Earlier, I had been watching the Ken Burns documentary The Shakers: Hands to Work, Hearts to God. It chronicles the Shakers’ rise, their history, their eventual fall. Celibacy was their undoing. Many could not sustain their faith, what was asked of them, but ultimately, yes, the celibacy was what did them in—they couldn’t keep their numbers up, they could no longer find joy in these daily rituals. In one Shaker community called Pleasant Hill, in Kentucky, an eighteen-year-old named Polly committed suicide by hanging on September 13, 1815. The narrator recounts the impassive words of the community elders that had been written down about her death: that Polly killed herself above the kitchen in the sister’s shop. That she was naturally agreeable and good, but that she spoiled it all.
A special thanks to nonfiction editor Katherine Gehan for the encouragement and excitement about this piece—and to all the editors for taking it! Pithead Chapel has long been one of my favorite journals, and I’m delighted to again be featured in an issue.
And that’s what drew us there: the old growth forest, preserved pines estimated to be between 350 and 375 years old. Massive-trunked trees—some with girths of more than four feet, even!— a forest of them, untouched by man. You and I were always drawn to places like that, the serenity of those ancient landscapes. We had wandered in, gasped aloud to one another, “What was the world even like when these trees were saplings?” and stood in awe of them. The trails were quiet, and we were alone. At one point, I wedged myself into the cavity of a dead jack pine, tried to make you laugh.
A big thanks to Robert Vaughan and everyone at (b)OINK for publishing the piece. A seriously jam-packed issue, and I’m thrilled to be a part of it.
A new study of satellite images taken over 10 years starting in 1990 shows the rural forest canopy disappearing. Forest space disappeared from the United States in such big chunks that the average distance from any point in the nation to a forest increased by 14 percent, about one-third of a mile.
The story (a great read), paints an obvious but overlooked connection. In cities, where trees and green areas are often congregated around and protected, this preservation has kept the greenspace (mostly) intact. But, in rural areas, it’s overlooked:
One of the findings of the study is a twist that Yang, a graduate student, and Mountrakis, an assistant professor at the College of Environmental Science and Forestry, didn’t expect. The disappearance isn’t happening in cities, where people often complain about the uprooting of trees for development. It’s happening in rural America, where trees are falling and hardly anyone hears.
It alters the local climate, decreases biodiversity and leads to soil erosion. “This is the major driver – we can link the loss of the isolated patches to all these environmental degradations,” [Mountrakis] said.
I turned back to the squirrel. “First thing you have to do is get it wet so the fur doesn’t stick to the meat. You don’t want that.” I dunked it in the shallows of the lake, splashed the water over it. I laid it back across the rock and looked at Sam who had her arms crossed, that expression of hers I hated. I wanted this to be a big success, this whole trip, but I knew Sam was right. Even still, there was still so much we had to do and I had to be careful. Couldn’t afford to give up, to let things go to shit.
I let the air idle between us a minute, said, “So next you cut a little slit under the tail here, like this.” I cut and could feel her eyes on me. “You don’t want to go too deep, though. Don’t want to puncture the meat.”
Judge Tiphanie Yanique had this to say about my piece:
This story is written smartly from the first person perspective of a father who is witnessing his transgendered child’s transition from male to female. Though the father is a dead beat and the child an angsty young adult, the reader feels for both of them as they navigate the American wilderness on an impromptu camping trip. A darkness at the heart of the trip keeps the reader feeling on edge. Ultimately, it is the dad who undergoes at least a couple of transitions over the course of the story.
This is a seriously excellent issue—I’m sharing pages with some amazing talents—and I can’t recommend checking it out enough.
A long time ago, I used to I live in Los Angeles. While there, I wrote a draft of a screenplay called Twentynine Palms. Clearly, nothing happened with it, but the film, a western, was set in the area around real-life Twentynine Palms, California. I’ve long held a fascination with deserts—owing to, I’m sure, growing up in verdant Michigan—so, I was delighted to recently discover (and fall in love with) An-My Lê’s photo series, 29 Palms, which you can find in its entirety on her website.
The borders of natural spaces—specifically National Parks—fascinates me. Saying that, here at this spot, marked by this fence, is now the start of “preserved” land…it’s mind-boggling, cordoning off land like that. Necessary, sure, to protect it, but this breakdown of space, where it ends, begins, all of it melting together…is utterly captivating.
We, as humans, don’t want to be bothered by our green spaces, generally. We want them to work for us. (Thinking here of roads, cutting across the landscape, disturbing deep green forests.) So this series by An-My Lê is especially striking in that regard: photos of training exercises just outside of Joshua Tree National Parks (complete with missile launches, fake raids…you name it), showing the beautiful and arid landscape, but also humans and their training drills punishing it.
I just wanted to approach the idea of war in a more complicated and more challenging way” says artist An-My Lê, whose photographic series and film “29 Palms” (2003-04) explore the training exercises and desert landscape near Joshua Tree National Park as a staging ground for the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
An-My Lê’s photographs and films examine the impact, consequences, and representation of war, framing a tension between the natural landscape and its violent transformation into battlefields. Suspended between the formal traditions of documentary and staged photography, Lê’s work explores the disjunction between wars as historical events and the ubiquitous representation of war in contemporary entertainment, politics, and collective consciousness.
Can’t recommend this, and An-My Lê’s photography in general—beautiful, compelling, desolate, thought-provoking.
