On Saturday I gathered around writer Laura Waterman’s log-house table in Vermont with the good people of the Waterman Fund Essay Contest Committee. We reviewed a few dozen narrative pieces by new writers about wild places and their importance. We have a winner, and a runner-up! The winning piece will appear in the winter/spring issue of Appalachia journal. Meanwhile, the summer/fall issue is about to come out. Subscribe now. Appalachia is a print journal published twice a year. We publish excerpts in places like here and here.
Ellen Finnie, left, and Chris on the summit of Mount Washington.
I will give my popular talk, “How Not to End Up in the Accidents report of Appalachia Journal” twice this summer. Join me for these free presentations! I always give out a few extra issues of the journal.
Sunday, July 8 at 8 p.m., Pinkham Notch Visitor Center, Gorham, New Hampshire.
Sunday, August 5 at 8 p.m., Pinkham Notch Visitor Center, Gorham, New Hampshire.
I will cover the history of our Accidents report, which analyzes selected mishaps, slips and falls, lost hikers, and deaths in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. I’ll tell real-life stories from the two areas where the most accidents happen: the Franconia Ridge, and the area around Mount Washington. I’ll tell a few stories from beyond this area. And I’ll share principles of safe hiking including “Chris’s Mountain Principles.”
Opossum drawing by Gustav Mutzel (1839-1893).
Behind our house a small ledgey hill adjoins a mysterious woods between my street’s backyards and the main street of my town. One winter night I returned late from working and sat down with my snack by the back window. A small pointy-snouted animal emerged down the hill at the back of the yard. I started and leaned into the window. It sort of waddled along a thin snow cover, its snout leading the way. Later I said that if I could have added a sound track, I imagined it saying, “Neema neema neem neem neem neem…..” Blindly following its nose to a place it had clearly checked out before. After that I could identify the tracks its feet and long, rope-like tail left.
But then spring came, and possums showed up dead on roads. How could they know what a car means? In fact, a year or so after my winter possum encounter, I hit and killed one while driving my daughter and her friend home from school musical rehearsal around 1 a.m. Sorry, sorry, sorry, I wanted to say. Instead, I gripped my daughter’s hand, and she gripped back. We both felt awful.
At times like this, I silently thank the taxidermists.
This is a life-size diorama of musk oxen at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles. The musk ox embodies certain truths about the life of a writer. A musk ox lives in a harsh environment and survives with a shaggy coat and rounded feet that stay on top of the snow. A writer must develop a kind of thick coat against the realities of loneliness in the craft and obstacles to publication.
A male musk ox has horns. So does a female; the Arctic cannot support a double standard. A good writer is a good writer no matter the gender or appearance. But just like a musk ox, a writer must develop horns.
Finally, musk oxen know when they must help each other. Say a wolf creeps nearby, hoping to eat them. They plod those giant furry bodies into a circle, butts in, and their babies inside. They face out, ready to charge the wolf and use those horns.
At times, writers join into a circle with other writers and learn how to become stronger at the craft. They don’t stare at each other, but they make a kind of circle, facing out. I came to Los Angeles to visit my daughter. I gained connection with this young woman I love so much. And I also received this reminder from the musk ox diorama.
The aggressive Lyme spirochete, which can turn itself into a blob and hide in tissues. Shown here magnified on a computer screen at the Western Connecticut Health Network Research Center.
The Connecticut Health Investigative Team has released my story on the search for an accurate diagnostic test for Lyme disease. Check it out!
Part of the reason for the explosion in Lyme cases is the changing climate. Warmer falls and earlier springs have helped spread Lyme disease, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) determined four years ago.
Tick eggs lie dormant through cold weather, and adult ticks are very clever at surviving under buried leaves, in basements and sheds. “People say, ‘We’ve had a really bad winter; there was a lot of snow’,” said Kirby Stafford III, state entomologist at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station. “I say the ticks are doing just fine. Snow is an insulator.” One of his researchers discovered that winters with more snow and rain lead to summers with more ticks, he said.
Chris and her mother, Gloria, summer 2016
It’s the universal experience: aging. And yet this feels like my family faces unique fears. My mother’s physical universe is shrinking as she prepares to live somewhere where she can get the help she needs at any hour. Her mental universe, though, seems to expand, even if it goes to points unknown. My siblings and I draw closer together, and that feels right. Could we have done so if Mom hadn’t fallen? Maybe not. Maybe so.
Each section was built when the farmers needed it. Deep River, Connecticut, winter 2018
For many years I thought people acted spontaneously in making history. I thought, for example, that Rosa Parks suddenly thought she’d had enough of segregated buses in Alabama and that she was overcome with disgust and anger and spontaneously decided that she’d stay in her seat instead of moving to the back. Of course, she planned it. That doesn’t change how important it was. I’m still understanding this. In that way I feel like an eternal child who must remember how much planning goes into things before I do them.
This barn also required planning, but its builders acted with more spontaneity than a professional. This barn went up section by section starting in the mid-1800s. It was built with available materials, patched later with plywood and asbestos, and each section was just as big as it needed to be. The first section probably held a piece of farm equipment. The next sections would have held more equipment or tools. This barn has been falling in on itself slowly over the two and a half decades I’ve been watching it. If this barn could tell me a story, it would be a story of building just as much as you need, only when needed, with available talent and objects. The tractor was coming. It needed shelter. In that sense, this barn represents three or four different spontaneous acts over its history.
Snowfall on Pasture Path, White Mountains, New Hampshire
I spent this past week inside a house with my dog in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The first full day there, it snowed 19 inches. Snow creates the perfect writing landscape. Muffled, the world slows down.
I turned my thoughts to timber rattlesnakes and snowshoe hares while I drafted two new essays that week. A few years ago I spent many days following biologists into the New England world collecting rattlesnakes, which are kind of beautiful, poisonous, and rare now. I have never finished that story but realized the story I really wanted to write is more personal than a straight journalistic investigation into snake poaching and other threats to these creatures. The scientists release their snakes later. The poachers sell them on the black market. I’ve revisited all of my notes, memories, photos, and impressions as I write this piece.
Snowshoe hares aren’t dwindling in numbers, but humans have messed around with their populations for many decades. For a half century, New Hampshire alllowed nearly unlimited hunting of them and ended up importing hares from Maine every year. They don’t do that anymore, and I wonder if the hares I have seen were the great-great-great-etc. grandchildren of Maine hares. They rarely show themselves, but I’ve encountered two at close range in my life, both at night. To me they embody the “wild” in wild animals. They bound around from plant to branch, eating pounds of vegetation a day while living in a constant state of fear. Owls and lynxes could swoop down at any second and kill and eat them. Hares breed like rabbits. Mothers give birth to several litters a year. Most of them don’t survive.
It’s an ancient practice for writers, leaving home for a quiet writing spot. I can work anywhere, but I hone my ideas and figure out what I know best alone in a house staring at mountains or at the falling snow concealing them.
It is so easy to think of a writing project I’ve kept at my side for years as if it exists in perfection, a static beauty I just must uncover. In reality, an unwritten essay or story contains no form until I make it. And as I change and think in new ways as each month of my life passes, that unwritten work, too, changes. This seems nonsensical, perhaps.
With the inspiration of creativity teacher Jessica Abel (Growing Gills), I have realized that once I put a long-delayed project onto my short list, maybe even placing it in first or second place, then I meet the differences between the writer I am at the moment I finally start working on the old idea and the old idea. The old idea might have worked in imagination for a long time, but the reality will be different.
Here is where walking through nature helps. I place the idea high on the creative list, and then I make the time for them. Making time includes writing from nature—the title of my workshop next June. I call it this because nature and movement, often with no pad or pencil in the pocket, opens the place in my mind where the main ideas of my piece can take root.
Writing from Nature
For more, go here.
Forest floor in the old-growth patch called Heart’s Content. Photo by Chris Woodside
In most forests in eastern North America, humans’ imprint has shaped the land beyond even what we can imagine. I have just returned from western Pennsylvania, where I visited the edges of the Allegheny National Forest, the United States’s first oil-boom area starting in 1859.
The Allegheny National Forest is a land where old-growth forests, logging, Wild and Scenic rivers, and oil and gas wells meet. The land has belonged to the people of the United States since 1923–but the energy rights belong to a collection of private deed holders. On 20 sites, each 10 acres, within the 513,000 acres, energy companies are using hydraulic fracturing to extract energy from the Marcellus Shale gas fields, and 14,000 active “shallow wells” extract oil.
I have just returned from the Society of Environmental Journalists’ annual conference where, last Thursday, a group of us visited parts of the Allegheny Forest. Forester Rob Fallon, researcher Michelle Spicer, biology professor Mary Mulcahy, and old-growth forest activist Joan Maloof and outdoors advocate Sean Brady talked about their work in this land around the headwaters of the Allegheny River.
Deer wander in such abundance in Pennsylvania that the saplings and plants they eat thin out and yield to other plants they don’t eat, like ferns. The deer population has reached three to nine times historic levels, Spicer said. Some forests in the northeast have lost 90 percent of their plant diversity. Old growth forest is so rare in the Northeast that the small patch of it here, called Heart’s Content, offers scientists that rare chance to study it. For many decades, shallow oil wells also have operated here. A century ago, this land looked like a moon field. I’m just learning about today’s battles to regulate the oil and gas industry. Court battles last year led to some level of regulation, but not the level of environmental review the federal government wanted.
Writing from Nature
Writing from Nature is a writing workshop in New Hampshire that connects hiking short distances and observation with new ideas. Learn more here.
Wind-formed trees hang onto a steep beach on outermost Cape Cod. Photo taken in January 2009.
Wendell Berry knows Kentucky, where he has lived, written, and done some farming for most of his more than eight decades on earth. When one knows a place deeply, one writes about it well. In 2015 while being inducted into the Kentucky Writers’ Hall of Fame, Berry said he’d lived and worked for two years in New York City in his late 20s. But decided to leave and go back to his home landscape of Kentucky.
Not all writers live and work with that sense of peace about where they belong.
“My point is that in 1964, for a young writer in Kentucky and in need of sustenance, sustenance was here,” he told his audience at the hall of fame induction. “In the fifty years that have followed, the gathering in Kentucky of Kentucky writers has grown much larger. It would take me a while just to call their names: old friends, allies, influences, members, permitting me to be a member, of an unending, enlightening, entertaining, comforting, indispensable conversation. My further point is that in 2015, for an old writer in Kentucky and in need of sustenance, sustenance is here.”
Even in a short time, a writer can capture a natural spot and its effect. The more subtle, sometimes, the more intense the writing. We look.
If I don’t know what to write, I go onto a wooded trail, preferably an incline. I look at the ground. Out of this simple act of faith, words arrive. I don’t call them to me; I wait until they step in.
Spruces on Cannon Mountain. Photo by Marcus Quigmire/Wikimedia commons
I started walking in the woods as a way to write more honestly about 15 years ago, after my father died. I already knew at that point that getting onto a forest path, alone, helped me sort out what I think. But I was still in the mode then of putting off the time in my life when I would act on thoughts.
The day my father died, he told me about a conversation he’d had with someone at work who’d asked him—because Dad was always telling stories—if he had ever done much writing. “No, but my daughter is trying to,” he said he told her. I smiled. I was working full-time as a newspaper reporter, buried in deadlines and surrounded by husband and children. I was waiting for the rest of my life—for the calling I felt to write something other than newspaper articles—to happen to me. My father held up a Newsweek magazine cover about people who were fried by work. He raised his eyebrows.
