Plum Island Wildlife Refuge
I recently interviewed the poet Gregory Orr for a book of interviews with poets on the topic of religious faith. The book will be published by Tupelo Press in the fall of 2011. Orr is the author of ten books of poetry and the haunting memoir The Blessing, in which he writes about the accidental death of his brother in a hunting accident when Orr was 12. Orr was the one who fired the gun. Now in his sixties, Orr said that he realized a few years ago that he had spent his whole life writing about death. Why, he asked himself, was he writing about death when he loved life so much?
I thought of his words when I was walking across the snow-covered dunes at the Plum Island wildlife refuge this weekend. The stark plains of gray and white, captured in this photo, were so beautiful. I have always been drawn to monochromes. Though this photo was shot in color, it looks like black-and-white. I love that absence of color. The eye and mind are focused in a minimal landscape. The scene is reduced to its essence.
I have sometimes been accused of writing stories that are too sad. When my first book was published, readers wrote to complain about the ending. Why did I choose such a sad ending? My standard answer has always been that more is at stake in this kind of story, for the characters and for me as a writer. A serious story stays in the mind in ways a piece of writing that is more entertaining may not. I lost a good friend to cancer when we were both 21. This early loss shaped me and gave me, perhaps, a more tragic sensibility, as the terrible event of Orr’s childhood did for him. But now, Orr says, he only wants to write about life.
My favorite books remain the great tragic novels of the 19th century. Gregory Orr has made me think about the kind of stories I’m drawn to, and the kind of stories I want to write, though. Drama for the sake of drama alone is meaningless. It’s only when an exploration of the tough situations we all face is linked to a larger canvas – the basic stuff of human life – that it resonates. If you look carefully in that monochrome, you’ll see a hint of color.
This morning as I put my toast in the toaster, I spotted a large bird circling over the pond. I knew it wasn’t a gull. It flew with greater purpose and precision. The bird swooped back and forth along the marshy shoreline. I studied its wide wingspan and the shape of its tail. A red-tailed hawk. There was such majesty in the bird’s flight, and power. I watched it with a sense of wonder, and thought about the time, a year ago, when I was walking along a snowy trail by the ocean, and a red-tailed hawk landed in a pine tree directly above my head. It was the closest I had ever come to one of these birds in the wild.
Red-tailed hawk at Odiorne State Park, Rye, NH
Birdwatching forces me to pay attention. In the past, I might have missed the flicker of movement behind the trees that made me stop as I prepared my breakfast. Now I have trained myself to watch for the twitching of a branch or flutter of a leaf, to listen for small cheeps and longer songs. Along with the red-tailed hawk, a white-throated sparrow appeared in the backyard this morning, hopping about beneath the rhododendron. We’ve seen these sparrows come through in the spring and again in the fall. They are usually around for only a week or two. I was tempted this morning to think that this sighting of a white-throated sparrow in January was our first, but I can’t be that sure. The bird might have been there all along, and I didn’t notice it. I’m noticing far more than I used to, or so it seems.
Maybe it’s a function of age and being less focused on myself, or maybe it’s just making a more conscious effort to watch for the birds and other wild animals with whom I share my little corner of the world, but I’m more aware now of my daily encounters with these wonderfully instructive and beautiful creatures. How much they have to show us if we take the time to watch and listen.
In this time of diminished expectations for many of us in many different realms, I’ve decided to focus on what’s nearby and readily available. In recent months, I’ve noticed this happening naturally in ways large and small in my life. I would think that I needed to go buy a new sweater and then discover one in the back of my closet I’d worn only a few times that looked great. Presto – new sweater. Instead of bemoaning what isn’t, I’ve been trying to focus on the abundance of riches I do have. These are many. Yesterday I walked across the Memorial Bridge to Kittery to do an errand instead of driving the car. The fog was just rolling in as the sun set, and the light over the river was murky and beautiful and strange. This walk is one of the riches waiting right outside my door. I only have to make the time.
In the writing I am doing now, I’m staying close to home, too. The non-fiction book I’m working on is about Portsmouth, where I live, and solitude, and my friend, the poet Robert Dunn. I have wanted to write about Robert since his death two years ago, but it took a while to find the form for the story. Robert was a rare individual who lived off the grid close to downtown Portsmouth – without a car, telephone, or computer. He sold his books of poems, which he made by hand, for a penny. He was a brilliant poet and possibly the most well-read person I have ever known.
Robert Dunn, Portsmouth Poet Laureate. Photo by Nancy G.Horton
In the final years of his life, he had no choice but to rely on others, something that was difficult for such a solitary person. I was one of the people who helped care for him. I’m writing about the challenges and miracles of Robert’s final years, and about how much he was a part of the landscape of our town. The book will be about both a unique character and a unique place, and how they defined each other. Maybe it’s the time in my life, or the uncertainty about what is happening to the publishing business, but writing local feels right for now – a celebration of what I see each day out my windows, a celebration of stepping out my door.
“What the Net diminishes is . . . the ability to know, in depth, a subject for ourselves, to construct within our own minds the rich and idiosyncratic set of connections that give rise to a singular intelligence.” – Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains
I’m currently reading The Shallows, which was published earlier this year. Carr tells us that brain research in recent decades has proven that, contrary to commonly held beliefs not long ago, our brains are highly plastic. More recently, scientists have documented serious changes in the brains of computer users after only a week or so of regular use. The Internet rewards distractibility. It allows us to take in a great deal of information in short, quick takes. As a result, our brains are less able to engage in the sort of sustained engagement and thought required for serious reading. The time we spend zipping around online may even be re-shaping the brain circuitry that governs how we form memories. Carr argues that the technology that is now thoroughly integrated into our work and social lives has long-term implications for our shared definition of culture. His work has generated plenty of controversy, with people weighing in on all sides of the issue. It’s important to note that Carr is no Luddite and freely admits to his own addiction to everything the Net offers. In order to write the book, though, he moved to the mountains of Colorado, where he had no cell service and disconnected from FB, Twitter, and his RSS reader. He couldn’t sustain the concentration otherwise.
