Wildbranch

Do you read Orion magazine?

If you don’t, you should. I got to hear editor-in-chief Chip Blake describe how Orion came to be: it was founded by people who thought that the “conversation [around the environment] in the 1970’s was too dominated by science and policy” and sought a more humane, if you will, approach. The magazine features excellent writing and art – it’s a forum for nature writing, but its nature writing suggests that nature is, well, everything. Their current issue has a piece by Sandra Steingraber, one of the most inspiring authors I know. Steingraber once described herself as “a two-way translator between the public and scientific community,” and that’s exactly the sort of writing we need more of today.

(I want to be her. But I can’t, for many reasons including but not limited to, I did not develop bladder cancer in my early 20s because of the environmental factors in my hometown. If I could be her without having to go through the cancer thing, that would be cool. Unfortunately I’m also not as good at writing, or as smart. I met her once and had to refrain from saying, “I want to do exactly what you do!” because, well, that would have been pretty awkward.)

But back to Orion.

They have an annual workshop for nature writers and lo and behold, it is held at Sterling College in Craftsbury Common, Vermont. It’s called the Wildbranch Writing Workshop, after a stream in nearby Wolcott.

Even if my writing was good enough to get selected for a prestigious workshop like this (not a chance), it’s far too expensive for me to attend. Which all seems a little cruel, me living right next to it. But at the very least, each year that faculty give public readings, and I was not going to miss those for anything (and in fact had to disobey Pepa’s orders to do a trail running race that evening).

And so there I was, sitting in a row with a few other young women, all of us wearing colorful woven scarves (I silently reprimanded myself for being so stereotypically… something), listening to Blake tell us about the philosophy of Orion. As he introduced Scott Russell Sanders, a well-dressed woman in nice bright red cutout shoes slid in next to me and my heart skipped a beat: it was Janisse Ray.

Janisse Ray, author of Ecology of a Cracker Childhood. Sitting next to me. As we both scribbled down something that Sanders said about manifestos, she tapped my arm and asked me what the rest of the sentence had been. That was my brush with greatness for the week and I childishly hoped that some of her awesomeness would rub off on me.

Sanders was a great reader, extremely charismatic, and would be perfect at an environmental rally of some sort. He read “For The Children”, a piece from one of his books. It had some great language in it but I have to say it was not what I had come there for. I’m not sure what I had come for, but this was too heavy, a bit, with its constant mentioning of the consequences of our daily actions.

Then Ray did her reading. This, I realized, was what I came for. Ray is funny and has a great presence. She finds the humor even in tough situations. The first piece she read was from the book she’s working on right now, and was about a neighbor whose family had, in the 1800s, developed its own variety of corn by combining three others. They still plant it, and had offered to share some seeds with Ray. Lucky her! “If you haven’t heard about seeds, they are disappearing like every damn other thing,” Ray read. But here, as ever, she was hopeful where some people couldn’t be: “There is no despair in a seed.”

The second piece was a bit from her journal about attempting to capture and domesticate a swarm of bees. I loved everything about it, from the humorous conversations with her husband, replicated in Ray’s southern drawl, to the claim that “working with the bees was like working with bread dough.” I loved her language, her descriptions, everything about it. Of course, I do have a soft spot for bees.

David Gessner finished up the evening. And he’d had a few drinks. He first read from the beginning of his book Sick of Nature:

I am sick of nature. Sick of trees, sick of birds, sick of the ocean. It’s been almost four years now, four years of sitting quietly in my study and sipping tea and contemplating the migratory patterns of the semipalmated plover. Four years of writing essays praised as “quiet” by quiet magazines. Four years of having neighborhood children ask their fathers why the man down the street comes to the post office dressed in his pajamas (“Doesn’t he work, Daddy?”) or having those same fathers wonder why, when the man actually does dress, he dons the eccentric costume of an English bird watcher, complete with binoculars. Four years of being constrained by the gentle straightjacket of genre; that is, four years of writing about the world without being able to say the word “shit.” (While talking a lot of scat.) And let’s not forget four years of being the official “nature guy” among my circle of friends. Of going on walks and having them pick up every leaf and newt and turd and asking “what’s this?” and, when I (defenseless unless armed with my field guides and even then a bumbler) admit I don’t know, having to shrug and watch the sinking disappointment in their eyes.

It’s a great piece.

He then read “Letter to an Apprentice”, which should have the subtitle “Beginning is terrifying business.” It is full of advice for those of us who are beginning to write. It made me think, for sure. But it was kind of too long.