That night, my father died, and in the days after, I felt this tremendous push: start writing stories. I knew I was a writer, but I was not writing from my own ideas then. I started by picking up a book by Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way. Cameron tells us to write three pages in a notebook every day, no matter how difficult. Cameron’s methods don’t all speak to me, but this one cemented the habit of regular writing, and I have been working on spiral bound notebooks ever since.
Some years before all this, I had met myself in the mountains. My husband and I and two friends quit our jobs and sublet our apartments to hike from Georgia to Maine for four and a half months. I was 28. This was the first time I had ever broken out from society’s expectations, and, tame as it was, it liberated me to behomeless for that period.
I needed to do that then, and I still need to walk every day now, because I am one of those people who try a little too hard to please the world. I smile at people who are rude. I blush at pushy clerks. Walking alone takes me to who I really am and makes it possible to write originally. If the prose isn’t supposed to smile, it doesn’t. But I have to trudge through the woods first.
I have found that even in the press of earning a living, I can steal an hour out of the beginning of the day. After the first half-hour walking on a leafy path, the demands of the world I take too seriously begin to fade. Then the person I can’t normally hear visits me and tells me what to write. I can’t do this as well if I haven’t been in motion.
I’m not physically here. But I’ll go there sometimes.
When’s a good time for graduate school? Right now. I’ve started a history master’s program at Arizona State University. The lectures and discussions are all online. I work out of my Connecticut office and take one course every seven and a half weeks. My first course is North American History. We’re designing our own history survey courses.
I hope that I can get used to the distractions of setting up the online systems. Then block out time for reading all of the real books I’m assigned. For this, I have a few nice, quiet, library reading rooms in mind. The key to working on a master’s degree? Organizing my time. ASU provides a success coach. I talk to her once a week and hope that her job title influences me.
Laura Ingalls Wilder/Herbert Hoover Presidential Library
I’m in my favorite retreat spot this week, Randolph, New Hampshire, holed up in front of a vista of Mount Madison and Mount Adams, writing a preface for the paperback edition of Libertarians on the Prairie: Laura Ingalls Wilder, Rose Wilder Lane, and the Making of the Little House Books. And drafting a keynote speech for the Laurapalooza conference next month in Springfield, Missouri. Going to Missouri, near where Laura lived for six decades, fills me with excitement and trepidation. Rose Wilder Lane is not particularly remembered in her home state, and those who do know who she was do not remember her fondly. At all.
Laura’s and her daughter Rose’s legacies have never come back together in all the years since the two women lived and worked together in Missouri. Their last years of collaboration on the Little House books went on by mail. They didn’t see each other for a decade and a half, even though they worked together on eight books in the famous children’s series. Rose’s role in the work has never been a popular topic in the state where Laura lived. It was a secret for so long, and one that Laura herself never revealed, that I am certain my presence, let alone what I say in my speech, will rankle certain people.
Meanwhile, Arcade Publishing is bringing out a paperback edition of my book in the fall. I’m thrilled about this, even as I take myself back into the world of my book in order to write that preface.
Rain clouds slowly move across the tops of the two mountains. Just below the cloud, the velvety bright green/dark green of the flanks look almost fuzzy. Another small cloud sits just below King Ravine. The mountains tell me I don’t need to worry about what I will say. I already know it.
Some years ago, Chris felt a calling to reach a class about walking and writing. The Green Street Arts Center in Middletown, Connecticut agreed to let her try it. She called the class Writing in Motion. Writing from Motion evolved into Writing from Nature, and Writing from the Mountains, which she leads for the Appalachian Mountain Club.
One of the students in the original Writing in Motion class, Katherine Hauswirth, has published a book of nature-inspired essays. She writes in this blog post about the influence that Walking in Motion had on her work. Thanks, Katherine!