Sunday, August 28, 2022

When Buying Land, Do We Own a Bit of Nature?

How do we own land, how do we possess it? Right now my wife and I possess legal documents that say we own thirty-five acres of farmland in southeast Iowa. The abstract for the land will be our narrative of ownership, a record of the first owners, a thread of ownership down the years. For me, I've been engaged in a process of defining my ownership of this land, and so far I've found it possible to accept the idea stewardship rather than ownership.

Our thirty-five acres are mostly defined to the north by Big Indian Creek. The defining features to the east are the county gravel road and the rural electric easement that skirts the road, a strip of land cleared of trees, threaded with power poles and lines. The land rises from that northeast corner of creek, road, and bridge uphill to the south border of our land, higher and drier ground. Most of the thirty-five acres are covered with trees, the land dropping off from the south mostly to the north and east, down to the creek. The configuration of the land on the map is roughly a rectangle, but walking the land with its several ridges and ravines still is somewhat confusing, that confusion exacerbated not only by the lay of the land but also by the thickets of multiflora rose, which inhibit straight travel. There are sections of the land we haven't seen yet because of barriers of multiflora and poison ivy. Our first impression of our stewardship of this land is that we have to begin clearing out the invasive multiflora and the noxious poison ivy. We expect this to be a never-ending battle, not one we accomplish, check off the list, and then forget about.

My first connection with the land--and I believe also my wife Sandy's--has been to the several large white oaks that extend along the east and south sides of the property--about a half dozen that are easily over a hundred years old. Two or three are truly massive, a shading, abiding, gnarled presence on the land, whose presence seems to attract (or radiate) silence and stillness. I cannot help but pause when I stand beneath either of the largest two, both on the south end of the property. I feel myself rooting to the ground, extending both into soil and into sky. Am I embracing the world, is the world embracing me? Those ancient oaks allow me, remind me, that I am more than a bundle of frenetic, scampering simian activity. I can stop, cease my busyness, and just abide--be for a time, and perhaps if I visit and share the silent existence of the oaks often enough, I can expand my sense of self and become both the tree scamperer and earth abider simultaneously. 

To become one with the land is our highest sense of ownership. When ownership identifies as obligation, then our legal title to this patch of land begins to make sense to me. We humans have changed the land, shaped the face of the world. On this patch of land, I will have a chance to "unshape" the world, to rewild our bit of earth by removing that which is alien and by adding a bit of civilization by building and landscaping in a sustainable manner. I don't hike this land in the same manner as I hike in one of our state parks. Sometimes I will hike with a trekking pole, but sometimes it will be with a long-handled shovel so that I can remove multiflora root balls. Next spring I want to hike and discover blackberry patches, to mine the motherlode of morel mushrooms. I want to build a tiny eight-foot by eight-foot house that overlooks one of our small ravines, situated so that I can sit and allow the vista to take my eye to the horizon.

Camping in its purest form is the process of interacting with the land yet leaving no trace, to move across the land like a deer or a fox. The deer has its copse of trees and its form in the grasses where it sleeps and rests. The fox has its den where it waits out the storm and where it raises its kits. Sandy and I will have our little Airstream Basecamp for staying on the land, some small shelters we build to keep us dry and warm, and eventually a small home. Sometimes we'll hike with trekking poles, sometimes with shovels. I have a lot of research and learning to do. I want to learn the names of all the varieties of trees on our land. I want to learn which variety or varieties of grasses are the best seeds to spread. Most of all, though, I want to balance my civilizing and "uncivilizing" of the land with abiding on the land. I think if it as a partnership, for the more I live on the land, the land will live in me.

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Friday, May 20, 2022

My Love/Hate Relationship with Zane Grey's Writing, Part 2

Oddly enough, "Part 1" of my love/hate relationship with Zane Grey's writing was posted on this blog twelve years ago. So in the last twelve years, have I reconciled my conflicting perspectives of Zane Grey? The short answer is no; I am still conflicted. Seeking wider perspectives, I searched for other articles about Grey's bigoted writing, the racist and sexist elements in his writing. An article posted on Literary Hub, "In Praise of Racist Books: Notes of an Immigrant Reader," drew my interest, written by Black scholar and professor Louis Clude-Sokei. (A hit on my "Part 1" Zane Grey article also was pulled up, always a hoot to find myself on the internet.) 

