I love that exact moment when a wild creature acknowledges my existence. They look at me, and for a moment time is suspended and one species recognizes the other.
Trees, of course, are also aware of our being. Mere plants as well.
Okay, then, what about the rocks. Do the rocks know I exist? Can they speed up their slow lifespan to mine for just an instant to say, oh, there’s another one of those human things? Or are they just too busy in their rock world to care?
My life has no purpose, no direction, no aim,
no meaning, and yet I’m happy.
I can’t figure it out.
What am I doing right? ~Charles Schultz, cartoonist~
Because I like both mysteries and nature writing, I’ve always been drawn to the books by Nevada Barr. Her work features strong women who go against the odds, and win. Her heroine, Anna Pidgeon, a park ranger, has been trapped in a desert sinkhole, underwater in the Dry Tortugas, and on an island in the middle of Lake Superior hunted by winter wolves. Her novels are not for the faint of heart.
So, when I encountered her book of essays entitled Seeking Enlightenment, I expected an unblinking journey through thoughtful questions demanding exact answers. I wasn’t disappointed. Although sometimes I found the author raised more questions in the process.
Here you can find her thoughts on Vanity: “The rewards for being pretty are enormous. Pretty people earn more, have more friends, get called on more often in class and, yes even get better grades.” And what happens to the rest of us? Ah, there lies the reward of her essay.
Or what three things never fail a girl? For Barr these are old Levi jackets, flip-flops, and girlfriends. And she proceeds to tell you why.
In an essay on fear, the author starts out by saying, “Fear is my least-favorite emotion, worse even than despair. At least, when in despair I can watch old black-and-white movies and each chocolate. Fear renders me unable to taste, swallow, focus or sleep. Fear jangles through the cells of my body like a cold electrical current short-circuiting the natural flow of life.” Read on, as she explains what caused her fear, and how she has learned to live with it.
The essay topics occasionally center on spirituality, but often veer wide into topics such as do animals have souls, pain, and taking a sh*t. I think you’ll like it!
I spotted this old stable door on a recent walk. I wish I could have known the horse that lived here.
I could tell a lot from the evidence left behind, though.
Note the owner’s cement reinforced foundation, the reinforcing bolts on the lower edges of the stable door, the double lock on the middle, and it that weren’t enough, two additional locks at the top and a metal reinforcing bar securing the top brace.
And as rebuttal left by the occupant, the determined chews on the side and top of the half-door.
I wish I could have painted the door bubblegum flavor, for this horse so determined to leave and the owner so determined to keep him there!
Did they like each other, I wonder, these two so intertwined in the battle for control?
I am not eccentric.
It’s just that I am more alive than most people.
I am an unpopular electric eel
set in a pond of goldfish. ~Dame Edith Sitwell~
When I was researching the setting for the latest Pegasus Quincy novel, I wanted to include a scene where Silver Delaney and Rory Stevens meet in a bar. But just not any bar.
This one had to be the local neighborhood hangout, where after work the lineup at the old wood bar is three deep. Where, when you arrive, the barkeep has your favorite drink mixed before you reach the end of the room.
The Village of Oak Creek has one, called PJ’s Bar & Grill. I happened to catch it for this photograph on a midday, mid-afternoon before all the regulars started to arrive.
You’ll find it in PERIL IN SILVER NIGHTSHADE. Watch for it!
I prefer the folly of enthusiasm
to the indifference of wisdom. ~Anatole France~
When I set out to write the Pegasus Quincy mystery series, I knew the first one, Death in Copper Town, had to take place in a mining town on the slopes of the Verde Valley. To make it realistic, I had to include the Ailanthus trees ubiquitous to that part of the Valley.
Apple trees in the old pioneer orchards make a surprise appearance in an upcoming Pegasus Quincy mystery, Silence in West Fork, to be published later this year.
Two trees on opposite ends of the Verde Valley bring together the spirit of the Verde Valley. One, the Ailantus altissima or Tree-of-heaven, populates the hilly streets of Jerome in the foothills of the Black Mountains to the south. The other, the humble apple tree, grows wild on the upper banks of Oak Creek Canyon to the north. Both have become a part of my life in Sedona.
First, the tree of heaven. If you travel up the mountain to Jerome in the spring, you’ll catch the “burned peanut butter” fragrance of golden blossoms. In the summer, the lacy green of the leaves frames the view across the Verde Valley like a Victorian lady’s parasol. Later in the fall, you’ll be surrounded by the crimson, sumac-like leaves drifting down to the worn limestone cobblestone streets of the old mining town.
The tree first became popular in eastern cities, because it was easy to grow and survived almost any kind of pollution. It became the title of Betty Smith’s book about family life in the tenements at the turn of the century, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
The air in the mining towns of the West was just as polluted. During the heydays of the copper mining, the smelter smog killed just about every living plant in Jerome. With the local pine and juniper decimated to shore up the mines, nothing remained to hold the soil and hillsides eroded. The town was endanger of slipping down into the Verde Valley below.
The “Tree of Heaven/Paradise Trees” that abound throughout the Upper Verde were part of a “re-greening” of the Verde Valley by Phelps Dodge when mining operations ceased in the 1950s.
Enter the ailanthus. It is an alien tree, first arriving in America from China in the 1700s. The tree is a survivor, thriving in the sulfur dioxide-infused soil of Jerome. It is also a selfish beastie, secreting a substance in its bark and leaves that, like the black walnut, inhibits growth of any other plants in the area. But the ailanthus likes the crumbling soil and arid conditions of Jerome, and it gives life-sheltering green to a town that was barren and dark after the mines left.
