—we have no answers. Only inquiry and passion will lead in an uncertain future.

I designed art/energy projects when I was on the energy committee. The first project was called The Wash Day Project. The goal was to get people in Rye to forgo their dryers for the clothesline. The act of hanging out laundry is deliberate—one small step to reduce one’s carbon footprint lead to other steps—all working toward the same goal. Artists then painted these lovely clotheslines. The project culminated in an art show and talk at the local science center where we addressed climate change and what actions we could all take to curb its impact. Art transforms behavior—it is not all science and numbers.

And now? After 40 years of living on this farm we are buying land in southern coastal Maine and building a zero net energy home. It is time to live as consciously as we can about how we live—to leave a legacy for our children—a home that will require almost no fossil fuel, that might have a charging station for an electric/hybrid vehicle, that will use the sun to power our needs. We will continue to grow as much food as we can, to support our local farms and fisheries and I will continue to write poems.



I had not thought the body

would be a hill

that I would need to climb every day

the table set for a stranger

even the spoons restless fidgety

cereal waiting for someone else

yet the fridge humming

the view to the orchard

known since childhood

Once a snake frightened a friend

who stopped by to visit

a small coil of happiness

sunning by the back door

but I was not there

to hear her scream

nor to tell her

they mean no harm

My oldest friend befriended snakes

in his garden

touched lightly

his skin to theirs

I had thought their hiss

the switch

that  turned on the sun

or best

the moon

like the one that rose over the hill

and I ate it whole.


What the Wind Says

for David Carroll

There is no sadness
when wind topples a pine
and leaves a hole for light to find
and darkness, too,

just the letting go
of boughs across the century,

then the long, green return.

The mind inhabits,
slowly, methodically - -
birdsong, shelter.

But imagine an emptiness so vast,
no forest, field, or rabbit hole;
no warren, den, or hollow log;

no voice in the wilderness,

who then will scribe for the wind
when the wind has nothing to say
and no place to go?


Tuesday, June 18, 2013

A.R. Ammons.

I look for the forms
things want to come as

Two brief lines from the poet A.R. Ammons.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

WOLF: The Winners.

And the winners are... Carol Hult and Anonymous! So - if you two could send me your physical addresses, I'll get the book mailed to you. And the rest of you who commented, please send your email address to me at, and I'll get Jeff to send you the PDF.

Feel free to send that PDF, or any of the pieces in the book, out to whomever you'd like, especially anyone you know who might help effect change in how we "manage" and view wild wolves. We've got a very long way to go.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

We do what we can.

I've learned to find hope in the small things.
When a lovely birch-forested corner of Far North Bicentennial Park in Anchorage was threatened with development, an anonymous group of artists began a campaign to tie red ribbons around all the trees that were at risk of being cut down.  I joined in, writing the name of family members on each of the ribbons I tied.  Well, the development happened, the trees, festooned as they were in red, were cut down...almost all of them.  Exactly at the edge of the newly-razed site were some trees still fluttering red, and one of those had the ribbon on which I'd written my eight-year-old son's name.

I was reminded of our red-ribboned trees by this story in September 2012.  These Indian artists are painting leaves along the state highway as part of a campaign to protect the environment.  According to the Reuters report posted on Planet Ark, "...dozens of artists in the eastern Indian state of Bihar are painting roadside trees and their leaves with colorful stories from Hindu epics, hoping to save the region's already critically sparse greenery.  The unusual campaign, using coats of paint and brushes, has been launched in Madhubani, a northern Bihar district known for its religious and cultural awareness, resulting in hundreds of otherwise untended roadside trees covered in elaborate artwork."

Each of us, we do what we can.


Wednesday, May 8, 2013

WOLF: A Renegade Book, Free of Charge.

In mid-February, I received an intriguing email from Jeff Clark, a community activist, writer, and book designer in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Here's what he wrote, in part:

"In the tradition of radical pamphleteering, I'm designing and publishing a book of rough, radical, activist work on wolves. The book will be well-designed and -printed, and will be available in a gift economy--freely disseminated locally as well as nationally. I'm assembling a really diverse group of writers, most of whom are also activists of one stripe or another. Already of few of the country's most compelling and/or unruly activists and writers are on board.

If I can accomplish my dream, the book will be a very timely, non-academic, renegade publication in the struggle against wolf-hunting and -ignorance. Locally, our legislature voted to allow wolf hunting to resume this fall in Michigan. I'd like for this little paperback to be a tool of information and passion in the struggle that's mounting against that and similar rulings.

