Nick & Nora?
They can hardly contain themselves.
I am back!
From a soul wrenching, I-will-never-be-the-same experience in Ripton, VT. I attended the Breadloaf Orion Environmental Writers’ conference. Thirty-six hours after my return to Darwin’s View, I am still processing all I learned. It’s one of those experiences that, even during it, you’re kind of overwhelmed and have to just cry. From the personal to the societal and global, the conference addressed questions I have been asking for a long time, and with words written by masters. Alan Weisman. Camille Dungy. Maurice Manning. Jane Brox. Alison Hawthorne Deming. Rick Bass. To name only those who gave lectures and readings, not the other educators, which would include other participants. It’s one of those experiences that you–I look back upon and think how close-minded I have been for my entire life. And how it is time to change.
Change. What I have been talking about and experiencing so much of these last years. Intellectually understanding it, feeling it, but not processing it through a lens that would allow for the change to happen naturally.
The above being a too heady description. Show don’t tell. Let me go back to the beginning. A none-to auspicious one.
Ripton, Vermont is way the hell out there. Next to no phone connection and when it rains, no internet in my room. Admittedly, I seemed to be the only one wandering around with my phone, trying to get connected, rather than going for the old style connection of tête–à–tête. Maybe because it was the Breadloaf Orion Environmental Writers’ Conference, and nature lovers have sense enough to be aware of nature while it’s there and not get lost , as one does when back home, in technology. I have a tendency to cling to old habits.
AH! Do you see it? I was being judgmental of how I am. That is not allowed any more. Reset button, please.
I was excited to go to the conference. Until about week out, when I realized that it required yet more movement. Travel. Driving without my chauffeur Carl. Thus, the rest of the week was spent in breathless anxiety, my form of Anticipation of an Opportunity. Anticipation that bled out on my drive up. Long hills. Deep dales. Hands at ten and two on the steering wheel. Stomach muscles tensed. Repeating to myself that it is okay to drive 55. Drive 55 to Survive was my mantra. (Thanks Alan!) At some points, I was fine. Perfectly fine. The speed of the car would edge up to 60. 65. As cars and trucks sped past me. But there were a couple of really long hills that caused a rather dire feeling of vertigo. A sense that the steering wheel had fallen off its column and, indeed, the car was crossing over to the other side of the road, and I couldn’t seem to bring it back to the correct side and the speedometer slowed to 50. I held my breath. Heart pounding. Gently touching the brakes. Did they work?
Then came the bridges at the bottom of those hills. Two of them? Three? Endless bridges that attached . . . I have no idea what because I was aimed to the other side. I couldn’t look because if I looked, the car would go where I was looking. Then a teretz-ian sensation of . . . maybe I should look. Wasn’t it inevitable?
I had to dry my hands. One. The other. The speedometer at 49, 48 and cars coming up on my rear and only half way across the bridge. I knew I should speed up but did not dare because I had no sense of control over the car. It was making strange noises.
You get the idea? I listened to NPR as if the show might save me. A Terry Gross interview with Shep Gordon and Mike Myers about their documentary Supermensch. Shep Gordon was manager of people such as Alice Cooper. Many believe he made them what they were and are. Mike Myers, who directed the film, is his friend and admirer and says he’s a great guy. Nicest guy in the world. Smart as smart can be. Savvy. He’s the one who thought up the brain trust idea of tossing a live chicken on stage with Alice Cooper! Remember that? In turn, Alice Cooper threw the chicken into the audience. The audience obliged by tearing the chicken apart.
I will resist the temptation to go off on a tangent about chickens and factory farmed animals and the human heart. Instead, I will state that the above is not a reassuring visual to have in parallel with the terrific fear of plummeting off a bridge.
But I look on the bright side, remember? I am a positive person who sees the glass as half full. Rather like Monty Python’s “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.”
I arrived. Unpacked. Attended social hour where I went only because that’s why I was there, right? To meet people? Connect? And I saw someone whom I had met at another conference years ago. Whew. I would have someone to stand next to and not feel awkward. What I didn’t realize was that he was standing with Alan Weisman, author of The World Without Us (Dang, I had forgotten my copy!) and, more recently, Countdown. My friend introduced me.
“This is Tory. She has just published a novel.”
Now, that is a good friend. (Thanks Steven!) One who will promote you when you yourself don’t. But the introduction left me sinking into deep mortification because Alan Weisman was putting on a pained smile.
“Oh? he said, bracing; I assumed because I represented the beginning of a week of intense discussion with people who are connecting, as in schmoozing. “And what is it about?”
Did I say a socio-psychological saga about family relationships? A debate about selling a family property because the current generation can no longer afford it? A study of passing privilege and class in America in the last century?
Not exactly. I fumbled my way through some semblance of my elevator speech about Bittersweet Manor. Then fell into muteness and wonderment that I had almost killed myself to get there and now I was going to run away. The good news? My fear of the return drive sufficed to keep me there for dinner. The night’s reading. A night’s rest.
Depending on your definition of rest. I woke up at midnight in a swivet. How the hell was I going to drive myself back home, over those bridges and down those hills? And bed bugs. There had to be bed bugs because my whole body itched with what turned out, the next morning, to be a rash covering my torso and parts of my extremities.