William Mather did not care to cultivate the walls of thimbleberries and raspberries that lined these new roads and trails he built—wholesome foods, which, over the centuries, had kept native peoples alive. He imported non-native species: elk, caribou, and mule deer, red squirrels and jackrabbits, and grouse, guinea, and turkey. This was his menagerie. And when the island’s natural worth could not support these creatures, Mather imported vegetation for them to flourish. He took this green space and made it greener, fashioned it in his image. But the island fought back with hard winters and predators like wolf and coyote skating across the winter ice to hunt his prey animals and drive Mather’s dream away. Visitors stopped coming in numbers they once did. The distance, the location, the island itself—it was too much.
Thanks to everyone at Gravel—I’m thrilled to be included.
I’ve been thinking a lot these past weeks, as many Americans have, about inevitable changes coming from those barreling into power, and how they, historically, have attacked the environment through their platform. Over the past week, it’s been discovered that the incoming Republican Congress will be, it seems, redefining U.S. federal lands as “effectively worthless”.
Heather Hansman tells, at The Guardian:
Essentially, the revised budget rules deny that federal land has any value at all, allowing the new Congress to sidestep requirements that a bill giving away a piece of federal land does not decrease federal revenue or contribute to the federal debt.
So, this means states—and native peoples—have the potential to lose land, and lose land fast. And it’s important to note that “the land under control of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), National Forests and Federal Wildlife Refuges contributes to $646bn in economic stimulus, not to mention 6.1m jobs.”
Blargh. See, American Exceptionalism is a complicated and contradictory idea that America is unique and special and superior and does what it needs to—while often paving over the histories and cultures of the native peoples who were settled here first. It’s an idea that’s still with people, that we can do what we want to the land, the people on it—that it all belongs to us. And this land, unfortunately, is often at the center of our idea of what this country is: expansive land, open land, towering massifs and endless landscapes bleeding into the horizon. U.S. federal land, U.S. parks, the National Park Service…it truly is a wonderful and inspiring resources that people do (see above) take advantage of: It’s where we go to get away, to vacation, it inspires art and discussions but, yes, unfortunately needs our intervention and conservation, too.
Who stands to gain from all of this? Well, yes, it would seem the wealthy, those who can afford to buy it, to develop it (lets’ say, for example, the mining industry).
It reminds me think of a group I discovered last year, the American Prairie Reserve: an organization of ultra-wealthy philanthropists who have come together to purchase and set aside on the Great Plains of northeastern Montana.
On the eve of seeing our lands potentially disappear, our backyards destroyed, we turn to this idea of privatizing land for the sake of preservation and—is this the new trend? Is this how the next generations will see what we’ve all taken for granted, will explore these green spaces? Perhaps, and perhaps it’s our only hope? Whatever it takes to protect these places…I’m all for it, yes, but strange and critically important times these are.
MVICW is an utterly fantastic writing conference that takes place on Martha’s Vineyard. I was fortunate enough to be a faculty member there a couple year’s back, and I can’t recommend it enough. Some general contest details below; the full particulars are on the MVICW website.
Deadline for Submissions: March 20, 2017
Two First Prizes: $1600 (Tuition and Lodging for the Week): Poetry and Fiction
One Alumni Award: $975 (Full MVICW Tuition for the Week)
Two Second Prizes: $500 each (Towards Tuition): Poetry and Fiction
We are thrilled to offer our annual competition to win a spot at The Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing. The competition is open to anyone who will be 18 years or older as of July 2017. Two winners (one in poetry and one in fiction) will receive the full retreat package, including tuition and lodging. One winner will receive the Alumni Award, which covers full tuition for the week of choice. And two second prize winners (one in poetry and one in fiction) will receive $500 towards the cost of tuition.
About the MVICW
The Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing was founded in order to give writers the opportunity to develop their craft among established authors. The Institute offers a comprehensive week-long focus on writing, providing writers with the necessary time to devote to their art, in the idyllic setting of the Vineyard. Each summer, we invite award-winning authors and poets, literary journal editors, and university creative writing faculty from around the country to lead writing workshops, work one-on-one with individuals, and provide the necessary tips and tools for editing and publishing. Our goal is to make the writing program experience a personal one that aids in building a writing community, establishing friendships with other writers, and offering contacts in the industry. Participants include individuals of varying ages and writing abilities, from published writers to skilled beginners. We hope you will join us this summer!
A few weeks back, I was lucky enough to wander around The Museum of Modern Art and, in addition to (finally) getting to check out Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World—one of my most favorite paintings in the world, stunning in person—I stumbled upon the work of photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto, specifically his Adriatic Sea, Gargano (triptych):
I prattle on a lot about about my love of landscapes. To me, this is where stories start—a place, a time, maybe, but anchored in some place. This is what gets my juices flowing, how a something develops. I’m especially drawn to forests (having grown up in Michigan), and lakes and mountains, too, but there is something about the desolate landscapes (deserts, the ocean) that gets my mind whirring.
Seeing this series of photographs (from 1990), this sterile environment…my mind races. I want to write about it, I want to see it, I want to see life happening in these places. (And, thus, I want to write about life happening here.)
I was also really delighted to find out about his work, too:
To craft his exquisite black-and-white images, Hiroshi Sugimoto uses a 19th-century-style, large-format camera, exploring his idea of photography as a method for preserving and modeling time. “Endeavors in art are…mere approximations, efforts to render visible unseen realms,” he says.
True of writers, too, I think (which explains, perhaps, why I’m so drawn to his work).