The big kicker is that I'd need your text (either short or long, as you see fit) by March 15 at the latest. It's okay—actually, it's encouraged—that the piece be timely, rough, topical, or raw. That will be the spirit of the book. I hope to have it hit the streets by May Day."

In the midst of working on Among Wolves, I was swamped with work and unable to see how I could find time to send something to Jeff in less than a month. But I also couldn't say no; I loved the radical idea of a free book, and I couldn't pass up this opportunity to help out. So I resurrected an essay I'd written a few years back, dusted it off and polished it up with some revising and updating, and sent it to Jeff.

Jeff met his May 1 deadline; WOLF was released on May Day. And my essay, "Toklat," is in there along with essays and poems by a wide range of wonderful people, including some whose work I've long admired, among them Jack Turner, Terry Tempest Williams, and Derek Jensen. The pieces cover the territory of wolves in the US: Alaska's predator control; the reintroductions of red wolves in North Carolina and Mexican gray wolves in Arizona; the delisting of gray wolves and resultant slaughters in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming; the effects of delisting in Jeff's home state.

It's a beautifully diverse and complex collection--much like wolf society itself. Christine Hume's evocative "Reciprocity" about wolf howling stands alongside Norman Bishop's "The Wolf Issue," which almost reads like a Harper's Index in the barrage of statistics showing there's no logical reason for the western states' rampant wolf killings. Ken Lamberton's essay about the Mexican gray wolf's problematic reintroduction shares a cover with Paula Underwood's poetic retelling of an Iroquois tale passed on to her through generations of Native Americans.

So, if you'd like to read these fine pieces, or if you just like the idea of getting a free book (say that three times in a crowd and see what happens) then here's what you do:

1. Comment on this blogpost between now and June 1.
2. Raffle-style, I'll pick two names to get a book; the rest of you will get the book in a PDF. Check back after June 1, and if you're a lucky winner, send me your address.
3. Check your mailbox or your inbox.
4. Prepare to be amazed.

PS: The first printing is nearly gone. Here's a post about the book and the wolf issue in Michigan.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Art and Activism.

(photo: Wolf eel in Prince William Sound.)

In college, I read Edward Abbey’s Monkeywrench Gang, and sat up late nights with friends, plotting ecotage on the nuclear power plant under construction a few miles from campus. Should we pour sand in graders’ gas tanks? Bury spikes in construction roads? Spraypaint messages on new cement? In the end, all we did was make banners, pile into a van, and join the No Nukes rally in Washington, D.C..

It took a few more years—during which I finished my degree in Environmental Science and worked for the state’s alternative energy division (the first time around that we tried to kick our oil addiction)—before I realized what Abbey’s book had to say to me. Words have power. Literature is a primary force for instigating change. Think Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Think The Golden Notebook. Think Silent Spring.

So, yes, I was an environmentalist, and an environmental scientist, before I was a writer. It was just a matter of time before I put all my loves together: reading, nature, wildlife, justice.

Still, the primary tension throughout my writing life has always been whether to pick up the pen or the banner. I oscillate. I try to do both. In some ways, they help each other. In other ways, not so much. So I’ve learned a few things about working in the intersections of writing and activism. (Caveat: These are, as they said in “Pirates of the Caribbean,” more like “guidelines.”)

1. I can’t escape it. I don’t have the patience to write about subjects that don’t engage me, and what engages me are those where I believe something vital is at stake, and I have some new thing to add to the conversation. It’s the only way I can sustain the effort it takes to bring a project to completion. The driving force for Crosscurrents North was political: to amplify voices who speak for Alaska’s wild. This carried co-editor Anne Coray and me through many travails with the publishing industry. Susan Griffin once told me, follow your obsessions. They’ll lead you to your best work. I believe her.

2. I get my message off my chest right away, and then keep writing, researching, thinking, so the work (hopefully) moves beyond my initial assumptions into new territory. As Robert Frost wrote, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” Open-mindedness allows for wonder and imagination, as I try to illuminate my own blindness. How to do this when I also come to the subject with a burning passion to save polar bears or prevent the next oil spill? In “What Happens When Polar Bears Leave,” I expressed my astonishment immediately, and then dissected the ways in which their fate haunted me, with hope of some solution or at least some new comprehension.