Clude-Sukei grew up reading whatever books he could get his hands on, most of them by default White writers writing for a White audience. A first his reading simply matched his life experience--it was a bigoted, racist world he lived in, and the books he read were consistent in vision. Then Clude-Sukei grew more sophisticated and grew "to enjoy the frisson of contradiction." He writes about how "those damned racist books": "taught me that we are all shaped and rendered impure by racism, colonialism, and various forms of inequality, all the time and in all texts. Who or what we would be without those forces is unanswerable." The racism and gender rigidity in Grey's novels are historical footprints of times past (and present). 

Here are a few concepts from the article that resonated with me:
  • "I’ve [Louis Clude-Sokei] lived by Joan Didion’s evergreen dictum, 'Writers are always selling someone out.'”
  • "Not seeing myself in any of the characters enabled me to identify with all of them, so innocence was impossible. And suspecting that the author might have been hostile to someone like me only made the dance of interpretation more exciting. This all taught me to find freedom even in narratives hell-bent on my erasure."
  • "One can love a work of literature while vehemently disagreeing with it. This seems so obvious it’s hard to believe it must now be defended. To teach students the opposite is to hobble them with a need for innocence."
  • "To cleanse the past, though, is not only to rob ourselves of the prickly pleasures and unique challenges of such works. More importantly, it can aid in the removal of evidence from the scene of crime."
  • "To make sanctuary in hostile or indifferent territory is a necessary skill."

My recent foray into Zane Grey's world was his romance The Light of the Western Stars. In the novel, Madeline Hammond leaves the privileged world of the East, seeking her brother in the wilds of New Mexico, during the beginnings of the revolutionary times in Mexico in the early 1900s. She experiences the vivid roughness of the environment and the people who live there. Action includes lightning storms, fast horses, wild cowboys, gunfights, and of course love. Grey's ability to describe the Western environment is at times sublime.
Rain fell steadily. The fury of the storm, however, had passed, and the roll of thunder diminished in volume. The air had wonderfully cleared and was growing cool. Madeline began to feel uncomfortably cold and wet. Stewart was climbing faster than formerly, and she noted that Monty kept at her heels, pressing her on. Time had been lost, and the camp-site was a long way off. The stag-hounds began to lag and get footsore. The sharp rocks of the trail were cruel to their feet. Then, as Madeline began to tire, she noticed less and less around her. The ascent grew rougher and steeper—slow toil for panting horses. The thinning rain grew colder, and sometimes a stronger whip of wind lashed stingingly in Madeline's face. Her horse climbed and climbed, and brush and sharp corners of stone everlastingly pulled and tore at her wet garments. A gray gloom settled down around her. Night was approaching. Majesty heaved upward with a snort, the wet saddle creaked, and an even motion told Madeline she was on level ground. She looked up to see looming crags and spires, like huge pipe-organs, dark at the base and growing light upward. The rain had ceased, but the branches of fir-trees and juniper were water-soaked arms reaching out for her. Through an opening between crags Madeline caught a momentary glimpse of the west. Red sun-shafts shone through the murky, broken clouds. The sun had set.
I enter Grey's world as an immigrant, a time traveler. The author has his "boxes" or perspectives that inform his writing: the sensitivity and intuitions "unique" to women, a "let's bash Mexicans" box, the insipid anemia of Easterners and the childlike impulsiveness of Westerners, the regenerative qualities of nature (which at times Grey romanicizes until it becomes a cliche).

I love Grey's description of the natural world, and I love his passionate characters and storylines, even with their brittle characterizations and moral binary development. As an immigrant reader, I enter Grey's novels, recognizing that I'm entering territory that will sometimes be hostile to my world view. I enjoy the frisson of being on guard, of advancing into a perspective that I at times will vehemently disagree with. Like all travelers, I advance cautiously into the "history" of the writing, the world at times beautiful and at times ugly, a stranger in a strange land--a situation not all that different, actually, from every time I walk out my front door. 

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Sunday, April 3, 2022

Upping My Travel Writing Game

Guyana Highlands of South America
"Tom, why don't you plan out a route to California?" My wife Sandy asked me this question after lunch last week--when we had been planning a camping trip that same morning to an Iowa state park a half hour's drive away. That required a shift in mental gears, I can tell you--not a bad shift but certainly a significant change of perspective!