And then it was over, and I went home, dreams of writing in my mind, but tired. Too tired to write anything. So many times I have told myself that if I just write for an hour before bed, I could get a lot of writing in. But I never can. My days are too full. It’s too much.

Someday. In the meantime, I got to enjoy listening to some fabulous authors read from their work.

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Tales of a first-time race director

(All photos taken by Nancy Moran. These are just snapshots from a small digital camera, but Nancy, my neighbor in Craftsbury, is an amazingly accomplished photographer – check out her website!)

For weeks now, I have been planning a celebration of National Trails Day for the Craftsbury Outdoor Center. I excitedly picked a slate of events from all the ideas we had thrown out there, and we settled on four: a trail race, a nature walk, a pizza party, and volunteer trailwork. I had my work cut out for me coordinating all the various pieces, but the race was the thing I was most nervous about: most of the other activities depended on other people, but the race, well, that was all on me. Plus it was supposed to be a fundraiser for the Northern Rivers Land Trust (my idea), so if it didn’t do well, I would feel beholden to all of their board members, not just my fellow staff at the Outdoor Center. But in the few days leading up to THE BIG DAY, things seemed to be coming together. I was confident that the whole thing would be a big success.

Then it started raining.

And it kept raining.

And it rained some more, like pouring piss out of a boot. (I picked up this phrase from my parents at a young age… I am not really sure what it refers to, but I like it.)

I was sure that nobody would show up. But I still went to the Touring Center and set up shop, and sure enough, just at the time that registration was supposed to open, a man from Montpelier came walking through the door. I breathed a sigh of relief: we were going to have a race after all!

By 9:30, we had 13 participants signed up. That’s hardly a big number to start with, but when you take out the people that I know, it becomes downright miniscule. First, my teammates Ollie Burruss, Ida Sargent, and Dylan McGuffin raced. Also, Dick Dreissigacker and Judy Geer, who run the Center, took part. Ollie’s girlfriend Anna Schulz came too, and convinced her parents, Amy and Eric, to join in. That left Adrian Owens and George Hall, members of the Craftsbury Nordic Ski Club, plus the gentleman from Montpelier, and two five-year-olds who were running the kids’ race together.

I shepherded everyone to the starting line, which, since I hadn’t planned things out very well, was really just an imaginary line between the two soccer goals in our upper field. After a brief set of instructions that went something like, “Follow the signs for Race Loop. And the signs we pounded into the ground. And Judy pounded them into the ground so if you get lost, talk to her….”, I sent them off in the pouring rain, around a course that even under the best of circumstances is one of the toughest 5k’s I’ve ever run.

Thank goodness I wasn’t racing myself!

Me and my timers trekked down to the lower field, where the race would finish. And we waited. And we waited. After a while the kids, who had only run a 2k loop, came in, all smiles and completely adorable. They had run the whole course, which blew my mind – they were 5 years old! They proudly told us that it was their second race, and pointed out that they had finished before the grown-ups which definitely meant they were faster. So, so cute.

Quite a bit later Ollie and Dylan rolled in. As I tried to write down their bib numbers and times, my pen literally ripped through the soaking-wet paper on my clipboard. Great. I momentarily wondered if we would be having any results at all.

They are both quite good runners, and even though Dylan had been doing the race as a tempo workout their time of 20:30 was quite slow for them. I was dismayed at how terrible the conditions must have been out there and felt really bad for the other 9 racers still out on the course. But Dylan insisted that it was really fun and he loved the course, so that made me feel a little better.

When Ida finished, she was mad. She had just returned from a semester in France the night before, and said, “All I wanted to do was go for a nice rollerski and speak English. What I ended up doing was running in the rain, completely by myself. Every time I saw a shortcut I thought about taking it.”

Oops. So, that started making me feel not so good again.

The last two people to roll in were Anna and her mother. It turns out that this had been Amy’s first running race, ever. And she didn’t exactly enjoy it. I really hope this doesn’t mean that she never does another one. But, on the upside, there were three women in the race, so all of them got to take home some of the peanut butter cookies I had made for prizes. I think that cheered her up at least a little bit.

And that was it for the race. All over. I hope my next event is more successful… maybe the weather will cooperate a little better.

The nature walk and trailwork were canceled due to nobody showing up in the pouring rain, but we still made pizza in our outdoor bread oven. And it was good. Amen.