3. I avail myself of all forms. On the oil spill, on Prince William Sound, I’ve written radio commentary, op-eds, poems, essays, and my book, The Heart of the Sound. On polar bears and climate change, I’ve written essays, poems, a short story, a white paper for Defenders of Wildlife, and a talk on “Climate Change and the Literary Imagination(a livestream video, introduced by Sue Ellen Campbell and with Linda Bierds). Multiple forms allow me to approach the subject from different angles, like a prism, generating more illumination with each turn.

4. I don’t force resolution. As a writer and teacher, I’ve seen how forcing a resolution can damn an essay faster than you can say “rejection.” As a culture, we like the quick fix, the clear solution. But increasingly, in the complex world we have created for ourselves, there are no easy answers. At least, not to the questions I am obsessed with asking. (This is also my excuse for why I’m such a damn slow writer.)

5. Sometimes I drop the pen, but not for long. It’s easier when there’s an end date, like an election: when Sarah Palin got nominated for V.P., I campaigned for Barack Obama. It’s more tricky when the issue is never-ending. I often think about Nigerian novelist Ken Saro-Wiwa: he dropped his pen for political action, only to die for the cause. What new light might his novels have shed?

In the end, they’re the same—writing is action. It’s in the interplay between the two that I’ve arrived at my favorite work. Immediately after the oil spill, I was driven to sop up oil, rescue birds, clean sea otters. Much later, in The Heart of the Sound, I wrote about those experiences and what they meant—for the otters, the Sound, and the Big Picture in which we all stand.

My moral obligation is the same as it is for anyone: to leave the world a better place than when I found it. (This is something Grace Paley once said, and something she cleaved to in every story she wrote.) As an artist, a writer, that way is through understanding something that hasn’t been understood, seeing what hasn’t been seen, illuminating something that hasn’t been lit.

When I get overwhelmed by all that remains in the dark, I recall what a Buddhist monk advised: you can’t enlighten the entire world, so just shed light on your little corner.

note: an earlier version of this post was first published on 49 Writers.

Friday, April 12, 2013


"Nature and Art are too sublime to aim at purpose, nor need they, for relationships are everywhere present, and relationships are life."


Another quote I've carried around for years, by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, writer, artist, and politician.  

Friday, March 29, 2013

Three Books, 25 Years.

Last Sunday, March 24, was the 24th anniversary of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska. Though I still shudder at using that word, "anniversary," for something so dreadfully damaging. Prince William Sound, as well many other beautiful and fragile marine areas along Alaska's southcentral coast, from Kodiak to Kachemak Bay to the Barrier Islands, has not yet recovered, and most likely never will be.

In honor of the places and wildife and people harmed and killed by that technological disaster, I am highlighting a trio of books that speak of it, using story as a window for the reader to enter, and experience as the hardwood floor upon which it stands.Two of these books are just out, reminding us of the longevity of trauma; one is my own, released 15 years after the spill and then re-released in 2010.

My memoir, The Heart of the Sound: An Alaskan Paradise Found and Nearly Lost, is a love song to Prince William Sound, from my first years spent along its shores, through the oil spill, to the turbulent years of restoration. Twining together the destruction of an ecosystem, the disintegration of my marriage, and my emerging identity as a new mother, I explore the resiliency of nature - both wild and human - and the ways in which that resiliency is tested.

In Mei Mei Evans’ novel, Oil and Water, the narrative begins with the spill itself and follows four main characters as they deal with and respond to the first year of the disaster. Evans takes us back into a disaster we’d just as soon forget, but with such real characters that we are compelled to keep reading. Evans makes use of the freedoms of fiction and the constraints of reality to dig deep into the human effects of an environmental disaster, allowing us to see what has not before been seen, understand what has not before been understood. It is an unflinchingly clear and brave look at a hard subject that affects every one of us, no matter where we live.

In Into Great Silence: A Memoir of Discovery and Loss Among Vanishing Orcas, Eva Saulitis charts the lives of a single extended family of orcas in Prince William Sound, a family so devasted by the oil spill and subsequent changes that they are now on the verge of extinction. With scientific clarity and poetic intimacy, Saulitis describes her research and first-had experiences with these whales. It is, truly, “a moving portrait of the interconnectedness of humans with animals and place-and of the responsibility we have to protect them.” Lovely and heartbreaking, this book cuts to the core—which is exactly where, at this time of mass extinction and global warming—we need to be.

Our stories, our art, cannot replace what was lost, but they can stand as testament to the power of the natural world and our own human creativity to witness, honor, restore, and protect, so that we may find our way to a more harmonious relation with the more-than-human world - and with our one and only home planet.