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.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Wild Artist Residencies.

(Photo: Ranger Solan Jensen paddles near surfacing humpback whales in Holkham Bay. c. Irene Owsley.)

I've just returned from the annual Associated Writing Programs conference, this one held in Boston. It's a massive gathering - 12,000 writers, editors, publishers, and agents. Heavy on the writers. One of my panel presentations, on "Wild Writing Residencies," mercifully took that roomful of writers out of the sterile Hynes Convention Center, off the busy streets of Boston, and into wild places where artists can find what one keynote speaker, the poet Derek Walcott, said all poets must first cultivate: silence.

A poem comes out of silence first. In all the arts you have to recognize the real silences that arrive.

Four of us spoke from our experiences with artist residencies in some of America's wild public lands. Gary Lawless spoke about his time as Artist in Residence (AIR) in Isle Royale National Park, a wild island full of moose and wolves. Nancy Lord spoke about her time in Denali National Park, where she was finally, she said, called to write poetry for the first time in her life. Mimi White spoke about falling in love with the Schoodic Peninsula of Acadia National Park. And I spoke about my AIR in Denali National Park and in the Tracy Arm Ford's Terror Wilderness of the Tongass National Forest.

These residencies are part of a long tradition of artists in America's public lands, going back to Roosevelt's New Deal Works Progress Administration - between 1933 and 1943, hundreds of artists were gainfully employed in our national parks. Today these residencies (no, we're not paid) recognize art alongside science as a way of interpreting, understanding, and creating awareness of these wild places. A necessary, vital thing.

They're different from other writing residencies in that you don't just hole up in a cabin and work on a project you've brought with you. Instead, you immerse yourself in the place, and then create art from that experience. Then you donate one piece of art (in my case, an essay) to the national forest or national park for their use.

How do these programs enhance an artist's work? Inspiration, most certainly. For me, a major inspiration was collaborating with other artists. In the Tongass, I was paired with photographer Irene Owsley, and she and I have gone on to work on several collaborative efforts. In Denali, I have worked with artist Rika Mouw on a joint project for the National Park Service. And it was these collaborative projects, these artists, who inspired this blog.

But of course the benefits of such unmediated, uninterrupted time in a wild place are much more subtle. With such time, I could sit and observe the pattern on rock in front of Sawyer Glacier; I could notice the gray skin of a harbor porpoise breaking the milky blue of glacial silt waters; I could bend down to view the quality of sunlight from within a whitish gentian on the slopes of the Alaska Range.

As panelist Gary Lawless said -

A symbiotic relationship is created between the artist and the wild place.

The benefits come from diving deep into a wild place, from relearning the vocabulary of interracting with the more-than-human world. A vocabulary we all once knew, and need to relearn for our own, and the wild's, survival.

On the wall of the AIR cabin in Denali was a quote by Edward Abbey, one of the writers who was instrumental in inspiring my own life's work:

If we could love space as deeply as we are obsessed with time.

It's just a phrase, not a complete sentence, but to me that makes it all the more perfect, because these wild residencies left me open-ended and awake.

Friday, March 1, 2013


I suppose it all started with piano lessons. After a stint in childhood, I started them up again when my son, at eight, started his - as a way of supporting and encouraging his efforts, but mostly just because I wanted to. What I found, to my surprise, was that the hours practicing scales and tunes actually enhanced my writing efforts - rather than one taking time and creative energy away from the other, I found the opposite to be true: one enhanced the other.

Or maybe it started with my sister's ceramic sculptures, and seeing how each abstract object she created had its source, its inspiration, in something from the natural world. Once I went to visit her in West Virginia, and she showed me a small piece of driftwood on her shelf. "You gave me this," she said, "and I've used it many times as a template for my sculptures." It was a revelation to me. But of course art is inspired by the natural world. It is all around us. It is us.

So this blog explores that, and goes another step beyond, into what this connection and inspiration moves us to do beyond the art. For this I'll turn to such organizations as Artists for Nature and the Cape Farewell Project, which incidently inspired Ian McEwan's novel Solar. I'll also interview artists, such as Rika Mouw, whose art is inspired by nature and dedicated to protecting it.
Inspiration is all around us.