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.
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.