Monthly Archives: September 2012


Paul Bunyan and Babe at Trees of Mystery–Lost?

Lost Man Creek.  Lost Coast Brewery.  Bumper sticker with Tolkien’s immortal words “Not All Who Wander Are Lost.”  Although I lived on California’s north coast in the late 1970s, today I feel fairly disoriented driving 101 past Eureka and Arcata toward the Smith River.  It’s just been so many years since I’ve made the trek–over ten.  The last time the fog was so thick we couldn’t find the elk we’d driven to see.  And wasn’t the college on the other side of the interstate?  Couldn’t I see a friend’s house from this bridge over the Eel River, now all grown up with alder?  There’s the Sears where I worked for a week scraping gum off the linoleum.  There are the street people with the glazed looks, at the same loose ends I remember knowing while living in Eureka.  In the words of my river friend Tim Mansfield, “none of us were doing much back then” besides waiting for the season to start again.

And yet when I reach my destination, the 12th annual North Coast Writer’s Conference in Crescent City, I’m no longer disoriented.  There are writers from Smith River, Brookings, Crescent City–poets and fiction writers and essayists and memoirists–and presenters from up and down the coast.  We work together for a day and a half, discussing craft, reading our work, and exploring that of others.  One activity I lead is Jordan Rosenfeld’s “Letter to a Long-Lost Friend” (from our book Write Free, Attracting the Creative Life, Kulupi Press) in which we tell our correspondents how we’ve found the lives of our dreams.

We’re on fire with possibility.  We find redemption in the written word.

In the evenings we eat together, laughing as though we’ve known each other for years, sharing our love of the creative life.  We recognize the kindred souls we are.  And I’m found.

The trip home is sun drenched and edged with clearing fog at the fringes of deep green forests.

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.
–J.R.R. Tolkien, “Strider,” The Fellowship of the Ring

California Grizzly at the Klamath River–Lost.


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Over the last several days while down with a flu bug I gobbled up Gretel Ehrlich’s Heart Mountain, one of the best little-known novels in the Western literature.  Published in 1989, Heart Mountain is about the Japanese internment camp of the same name not far from the Montana border in northern Wyoming.  The novel is about the camp and so much more: the effect of World War II on the residents of that remote part of the country, the hardship endured by the displaced people of the camp, the desolate but  beautiful land in all seasons.

My copy of Heart Mountain is inscribed by my former husband, who gave me the book and didn’t write in it until after we’d separated.  He did so at my request, as he’s the person who introduced me to the work of Gretel  Ehrlich.   Not all fences are made of wood and wire, he wrote.  Often the fences we cannot see are the greatest barriers.  At the time, my heart broke to read those words.  I did recognize even as I cried over it how wise the inscription was.  Now I see its application not only to the divide between him and me but also to the story in Heart Mountain.

So much more stands between the people of Wyoming and the prisoners of the Heart Mountain camp than barbed wire and guard surveillance.  There are barriers of all kinds: language, culture, racism, philosophy, orientation, inertia.  The beautiful point of the book is that some individuals on both sides of the wire, through perseverance, are able to connect.

All suffer loss and hardship, whether they were from the coasts or the tiny Wyoming town where five of the seven men inducted are killed in the Wars in Europe and the Pacific.  Working from true accounts, Ehrlich gives her characters real stories to live through.  Many who seem unlikely to be affected are not immune in the end.

Not all fences are made of wood and wire. (Photo by Rebecca Lawton, Dolores River, Colorado)


When the Japanese prisoners are released from Heart Mountain camp in 1945, whether or not they have homes to return to, some linger long enough to climb the mountain they’ve seen through the wire since 1942.  An octogenarian Noh mask carver and a twenty-something displaced UC Berkeley grad student who has become his apprentice tackle the slopes, knowing them for the first time.  From the journal entry of the student:

I sidled along the rock face, touching it with my hands.  It was smooth and cold.  I came on a place where snow had lodged itself in a crevice and a tiny pine grew there.  Halfway across I figured I was next to the center of the mountain and put my ear to the rock.  Abe-san’s laughter spilled out of the cave above.  I continued on.  Then I did hear something.  Looking down, I saw water oozing out of broken rock.