Carr’s book raises a lot of alarming questions. It made me think more clearly about how I spend my time. I’ve made a commitment to spend more time reading – not on a screen but with a book in hand – and for more than ten minutes at a time. Remember what it was like to read for an hour? Without stopping to check email? I’ve also been walking more, an activity that has always been linked to thinking for me. And I’ve been trying to pay attention to what I find most rewarding each day – cooking vegetables from the garden, doing yoga, reading poetry. Is a life lived online a life? Or an imitation of one?
South Mill Pond at low tide
In my current writing project, a collection of non-fiction essays, I’m exploring the connection between landscapes and the people who move through them. How do places define us? This is a theme I’ve worked with in my fiction, looking at the isolation of an island community and the sorts of choices islanders must make as a result of living off shore. In a conversation with my colleagues on the faculty at Southern NH University recently, I learned to think of people as ocean souls, or mountain souls, or desert souls. Apparently research has been done on the landscapes where people feel most at home. It’s not the same for all of us. I suppose this is obvious, but it made me think again about our relationship to landscape. Do we become habituated to the desert or mountains, and so feel more at home in them, or is the preference in born? I suspect it goes deeper than simply what’s familiar to us. I did not spend time in the mountains until I was in my early twenties, but I felt immediately as if I had found a place where I belonged. I love the vast space and beauty of the desert, though it’s a place I want to visit, rather somewhere I see myself staying. I don’t think I could ever live far from the ocean, on the other hand.
My home is on a tidal pond, and from my kitchen window I can watch the water rise and fall with the changing of the tides. At low tide, the pond becomes a huge mud flat. A friend who visited from Kansas said if she lived in my house, she would sit at the window and watch the water all day. I laughed. Most of the time, I barely give the tides a second thought. Yet I recognize that the view of water, and its changing rhythms throughout the day, remind me to slow down, to stop and look again. The pond beyond my windows speaks of stillness and quiet, something that changes but is unchanging. I’m a lucky person to be living with this view, but more importantly, I just may be a slower and more thoughtful person because of it. I wouldn’t want to choose between mountains and ocean – I love them both – but in the end, I am fundamentally a water soul.
In the late 1980s, I lived in Provincetown, Massachusetts for two winters. I had a winter rental in the west end of town, a wonderful little one bedroom apartment that went for $250 a month. I didn’t have a car and biked and walked everywhere. I rode my bicycle to the supermarket and loaded my groceries into my old frame pack. There was a television in my apartment, but it only pulled in a couple of stations, and the picture was pretty wobbly. I got my news from listening to the radio and reading the New York Times, that is if I walked into town early enough in the day, before the papers sold out. I didn’t have a computer and wrote the novel I was working on by hand, sitting at the kitchen table in the morning. In the afternoons I spent hours walking in the dunes, and reading, and writing in my journal. I think of that time now as the foundation for much of what I have done in the years since. I learned to sit at the desk for long periods then, to wait out the silence when the writing wasn’t going well and to welcome it when it was. I often fantasize now about returning to a time like that. I’m a different person, of course – married, not single; responsible for more than the freelance work I was doing in those winters – but there are other changes, too. I write on a computer these days, a change I don’t regret. But it’s hard to separate the computer, my writing tool, from everything else the computer brings – constant news updates, Facebook, etc. I’m not sure I could ever feel as lost as I did in those years in Provincetown again. Most of us live with a sense now of a world that is constantly giving us input, and with the realization that we are accessible and on display at all times. We know so much about the world and about each other, yet do we know what matters? And does all this connection obscure another kind of knowing, of the sort I experienced when I wandered the dunes, a deeper understanding of the self?
I have considered renting a place in Provincetown and going there without a computer to see if I could recreate my life in the late ’80s for just a week. It might be an interesting experiment, but I fear I wouldn’t get any work done without my keyboard, which just seems silly. I could discipline myself not to access the internet, and I could walk into town to buy the New York Times. Would that be enough to make me feel lost as I did then? I don’t think so. Our understanding of the world and how we interact with it has changed fundamentally. I don’t believe there’s any way of retreating from this monumental shift in our lives. The dunes still offer their great vistas, though, and places to wander, cut adrift, for a few hours. Leave the cell phone behind.
For ten days at the end of August, I wandered around the boreal forest in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont (boreal is another word for northern). My purpose each day was birdwatching, though birdwatching is just an excuse to be outdoors, in beautiful and wild places. I walked many miles with my husband through moose bogs and forest trails, and much of this time, since we were birdwatching, we walked in silence. I kept circling back in my thoughts, as I searched the branches of the trees for warblers, to my need for reflection. Perhaps the business of reflection is built into my nature as a writer. I need silence and the passage of time to discover what I want to say in a novel or essay or poem. I saw Grace Paley give a reading in Provincetown in the late 1980s. In the q and a afterwards, she said that she had worked on one short story off and on for 25 years. It took her that long, she said, to figure out how to tell that particular story. I understood just what she meant.
Today there is almost nothing in our culture that encourages reflection. With Facebook and Twitter and all our electronic devices, we broadcast our experience and thoughts to the world instantly without taking so much as a nanosecond to reflect. Everything happens NOW. Nothing is mediated. There’s an excitement to all this instant communication, but it’s not an excitement I can use to good purpose in my writing. Writing requires slowness, disengagement with the present moment, and stepping away from time.
Victory Basin in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom