(Click on the name of the author or simply scroll through the text.)
David Gessner, Terry Tempest Williams, Wallace Stegner, Edward Abbey, Leila Philip, Josette Kubaszyk, Rebecca McClanahan, Kim Barnes.
from All the Wild That Remains
by David Gessner
“If Wallace Stegner has David Gessner’s mind, Edward Abbey has his heart.”—THE
The Paragraph of the Week comes from All the Wild That Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and the American West, a book that combines memoir and literary criticism in a way that is thought provoking and engaging. It is the story of his own love of the West in light of other writers who have shaped his thinking. As Publisher's Weekly wrote in it starred review, “Gessner writes with a vividness that brings the serious ecological issues and the beauty of the land into sharp relief. This urgent and engrossing work of journalism is sure to raise ecological awareness and steer readers to books by the authors whom it references.” David Gessner is the author of nine books of nonfiction including Return of the Osprey and My Green Manifesto. He is also the co-creator of Bill and Dave's Cocktail Hour, which raises a glass each week to the lost arts of reading, writing, and drinking.
The Paragraph of the Week
Wallace Stegner was impatient with the remnants of romanticism in the West, particularly with those who wrapped themselves in the cloak of the western myth so they could continue their agenda of destroying western land. He wrote: “I grew up in a cowboy culture, and have been trying to get it out of my thinking and feeling ever since.” Against the myths of rugged individualism, he put forth community. Against irrationality, he put forth reason. Meanwhile, though Abbey might like to mock both cow and cowboy, that didn't stop him from occasionally putting on the romantic spurs and chaps of a western hero. Abbey, and to some extent the group that grew out of his ideas, Earth First!, used the cowboy image to battle the cowboy myth, and one of the reasons Abbey is still relevant today was that he took this do-gooding, dorky thing called environmentalism—he hated the passionless, scientific sound of the word—and made it exciting, the province of the outlaw. He also made it fun. In today's political climate, it is almost impossible to imagine the Robin Hood feel of Abbey's day. Abbey relished the fight and, reading him, others started relishing it too.—David Gessner
The reason for turning to writers as different as Wallace Stegner and Edward Abbey is that, taken together, they provide guidance in how to live in land as geographically rugged and environmentally fragile as the American West. “What they point to for me, and for anyone else who cares to look closely,” writes David Gessner in All the Wild That Remains, “are creative possibilities for living a life both good and wild.” Stegner offers a measured approach which recognizes that solutions to problems such as drought require compromise and the efforts of a community working together. This rejection of the “cowboy culture” appeals to the professor and family man in Gessner, but by itself the general lack of fire in that point of view is unsatisfying. “The question I now ask myself,” Gessner writes, “is whether it is possible to be responsible while still having wildness in my life.” If Wallace Stegner has Gessner’s mind, Edward Abbey has his heart. It was Abbey, both with his Monkey-wrenching activism and his poetic prose, who took “this do-gooding, dorky thing called environmentalism and made it exciting.” In fact, Gessner is torn. When he travels West, he is exuberant as he rides his bike through canyons so stunning he feels as if he has “eaten hallucinogens” for breakfast when, in fact, he ate a granola bar and regrets disturbing the dusty terrain. He knows it was wrong for Abbey to roll a car tire into the Grand Canyon “just to see what would happen,” but sympathizes with the impulse and is nostalgic for a time when the world seemed that “big,” “indestructible,” and “fun.” Like a winding river meandering through opposite banks, Gessner is guided by both of these writers on the way to a life that is “properly wild.”—THE
October 2, 2015
from “The Clan of One-Breasted Women”
in Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place
by Terry Tempest Williams
“Her parents clearly saw the ‘golden-stemmed clouds of mushroom’ and the light ash ‘raining down on the car.’”—THE
“Terry Tempest Williams,” writes David Gessner, “is the natural heir to Ed Abbey and Wallace Stegner.” In her environmental activism, such as the protest described in the Paragraph of the Week, and in her memoirs and collections of poetry and essays, she has “spent decades both writing about and protecting the land she loved.” She gave David Gessner the defining koan of All The Wild That Remains when she reversed conventional wisdom by saying that in “so many ways Ed was the conservative” and “Wally forever the radical,” complicating his view of both men as Gessner pursued the conundrum of living a life that is “properly wild.” The Paragraph of the Week comes from the chapter “The Clan of One-Breasted Women” in her 1991 memoir Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place.
Paragraph of the Week
We were booked under an afternoon sun and bused to Tonopah, Nevada. It was a two-hour ride. This was familiar country. The Joshua trees standing their ground had been named by my ancestors, who believed they looked like prophets pointing west to the Promised Land. These were the same trees that bloomed each spring, flowers appearing like white flames in the Mojave. And I recalled a full moon in May, when Mother and I had walked among them, flushing out mourning doves and owls.—Terry Tempest Williams
Terry Tempest Williams and eight other women are being booked by the police for trespassing on a Nevada Test Site as part of an “act of civil disobedience” on behalf of all women who died of breast cancer as a result of atomic fallout. Williams explains in “The Clan of One-Breasted Women” that “one by one” she watched the women in her family “die common, heroic deaths” due to the disease. She “had cared for them, bathed their scarred bodies, and kept their secrets." She “shot them with morphine when the pain became inhuman” and as they died served as “a midwife to the rebirth of their souls.” Williams, who has a borderline malignancy in her chest, witnessed as a child an explosion when her family was driving north of Las Vegas. Her parents clearly saw the “golden-stemmed clouds of mushroom” and the light ash “raining down on the car.” Now, as an adult, she has been arrested by police who, as a cruel joke, drop her and the other protesters off in the middle of the desert with no way to get home. On the busride to the drop off Williams saw Joshua Trees named by her Mormon ancestors for the prophet pointing toward the Promised Land. The blooming trees brought back memories of “a full moon in May,” when she and her mother “had walked among them, flushing out mourning doves and owls.” What the police did not understand when they abandoned the women in the desert is that the protesters, “women who recognized the sweet smell of sage as fuel for [their] spirit,” were already home.—THE
October 9. 2015
from “Thoughts in a Dry Land”
in Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs:
Living and Writing in the West
by Wallace Stegner
“Tactile verbs—‘polish’, ‘erode’, and ‘shape’—suggest a sculpted landscape.”—THE
Wallace Stegner was the author of a dozen novels and as many books of nonfiction, including The Big Rock Candy Mountain, The Sound of Mountain Water, and Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemondade Springs which is the source of the Paragraph of the Week. Stegner sounded the alarm years ago about the basic problem of the West: aridity. Unlike many he rejected the cowboy myth of American independence and recognized the need for citizens to cooperate, make mutual sacrifices, and work with governmental agencies to solve environmental problems such as drought and fires. More than ever we need to listen to voices like his.
The Paragraph of the Week
Aridity, more than anything else, gives the western landscape its character. It is aridity that gives the air its special dry clarity; aridity that puts brilliance in the light and polishes and enlarges the stars; aridity, that leads the grasses to evolve as bunches rather than as turf; aridity that exposes the pigmentation of the raw earth and limits, almost eliminates, the color of chlorophyll; aridity that erodes the earth in cliffs and badlands rather than in softened and vegetated slopes, that has shaped the characteristically swift and mobile animals of the dry grasslands and the characteristically nocturnal life of the deserts. The West, Walter Webb said, is “a semi-desert with a desert heart.” If I prefer to think of it as two long chains of mountain ranges with deserts or semi-deserts in their rain shadow, that is not to deny his assertion that the primary unity of the West is a shortage of water.—Wallace Stegner
“Wallace Stegner’s ideas about aridity,” writes David Gessner in All the Wild That Remains, permeates “almost all of his nonfiction.” What makes this paragraph from the essay “Thoughts in a Dry Land” stand out is the nearly palpable sense it creates of a West physically shaped by the absence of water. The examples of this legacy of drought—a list of them locked in semicolons—is remarkable in its scope, running from the bunched grasses of the prairie to the polished and enlarged stars shimmering above desert mountains. Tactile verbs—“polish,” “erode,” and “shape”—suggest a sculpted landscape. Even the “characteristically swift and mobile animals” seem like anhydrous embodiments of desiccated air. The threat to this land, according to Stegner in The Sound of Water is “the importation of humid land habits from the East that result in a careless squandering of resources.” That “wet-land” mentality mixed with the West’s “atomic individualism” which he calls an “indulgence of unprecedented personal liberty,” has created over time a “damaged domain.” Whether the West is “a semi-desert with a desert heart,” as Walter Webb claimed or two mountain ranges cradling deserts and semi-deserts in “their rain shadow” as Stegner liked to see it, the problem remains the same: “a shortage of water” that Americans have been slow to accept and address.—THE
October 16, 2015
from “Cliffrose and Bayonets”
in Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness
by Edward Abbey
“Edward Abbey inhabits his style in the same way that he inhabits the wild by shedding restraint and refinement to become someone greater that the product of civilized society.”—THE
In All the Wild That Remains, David Gessner considers Edward Abbey to be “a man who, for all his flaws, showed through his example what it meant to live a counterlife, a life where the love of wildness really mattered and where one’s priorities grew out of that love.” Abbey’s novel The Monkey Wrench Gang became a guide to environmental activism and his lyrical writing in Desert Solitaire offered up an elegiac cry for the lost wilderness of the West. For him, the good life lived in the wild offered the oppostunity for spontaneity, and in this passage from Desert Solitaire Abbey describes the time that he threw a rock at a rabbit on impulse with surprising results. He is also surprised by—and learns from—his own response.
The Paragraph of the Week
For a moment I am shocked by my deed; I stare at the quiet rabbit, his glazed eyes, his blood drying in the dust. Something vital is lacking. But shock is succeeded by a mild elation. Leaving my victim to the vultures and maggots, who will appreciate him more than I could—the flesh is probably infected with tularemia —I continue my walk with a new, augmented cheerfulness which is hard to understand but unmistakable. What the rabbit has lost in energy and spirit seems added, by processes too subtle to fathom, to my own soul. I try but cannot feel any sense of guilt. I examine my soul: white as snow. Check my hands: not a trace of blood. No longer do I feel so isolated from the sparse and furtive life around me, a stranger from another world. I have entered into this one. We are kindred all of us, killer and victim, predator and prey, me and the sly coyote, the soaring buzzard, the elegant gopher snake, the trembling cottontail, the foul worms that feed on our entrails, all of them, all of us. Long live diversity, long live the earth!—Edward Abbey
I was reminded of this paragraph by David Gessner who uses it in All the Wild That Remains to extoll the beauty of Edward Abbey’s writing style. When I turned to the paragraph in my own well-worn copy of Desert Solitaire describing a rabbit that Abbey impulsively killed by throwing a stone, I rediscovered the qualities that Gessner admires. Abbey is “alive on the page” in a way that is rare among essayists. Often shy in person, he knew how to “let loose” in his writing “where it counted.” He reports his actions with care and registers his own responses honestly, even when they surprise or implicate him. There is the excitement of discovery in Abbey’s prose that “dramatizes thought” and turns it “into a kind of action,” the words coming at us with the urgency of “someone talking to us.” But the passage—like most of Abbey’s writing—is noteworthy for one other quality that I would add to Gessner's list of literary virtues. Call it a predatory prose style. Edward Abbey inhabits his book in the same way that he inhabits the wild by shedding restraint and refinement to become someone greater that the product of civilized society. To rend the veil that separates him from the wild, he follows his impulses both as a writer and a human being, rewilding himself on the page to claim a place on earth among “the sly coyote, the soaring buzzard, the elegant gopher snake, the trembling cottontail, [and] the foul worms that feed on our entrails.” In this way the style becomes the man, an embodiment of his maverick soul.—THE
November 6, 2015
from “Water Rising”
in Water Rising
by Garth Evans and Leila Philip
“This growing pond with ‘water rising’ belonged to her, the beaver insisted, not the human intruder.”—THE
What’s this? Color at The Humble Essayist! Well, we couldn’t help ourselves. Writer, Leila Philip, and artist, Garth Evans have collaborated to create Water Rising, a book of paintings and poetry intended to celebrate and protect the natural world. For a year Philip and Evans worked outside of their specialties. Evans, a British sculptor with an international reputation, painted watercolors, and Philip, the author of two volumes of nonfiction, The Road Through Miyama and A Family Place, wrote poems. “Only when the year had ended,” they explain in a note to the book, “did we integrate the watercolors and the poems, to see what connections might have appeared. We were surprised, amazed, and delighted.” Fortunately for The Humble Essayist, one of her poems is, in fact, a essay of seven small paragraphs giving us an excuse to choose one of them for The Paragraph of the Week.
The best way to purchase Water Rising is to go to the website here at www.water-rising.com which will assure that 100% of the purchase price will be donated to environmental stewardship.
Paragraph of the Week
This time, when she dove, she took me with her, my svelte younger self moving through the hot water ladled with silt, down to the bottom of the pond where she had carved her underwater trails, clawing roads through the deep muck.—Leila Philip
“Water Rising” is a seven-paragraph, lyrical essay of transformation from the book that Leila Philip wrote in collaboration with her partner, the British artist Garth Evans. The loud crack of a beaver’s tail had frightened Leila as she walked through the evening woods by her house in Connecticut. The beaver eyed her ominously, a single “black eye visible, staring” as the animal swam, “a crease in flat silver.” Again, her tail flicked and a second “crack echoed through the trees, her warning.” This enlarged pond with “water rising” belonged to her, the beaver insisted, not the human intruder. “The dark eye,” Philip writes “locked on my standing figure.” Philip imagines the beaver diving, pulling the writer’s “svelte younger self” down to the bottom of the pond into “underwater trails” and when she emerges she has become “middle-aged” and “messy” as if she had taken on the appearance of the beaver: “four sets of yellow teeth, two layers of fur, claws, and dark scales cascading down the thick paddle tail.” “I was thinking about polarities and contrasts” Garth Evans says about the watercolors in Water Rising, “about how disparate things can come together to make something new.” In fact, any of the paintings with their colliding and apparently evolving pastel shapes could fit this prose poem about a woman feeling like an intruder in a place near her own house being transformed by the presence of a rodent and the workings of nature into an aquatic creature—“[h]alf fish, but no mermaid”—who belongs in the world where she lives.
in Brief Encounters
by Josette Kubaszyk
“As the rope is ‘twisted, twisted, twisted,’ the phrase ratcheted up with commas, her feet lift from the ground and the inevitable uncoiling begins...”—THE
Brief Encounters is the latest in a series of influential anthologies of short nonfiction begun by essayist, novelist, and poet, Judith Kitchen about twenty years ago. This edition was co-edited by essayist and memoirist Dinah Lenney who explains in her introduction that the selections were arranged like a curated gallery of paintings, individual pieces selected and placed to “appeal to the readerly desire for resonance and depth.” The result, as Kitchen adds in her introductory remarks, is a composite portrait of contemporary life that calls “our shortened attention spans to the larger world and its vast physical pleasures.”
We intend to choose a number of Paragraphs of the Week over the course of next year from this anthology beginning with his week’s entry by Josette Kubaszyk. Her poetry and essays have appeared in Marco Polo Arts magazine, Riverbend, the Noun, and Storm Celler. A graduate of the Ashland University MFA program, she writes literary reviews for River Teeth and teaches part-time at Purdue University’s north-central campus. She lives with her family in LaPorte, Indiana. You can learn more about her work at www.josettekubaszyk.com.—THE
The Paragraph of the Week
I wonder if she laid her belly flat across the wooden board, draping like a boy’s limp familiar cat and twisted, twisted, twisted the ropes in tiny circles around and around and around until her toes could barely touch and the ropes were tight as knots and then let go—spinning spinning spinning fast ponytails whipping horizontal branches sky and dusty earth and dizzy dizzy dizzy and the mossy blurring bark until her eyes and mind and breathless belly hollered Stop! When she'd had enough. But her world maintained its whirring, all the time going round and round and round and round.
“Swing” is about the exhilaration we crave, but cannot control. In her earliest memory, Josette Kubaszyk lies belly down across the seat of a swing moving her legs in a circle until the rope above her twists and bunches up pulling her feet off of the ground. She starts spinning with increasing speed and much of the thrill of the spin is captured in the rest of this long opening sentence that begins in “wonder.” The image of her draped across the seat like a “boy’s limp familiar cat” suggests docility, acquiescence, and the relinquishment of will as she puts herself at the mercy of the laws of motion, and there is in the knotted rope a sense of pent-up tension and anticipation. As the rope is “twisted, twisted, twisted,” the phrase ratcheted up with commas, her feet lift from the ground and the inevitable uncoiling begins “spinning spinning spinning” in a “dizzy dizzy dizzy” rush, the repetitions freed of all internal punctuation now, and the syntax of the sentence comes undone as well as “fast ponytails whipping horizontal branches sky and dusty earth” fly by. Breathless the little girl hollers “Stop!” bringing the sentence to an abrupt end. She has “had enough.” But once set in motion, her dizzying world, beginning with this memory, “maintained its whirring, all the time going round and round and round and round.”
November 20, 2015
from “Things Gone the Way of Time”
by Rebecca McClanahan
in Brief Encounters
“‘One more time, Dad,’ Rebecca McClanahan implored her father, ‘we can make the trip again.’”—THE
Rebecca McClanahan's tenth book is The Tribal Knot: A Memoir of Family, Community, and a Century of Change. She has also published five books of poetry and a suite of essays, The Riddle Song and Other Rememberings, winner of the Glasgow prize in nonfiction. Her three books of writing instruction include Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively, which is used as a text in numerous writing programs.
The Paragraph of the Week comes from her essay “Things Gone the Way of Time,” which first appeared in Brevity. It has been reprinted in Brief Encounters, the latest in a series of influential anthologies of short nonfiction from Norton begun by essayist, novelist and poet, Judith Kitchen about twenty years ago. This edition was co-edited by essayist and memoirist Dinah Lenney.—THE
The Paragraph of the Week
Of memory, I mean, which takes us for all we're worth. Memory that hand-knotted string of pearls, that black locomotive spewing out smoke clouds, dragging its precious cargo in circles around the living room and over the uncoupling track with its power to disconnect everything we've snapped so carefully together, leaving the rest of our story stranded—the boxcar, the coal loader, the cartoon-red caboose signaling the end, the open platform asking to please be filled with something, oh please let it fill with something, we could name it the future, that all-thumbs, fumbling-in-the-dark set of hands whose touch we close our eyes to accept.—Rebecca McClanahan
“One more time, Dad,” Rebecca McClanahan implored her father, “we can make the trip again.” She was thinking of a childhood vacation brought to mind by “the Route 66 mug,” “that vintage flour sifter,” and “this Lionel train complete with smoke pellets and uncoupling tracks” that show up on her computer screen as she surfs the web. She was thinking of her mother’s gloves “with hand sewn beads and scalloped edges” that come to her now as the only “Sunday softness” she can remember. But her father sadly shook his head, no. “You don’t understand,” he explained. “I want it to be then, NOW.” Suddenly it all comes back to Rebecca, the “whole shebang,” a word she hasn’t used in years, her entire childhood from her brother’s hands beneath her father’s on the steering wheel as the boy pretended to drive, to the “metal grips” of her “first nylon that dug into skin.” Memory, that “hand-knotted string of pearls,” does “take us for all we’re worth,” and losses along the way have the “power to disconnect everything we’ve snapped so carefully together” leaving us with a future when then is never NOW and where the “fumbling-in-the-dark” of love and death look a lot alike.—THE
November 27, 2015
from “Spokane is a Coat”
by Kim Barnes
in Brief Encounters
“But if she has set the rules, she still does not know how to play the game.”—THE
Kim Barnes is the author of In the Kingdom of Men, named a best book of 2012 by the San Francisco Chronicle, The Seattle Times, and The Oregonian, and long-listed for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Her second novel, A Country Called Home, winner of the 2009 PEN Center USA Literary Award for Fiction, was named a best book of 2008 by The Washington Post, The Kansas City Star, and The Oregonian. She is a recipient of the PEN/Jerard Award in nonfiction for her first memoir, In the Wilderness, which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Her work has appeared in a number of journals and anthologies, including The New York Times, WSJ online, The Georgia Review, Shenandoah, Fourth Genre, Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly, and the Pushcart Prize anthology. She is a professor of English in the MFA program at the University of Idaho. You can learn more about her life and work at her website.
The Paragraph of the Week is from "Spokane is a Coat" in Brief Encounters, an anthologies of short nonfiction from Norton co-edited by Judth Kitchen and Dinah Lenney. —THE
The Paragraph of the Week
Spokane is a room at the Ridpath, a jacketed waiter who delivers your food on a rolling table covered in white linen. Spokane is lobster that you crack from its shell and pluck out with your fingers, steak that you take in large bites, bones that you suck and gnaw. Spokane is a silver bucket of ice, a bottle of champagne, and a boy whose skin is so smooth, you can only think of parachute silk. Spokane is a miniature envelope of fine cocaine—and, of course, you're hungry for that too. When he asks if it's your first time in the city, you say yes, because he may not be ready for the realities of your last time in this city, with a high school chum, now majoring in business at Gonzaga, who wanted to show you Spokane and took you for burgers at Dick's and then to a dank theater, where the double feature was violent porn and the floor was tacky and the men on both sides wore dark, ugly slickers and smelled like Valvoline. How you went back to your chum's apartment, back to his waterbed with its headboard full of mirrors and tricky little compartments full of illicit things. How he had another chum, already there, waiting for you, and that chum had a camera, and they didn't think they could take no for an answer. If there is one thing you’ve learned about this city, it’s that no is never the right answer.
Assuming an attitude of command in a world that had used her before, Kim Barnes pawns her deer rifle in Idaho for a bus ticket and arrives in Spokane without a dime. She’s confident because she has “curled her hair like Farrah Fawcett,” wears “[p]urple eye-shadow” and “a blouse that dips nearly to her navel,” and—above all—because she wears a “real” fur coat that she earned by modeling. She checks into the Ridpath hotel under her grandmother’s name, orders from room service, gets a pass from a taxi driver who says “next time” when she searches through her purse and coat pockets “while he watches in the rearview,” puts a vodka tonic on a tab she will never pay, and picks out a “darkly handsome” man who looks like her idea of “a French sailor boy.” When he helps her with her coat he “runs his hands” down the sleeves and the “fur lifts, settles.” What she does not tell him is that she had been in Spokane before when two men into “violent porn” used her to make pictures. She is past that now, she assures herself, and appears “more light-hearted” than she really feels saying to herself that this is “her room, her rules.” But if she has set the rules, she still does not know how to play the game which feels like freedom except that “no is never the right answer.” After all, it is not her room—she will need to sneak away the next day—and sometimes no is the right answer. When she wakes the next morning, her “French sailor boy” has “set sail,” and she leaves the Ridpath to “shop the day away” she claims, re-entering a world that she has “no idea how to live in.”--THE