By happenstance, my step-daughter had recently given me the new issue of National Geographic magazine, the April issue, and I was reading the article "Up the Mountain, to a World Apart," about a "venture into a remote part of Guyana with no roads and no guarantee of getting out" to a region of "sheer-sided, flat-topped mountains known locally as tepui." A scientific expedition would climb these unpopulated, untrammeled environmental time capsules to learn more about the process of evolution.

Reading the article was an eye-opener for me, a reminder of just how powerful and immediate travel writing can be. The opening paragraphs place the reader right next to conservation biologist Bruce Means. 
"Grasping a sapling in one hand for balance, Bruce took a shaky step forward. His legs quivered as they sank into the boggy leaf litter, and he cursed his 79-year-old body. At the beginning of this expedition, Bruce had told me that he planned to start slowly but would grow stronger each day as he acclimated to life in the bush."
Later in the article, writer Mark Synnott places us deeper in the bush, describing the conditions that the explorers were facing. 
"For days we'd been trudging across a swampy floodplain through ankle-deep mud that almost sucked our boots right off our feet. It rained incessantly, and even when the sun poked through the low clouds, it never penetrated the dense canopy overhead. Down in the steamy understory, mosquitoes and biting flies reigned, and our sweat-soaked clothes, slick with mud and ripped by thorns, stuck to our rashy skin. Every day we crossed countless tea-colored rivers and creeks via precarious log bridges. The slow-moving water, which was also our drinking source, was stained from decaying vegetation--something that no amount of purifying could remove."
Ah, what lovely, descriptive prose! The writer follows the most basic and important descriptive writing axiom: show, don't tell. He uses "sense words," words which connect the reader's experience to the description, not ideas but physical sensory input. Look at the touch words: grasping, shaky, and quivered, to name a few. The sentence that begins with "Down in the steamy understory" is rich with sense words: "steamy understory" with touch and vision; "mosquitoes and biting flies reigned" evokes sight, sound, and touch; "sweat-soaked clothes" evokes, of course, smell. Taste? With every breath filtered by steamy jungle air, with sweat on the lips and mud everywhere, how could one not be tasting the jungle? The sentences weave together our life experiences and imagination to place us in that jungle--all while we sit comfortably in our chair at home, perhaps a cup of tea (with sugar and milk) beside us. Travel writing at its best!

Canary-yellow writing pads and Ticonderoga #2 pencils, and I'm ready to begin the planning!
Now as I sit at the kitchen table planning my route, my old habit of planning with tablets and pencil to make my lists prevails: a list for food, a list for last-minute preparations, lists for our children as they keep an eye on the house for the month we'll be gone. We're packing for our five-nights out, knowing that we'll have food stores available at our destination. We'll be driveway-mooching at Sandy's parents, hooking up to 120v electric power to run our 12v refrigerator and lights.

The pencil scratches its way across the page, either adding an item or crossing one out. I'm glad I had the wheel-bearings packed last month at a local RV dealership. I've listened to the pounding of my little air compressor as I've topped of the trailer's tire pressure, and I've leaned on the torque wrench as I've checked that the wheel lugnuts are tight. I'll be de-winterizing the trailer next week. I was on my hands and knees yesterday, scrubbing the interior and removing my gear from this winter's 1-3 night local camping outings. 
I've spent the time in front of the computer screen, studying Google Maps and locating possible campgrounds and RV parks for overnight stays on our trip. Since Sandy will need a strong phone signal for her online work, I've called the overnight sites to inquire about connectivity. Of course, I'm not naive enough to think all the information I receive will completely match our needs, but it's a beginning. After that, it's just take it one day at a time. Our longest mileage planned is a little over four hundred miles, with most days ranging between 250 miles and 325. We hope to leave early enough so that Sandy will have some time to work in the late afternoons if necessary. 