That being said, it’s not without drawbacks. According to Jeff Schalau, head of the master gardener’s program in the Verde Valley, “Most people start out liking the tree of heaven. It grows with little water, tolerates alkaline soils, and it creates shade. Most trees of heaven begin to produce seed at about 10 years of age. Male or female flowers are usually produced on separate trees.
“So, the after the 10 year honeymoon period, seedlings begin to come up everywhere. In addition, if the tree is damaged or cut down, then it begins to sprout from the roots. The tree of heaven also produces allelopathic chemicals that preclude other plants from successfully growing nearby.”
The second, the apple tree also came from China, arriving in America in the 1600s. It hitched a ride with the pioneers to Sedona a hundred years ago. Here it thrived on the banks of Oak Creek canyon in small orchards planted by early homesteaders. They would harvest the crops and trek wagon loads of apples up the steep canyon to Flagstaff to satisfy the hungry timberland workers living there.
Some years ago I helped my sister-in-law locate and map all of the old homesteads spread throughout the canyon. We found almost twenty old orchards, together with old trails once used by mountain lion and bear crossing the canyon.
The big predators are gone, but the trees remain. Many are on the outskirts of the tourist camp grounds: Manzanita, Pine Flats, Banjo Bill. You’ll see the cracked cement footings of an old cabin, some renegade lilac bushes, and these old craggy trees. If you look sharp you’ll spot them, interspersed in pine and fir stands near the water or tucked in at the edge of a penstamen-filled meadow.
Some have reverted to native stock, producing small sour apples, but others are loaded with green fruit, already ripening with a dusting of red. Come late September, they produce the best eating apples in the world, crisp and juicy, with a sweet snap as you bite into them.
Well almost the best. I think that distinction has to be the ones I stole from the neighbor’s orchard next door in the small South Dakota town where I grew up, a descendant of Scandinavian immigrants.
And in a way, these two trees, the apple and the ailanthus, are pioneers, too. They came from the other side of the earth and have adapted to surroundings very different from their native soils in China.
They are a legacy that makes the Verde Valley a very special place for all of us.
Even experienced wordsmiths struggle to portray deep emotion in their writing. It’s as hard as mining copper from sulfur-laden rocks.
Writers may either tell about the emotion, for example, “He felt really, really angry.” Or, they may use the “dot-dot-dot” bypass popular when describing sex in 40s novels: “They entered the bedroom, the lights went out, and the next day…”
But effective writers know that emotion is a vital part of the human experience and pull it into their writing whenever possible.
Here are five way to deepen the emotional layering in your writing:
1. Accept the challenge that writing about emotion is hard. Good writers get immersed in their words, just as they hope their readers will. And writing about unpleasant emotions is difficult. Who wants to experience, even vicariously, the deep emotions of rage, grief, humiliation, sorrow, fear?
Delve into a time you, yourself had such a feeling. How did you feel experiencing it? What preceded the emotional outburst? How did you relive and rationalize your experience afterwards? Then write about the universal emotion that you felt, and that your character is also feeling.
2. Emotion is a daisy chain. Your character doesn’t immediately go on a rampage or experience an out-of-the-blue terror about high places. Something came before. Consider giving your characters a chance to delve into their back story internally. “This was just like the time when I was four, and the dog next door pushed through the fence and bit me.”
3. Emotion is physical. The old adage “show don’t tell” is critical here. An emotion courses through a person’s body, affecting their breathing, heart rate, skin temperature, stomach tension. Only then may it be reflected outward on the facial muscles: clenching the jaw, frowning, weeping. Finally it erupts into words: “You can’t mean that!” and actions: “He slammed the door so hard the glass cracked.”
Angela Ackerman’s book, Emotional Thesaurus is highly recommended to help you begin this journey of writing about the inward and outward signs of physical emotions.
4. Emotion is slower than rational thought. Think of seven objects: an orange, the London Bridge, a deck of cards, a big tree, a mailbox, a white horse, a can of Pepsi.
Not hard, right?
Now, picture in your mind each of these: fear, terror, joy, amusement, irritation, embarrassment, hesitation…
Can you feel your mind stopping to ponder each experience before moving on?
Give your readers a chance to do the same thing. Don’t rush over emotion, but rather create a scene that can fully explore what’s happening. And then go back and lengthen it by twice.
5. There is an arc to emotion. In other words, the emotion will typically build in intensity.
For example, the character punches the alarm and sleeps too late. In her rush to get ready for work, the glass of orange juice spills to the floor, she trips on the rug on her way out the door, the car battery is dead…by the time she gets to the office, she explodes at her assistant over one small typo in a memo…
And a bonus concept to build your emotional writing skills:
6. Emotions are not rational. Your character in the middle of intense emotion is not going to stop and think, “Oh, I am afraid.”
But afterwards, there can be a place for a rational assessment of what happened: “I was stupid for going into that dark alley alone.” “I really did a good job at that presentation, even though I was nervous.”
Or they may decide to do differently next time. “I’ve got to watch myself and not make such a fuss. It wasn’t my assistant’s fault I was late.”
Donald Maas, in his wonderful book: The Emotional Craft of Fiction, explains that the purpose of fiction is to get the reader to feel their own emotions, triggered by the words on the page.
Think about it. What authors do is time-travel. They are able to connect with anonymous readers somewhere in the far distant future.
Including deep emotions in your writing can layer, deepen, and enrich your work. This skill makes your reader eager to return a second, and a third time, demanding more. Exactly what you as a writer want!