No infirmary. No drug store. And have I mentioned that there was not an espresso within twenty miles? Past journeys, twenty miles was but a skip and a jump. In part because Carl was there to drive me. There in Ripton, Vermont, twenty miles would take me through hills and dales that I had no intention of driving, given my white knuckled jaunt up there.
A week without espresso? Carl ordered me a hand pump espresso maker. Unfortunately, there was no access to really hot water, and no means to heat milk. So I had a quart of spoiled milk in my room, a half pound of ground coffee, and the anticipation of a lot of tea drinking.
The only slight hiccup that resulted from that lack of caffeine occurred at breakfast one morning. I was at the buffet, debating what to eat, a Libra-n debate that lasted that much longer due to . . . lack of caffeine. A familiar woman approached me where I stood in front of the eggs. Happy eggs? I didn’t know. Did that mean I wouldn’t eat them? Yes. I didn’t eat them.
We exchanged greetings and I–thinking slowly, thinking this was a woman in my writing workshop–said, “where are you sitting? I’d love to talk more”. Her eyes widened in panic. “I am in the middle of a meeting. Maybe later?” And off she rushed, at which point I realized she was not the woman from my workshop but a literary agent, whom I had met at some past conference and talked with about mothers, and to whom my publicist has sent a copy of Bittersweet Manor, and whom I had greeted, with mutual recognition, the day before. Beyond that, I had no intentions. I have no book to sell. Yet. No pitch to make. No agenda. But Breadloaf is where many people come to make connections, right? To meet people who might come in handy to one’s career. And how awful to think she thinks I thought I might get something from her. And so I avoided her for the rest of the conference, with whom I had such a nice conversation once upon a time.
This was an Environmental writers’ conference. Everyone there writes about some aspect of nature and the environment. I watched as people wandered off into the fields. Sat outside in chairs. There were bird watching expeditions every morning. They go out into nature. I practiced my flute instead. In a distant-ish barn where no one could hear me at 7 in the morning. My one attempt to go out there? I went for a run. After a seven year hiatus from running. An interesting experiment that I wouldn’t suggest to anyone past the age of 50. Especially if they have a history of bad backs and knee troubles.
But I was touched by how determined Nature was to encourage me to test my limits. Every time I slowed to a walk, I was inspired to run, ever more rapidly, along the forested path by Nature’s representatives: black flies and deer flies.
They were particularly adept when I reached a remarkably steep hill.
A truck drove by me which, non-naturalist that I am, set off imaginings of murders, rapes and kidnappings. And, oh joy, when I reached the top of said hill to inner shouts of hurrahs! You are the awesomest! there was the fellow driving the truck, stepping out of the truck, home. We waved to each other, I a bit warily, and self-conscious of my less than athletic breathing pattern.
“I almost stopped to ask if you wanted a ride up the hill,” he said.
“Hah!” I gasped, attempting to catch my breath. “Hah!”
My point being, nature is out of my comfort zone. And it’s not the bugs. It’s the psychology of being a part from nature, not a part of it. But not even that. I am happy to be a part of nature. It’s what’s out there in those woods and fields. And it is not the nature that I fear. But the humans. Trees might fall and kill me. No problem. Lightning strikes. Bears and bobcats. Rabid dogs. Snakes and Lyme ticks. But I fear the human element. The evil and the ignorant. The rage and the horror. Which is so counter-intuitive when all I want to do is go out for a run, or a walk. Be alone in nature. But somehow nature feels unsafe, even at Darwin’s View. I can count on one hand . . . one finger how many times I have gone for a solo walk through our woods. And how sad is that? What do I expect to bump into?
Be with nature. Love nature. Save nature. I am late to the game. Behind in knowledge. I want now to learn the names of the plants. To recognize the birds and their calls. To be able to articulate with confidence and the perfect words what it is that makes up the awesome variety of this world, and its extinction. And I am not alone in that wish.
Everyone at that conference had my same agenda. They, too, are deeply hurt and saddened, angered by and afraid of our human effect on the world, and the environment .
I am not a naturalist. Yet. I am not an environmentalist–whatever that means. Yet. But I am proud to say I challenged as best I could my inner barriers. I will do better next time because I now know I can make it over hills and dales, at whatever speeds. It’s just a matter of not giving up.
And my ideas might be naive at many levels, already ruminated upon by so many who have written about them before me, whom I now know about and can read and build from. And so this next book I am writing will be a better one for my having attended the Breadloaf Orion Environmental conference. Because it isn’t just about connection but communication. And because today, as I sit in my study and look out at the spectacular beauty and wildness of nature here at Darwin’s View, I am more determined than ever to write a book that will save the world, however hubristic that might sound. After all, if we can’t dream, what good are these brains of ours?
Two quotes that say it better than I can:
“That there is no alleviation for the sufferings of mankind except veracity of thought and of action; and the resolute facing of the world as it is, when the garment of make believe, by which pious hands have hidden its uglier features, is stripped off.”
BITTERSWEET MANOR SAVE THE DATES!
June 18th at 1PM: Interview of me by Lesley Nase of the radio show “Books, Yarns and Tales” WBTN, 1370 AM, Bennington, VT. (Prerecorded.)
June 25 at 6 PM Symposium Bookstore in E. Greenwich Plaza (near Dave’s, 1000 Division Street.) Rhode Island. Bring friends and family!
July 5 at 8AM Join Carl and me as we join Lawrence Lessig’s NH Rebellion. Bring everyone you know.Because the first step to saving the world is saving our Democracy!
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