“What do you see?” a voice said in back of my head.  Abe-san had climbed down and was behind me.

“Look.” I pointed to the water.  “I wonder where it comes from.”

Abe-san laughed.  I couldn’t tell if he was laughing at my naivete or laughing with delight.  I counted the lines that radiated from his eyes–crow’s feet–there were four on each side.

“Everything comes from emptiness,” he said.

I groaned.  “Then why doesn’t this mountain fall over if it’s empty inside?”

“Oh . . . it will . . . ,” he said, smiling.

I love this reminder that even a landmark as big as a mountain will someday be gone.  The power of the earth to reclaim what it’s built is larger even than the highest mountain.  Same thing must happen to barriers.  Noh master Abe-san would’ve known that even during his imprisonment.  The barriers described in my book’s inscription may not have fallen over, but I’ve made my peace with them.

Heart Mountain joins the list of novels that lovers of the West must read and read again.  It’s a book I’ll always have on my shelf, not far from A River Runs through It (Norman Maclean), The River Why (David James Duncan), The Bean Trees and Animal Dreams (Barbara Kingsolver), Cold Mountain (Charles Frazier), and The Solace of Open Spaces (also by Gretel Ehrlich).

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Mountains far to the north of the PCT, Baranof Island, Alaska

Some of my best friends have said they’re unmoved by the sciences: biology, entomology, geology.  As recently as last month, a very smart friend of mine said these things have always left her cold.  Where’s the people connection? she wondered.  I want to hear about what geology means to people.

“I’m glad you expressed that,” I replied. “To me that means scientists aren’t getting that connection across.”  It means we’re not using language that captures the imagination.  At the same time, I reflected on how many times I’ve been in the field with laypeople who want to know the names of everything.  What kind of rock makes up that mountain?  Where were the volcanoes that erupted this basalt we’re standing on?  What created this valley?  When will the next big earthquake shake us up?

I’ve often been surprised at the depth of curiosity people have about the earth under our feet–at the same time they claim they’re not interested in geology.

Geology: the study of earth.  The study of earth’s life story.  The study of often slow-moving processes that are, in spite of their glacial pace, alive.

In Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, Cheryl Strayed claims early in the book never to have been much interested in geology.  Okay, I figured, fair enough.  Not everyone has to connect to rocks.  I’ll keep reading anyway.  But then later in her account, a narrative of hiking south-to-north on the PCT and finding herself in the process, she also finds amazing words to describe the creation of Crater Lake in Oregon.  In Chapter 16, “Mazama,” she writes:

Crater Lake used to be a mountain.  Mount Mazama, it was called.  It was not so unlike the chain of dormant volcanoes I’d be traversing on the PCT in Oregon–Mount McLoughlin, the Three Sisters peaks, Mount Washington, Three Fingered Jack, Mount Jefferson, and Mount Hood–except that it was bigger than them all, having reached

 an elevation that’s estimated at a little under 12,000 feet.  Mount Mazama blew up about 7,700 years ago in a cataclysmic eruption that was about forty-two times more voluminous than the eruption that decapitated Mount St. Helens in 1980  . . . The Klamath Tribe of Native Americans who witnessed the eruption believed it was a fierce battle between Llao, the spirit of the underworld, and Skell, the spirit of the sky.  When the battle was over, Llao was driven back into the underworld and Mount Mazama had become an empty bowl.  A caldera, it’s called–a sort of mountain in reverse.  A mountain that’s had its very heart removed.

Hard not to fall for such words–caldera, cataclysmic, eruption–and it’s this language that drew me to geology in the first place.  How lovely that Strayed found something to love and write about in the geology of the mountains she came to know.  And how lovely that the wilderness healed her broken life.

Sometimes I forget that the vast majority of people on the planet aren’t raised with the awareness that nature is the big healer.  I love books that remind me of this, like Wild, and others before it: The Healing Woods by Martha Reben, The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich, Woodswoman by Anne La Bastille, Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams.

The river did for me what PCT did for Strayed: made me strong, independent, and connected to others.  And geology, the matrix that holds us all on our earthly journeys, makes river canyons, mountains, and open spaces possible.

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