I may very well be writing by hand in my daybook as we journey, skipping the computer and just taking notes and writing down impressions, details that I can include when I finally do post about our journey on my travel blog, Green Goddess Glamping. A few notes, a few photos, pleasant conversation with Sandy while on the road. Audiobooks have been strongly recommended for us while traveling, but Sandy and I are looking forward to just looking out the window and chatting. I've traveled before by myself on a trip off to the Carolinas, chronicled on my traveling blog under the label Green Goddess Expeditions

I've researched and written before about writing and travelogues, so long ago, in fact, that the original blogs I read for inspiration and direction are now defunct, the links no longer active. Mine are still available, though, the most recent being "Travelogues and Tiny Trailer Travel." I'm excited to travel with my wife Sandy. The last time we traveled the Iowa-California route was from west to east when we drove a much loved yet worn 1975 Ford F-150 from my parents' home in California back to Iowa, a gift from my parents to my son. That was quite an adventure, considering the worn steering linkage and the lack of heater or windshield defroster. I remember how the engine would cut out and stall at stoplights on the continental divide because the old carburetor wasn't fuel injection, and the high-altitude air was too thin for the carburetor adjustments. I just feathered the accelerator, though, and once on the road we were okay, especially when we dropped out of the mountains. We made it, finding peace of mind on the trip by deciding that if the old orange "Pumpkin Wagon" broke down, we'd just have it towed to the nearest gas station, hand the owner registration title to someone willing to take it, and then take a bus home. 

On an early winter overnighter with our Airstream Basecamp
This trip should be more pleasant with our 2021 Airstream Basecamp and our 2018 Nissan Pathfinder (with only just under 18,000 miles on it). I'm looking forward to sharing our time together. Sandy even wants to learn how to drive while pulling the trailer, and I'm sure there are some not-so-busy stretches of highway on the trip that will provide her with some low-stress experience. Travelogue writing is a skill that I'm continually developing, and I plan to focus this trip on sharing those travel moments the best I can, those moments of flicking the turn signal and then pulling off the interstate freeway, heading for the night's campsite, having rolled down that long, lonesome highway, a song in my heart and my wife by my side. 

Follow by email my travel blog, Green Goddess Glamping, if you'd like to read about my travel adventures. Follow this blog by signing up below if you'd like to learn more about my life of writing. 

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Tuesday, March 15, 2022

The Cozy Mystery: Kick-A** Women in Corsets

I've been reading a lot of cozy mysteries this winter--and enjoying them. My wife and I have formed a book club of two, and we've spent a good deal of time reading side by side or discussing the books we've read over a meal or cup of tea. Sometimes I'm a book or two ahead in a series, and sometimes my wife leads the way. Sometimes I've read a series that my wife's chosen to skip; sometimes it's the other way around. You might say we're easy with the cozy, or cozy with our easy-going reading schedule. However cute I want to get with my syntax, it's been a good winter in terms of our reading arrangement. We've read some good books and had some fun talks about those books.Therefore, it seems perfectly reasonable to share some of our conclusions regarding cozy mysteries beyond the two of us--hence, this article.

The website has published an article describing the qualities of a cozy mystery, "What Makes a Cozy Just That?" The identified characteristics in this article are as good as any other articles I've read. (Plus the website includes alphabetical lists of cozy authors.)

  • "The cozy mystery heroine is usually a very intuitive, bright woman." (A newer cozy series that features this is Sherry Thomas's Lady Sherlock series, which cleverly recreates the Sherlock Holmes mythos.)
  • "The occupations of the amateur sleuths are very diverse"; that is to say, usually the female protagonist is not a professional private investigator. (In Rhys Bowen's Molly Murphy series, though, the protagonist does become a PI.)
  • "Although the cozy mystery sleuth is usually not a medical examiner, detective, or police officer, a lot of times her best friend, husband, or significant other is." Anna Lee Huber's Lady Darby series features the "anatomist" plot feature.)
  • "Cozy mysteries are considered “gentle” books… no graphic violence, no profanity, and no explicit sex." As the cozy article additionally mentions, authors sometimes push those boundaries. (Julie McElwain's Kendra Donovan series is an example of where the "gentle" mystery becomes more gritty. The character Kendra Donovan is an FBI agent who time travels to Regency England, where she solves murders.)
  • "The cozy mystery puts an emphasis on plots and character development." This is why cozies become series--the journey of the main characters becomes as significant as solving the cases--or they become entwined. Often the romantic interest is a more modern-thinking male who assists the female protagonist, eschewing the social restrictions of the times regarding women. (A great example of this characteristic is Andrea Penrose's Wrexford and Sloane series, with one of the finest assembly of interesting characters of all the cozies I've read.)
My wife and I have a few other comments regarding the cozy mystery. One is that I'm trying hard right now to remember if any of the cozy series my wife and I have read were written by men, but I'm coming up blank. I do know, though, that I've seen some male authors in the book lists I've read. One casual reference was to John Grisham, that his novel The Pelican Brief could fit the cozy definition, although it relies more on action than many cozies. 

Another point to make is that cozies repeatedly put the female protagonists in conflict with the restrictive sexist views of the times, whether it's Regency England, Victorian England, or American and Europe in the times prior to (or during) World War II. Most of the cozies I've read pit the female protagonist (and often the male partner) against the extreme limitations that were imposed upon women. The concept that women are only meant to be eye candy and heir-producers is a common conflict in the novels. A common theme is how far we've come with gender equality--and how we haven't come very far at all. 

A third quality of cozy mysteries involves the literary device of anachronism, "a thing belonging or appropriate to a period other than that in which it exists." Although often used to mean something inordinately old-fashioned in a modern world, the anachronism in cozies is a modern, self-reliant, independent woman living in times where women are socially and legally without power. Often the female protagonists fight two conflicts at once: solving the murder mystery and struggling to act independently in a social milieu that represses a woman's independent spirit. Since issues of women's rights still resonate in today's modern world, this social conflict resonates for modern readers.

One of the pleasures my wife and I experience, now that we've read many cozy mysteries and quite a few series, to to determine and discuss how well the authors work within the boundaries of the cozy framework. Some authors are better at the social issues, some better at realistically portraying the romantic conflicts, and some shine at creating unique and interesting characters, including minor characters. This sub-genre of cozy mysteries is a safe and enjoyable environment to return to after a long day's work. The novel format rather than TV series medium highlights curiosity and mystery as a precursor to action, and in the end we are intellectually satisfied and not just stimulated by non-stop action. 

Soon I'll be heading out this spring to garden, camp, and bike and hike. I'm looking forward to more activity and fresh air. It's been a good winter, though, in terms of reading. I've discovered new writers that are a pleasure to read, and I've learned a few things, too. Welcome to the world of the "gentle" mystery--a cutthroat world where "gentle" is a facade that must be maintained in order to exist and broken to survive.

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Saturday, March 5, 2022

Read My New Flash Fiction Story Published at Every Day Fiction

"He saw her reflection in the chipped mirror on the wall."
That's the first sentence of my short story "Out with the Old," published at the online website magazine Every Day Fiction on March 3. Flash fiction of a bit over six hundred words in length, it's a story of reconciliation and rebirth. 

I wrote the story in the dead of winter at a time when "the dead of winter" literally felt just like that, frozen and lifeless. Waking up before dawn with the story idea (and in the depth of winter it's not so hard to wake up before dawn), I sat down at my laptop and wrote the story in one sitting, finishing as the rose fingers of dawn caressed the eastern horizon, to paraphrase a Homeric epithet. The flash fiction story is not, of course, epic in length, nor is it an embodiment of a people as is Homer's Odyssey. However, writing the story was satisfying and even healing for me, representing my belief that we have great power over our lives, and that choosing the right action at the right time is one of the great benefits and opportunities that human consciousness provides.

"Old with the Old" was written in one sitting, revised a couple of times in the next week or so, and then revised on a few technical points, based on the Every Day Fiction editor's comments, then resubmitted. Every Day Fiction publishes one new flash fiction story every day of the year, paying its authors a whopping three dollars. Twelve years ago, I published another story for EDF, a Halloween story titled "Spider," which one reader's comment was "A great, creepy tale for Halloween!"

Three flash fiction stories are compiled in my Amazon ebook Tri Odd, which besides "Spider" also includes "Cull," a mildly macabre story about a retired English teacher (go figure!), and a science fiction genesis story, "In the Beginning." All three stories have been published in online magazines over the years.

In addition to flash fiction, I also have published at Amazon another three short stories from my The Stone Dragon universe--Who Listened to Dragons. These short stories emerged from a map from The Stone Dragon novel. I looked at the map and asked myself, "I wonder what's happening there?" And thus the stories were born. I have several other unpublished stories written that are set in The Stone Dragon universe, and when enough are written, I'll publish a short story compilation, Tales of the Stone Dragon Inn

Getting back to "Out with the Old," it's a story I submitted under the "Spring" category at EDF. It does have that sense of a breath of fresh air about it, one that I created for myself by writing the story--and if you're ready for a bit of spring yourself, follow the link to the story and enjoy!

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