Friday, July 03, 2015

Conference serendipities

Enough about wandering and paying of debts--what about the conference? 

It was great. Relaxing, exhilarating, inspiring, exhausting--everything I like about an academic conference without the  stress and snobbery of MLA, where people have to check your nametag to determine whether you're worth wasting time talking to. 

ASLE is just a bunch of profs and writers who are passionate about literature and the environment, and they have a lot of insight to share. I heard a theory-heavy paper on Margaret Atwood's MaddAdam trilogy, a group of pedagogy papers on using hydraulic fracturing as an exercise in critical thinking, and a well-researched essay on the history of fart jokes read at 8:30 in the morning to a standing-room only crowd (except by the end of the essay, most of us were falling on the floor laughing). 

(And if you're wondering what makes fart jokes an appropriate topic for a conference on literature and the environment, ask yourself this: what other natural process evokes so much cultural shame while inspiring so many great authors to create comedy?)
What about my paper? It went well. The room was crowded and the discussion afterward did what academic conferences are supposed to do: raised some questions I will need to pursue further, offered insights that helped me see how to refine my argument. Most conference papers feel like the end of something, a completed item to check off a to-do list, but this one felt more like the beginning of a bigger project that will carry me forward for quite some time.

And then, of course, I had plenty of opportunity to share ideas with interesting people. On the flight to Spokane I chatted with John Lane about W.G. Sebald and canoeing and later bought his book My Paddle to the Sea, which allowed me to vicariously experience a canoe trip that turns alternately enlightening and harrowing. I heard Joni Tevis read from her great new book of essays, The World is On Fire, and later we shared a refreshing piece of key lime pie and talked about teaching, writing, and odd little shops. I went birding with a poet, shared a dorm suite with an expert on children's nature books, and chatted with a prof who recently taught a book I'm teaching for the first time this fall.

These accidental encounters are the best part of an academic conference, but they don't happen at conferences where attendees are consumed by academic snobbery or concerned about impressing the right people. At ASLE, serendipity rules: any encounter could result in a new connection, every conversation in a new insight. I came home refreshed and ready to tackle the next stage in my summer writing project, with a notebook full of ideas to plug into my classrooms this fall. 

Plus a little sunburn and sore eyes--a small price to pay for such a refreshing experience.     

Thursday, July 02, 2015

Oh what two-beautiful morning!

One of us had a car but no binoculars; another had two pairs of binoculars but no car. The third had nothing but a smile and a desire to see some western birds.

One of us had a great set of eyes that spotted the tiny bird and another of us heard its musical trilling, but the third had the bird book that told us what it was. (Rock wren, probably.)

On an early-morning trek up Kamiak Butte, three birders who had just met helped each other see and hear some interesting birds that don't generally visit the eastern half of the U.S.--chattery magpies with their iridescent backs, a black-headed grosbeak and a red-shafted flicker. Our little group came together when I saw a conference attendee carrying binoculars and a bird book, and she agreed to share her spare binoculars if I would drive us to a good birding spot--which is how, early Friday, we ended up at Kamiak Butte.

I had been to Kamiak Butte very early Wednesday morning--and I know how early because I found a gate blocking the entrance. Opens at 7 a.m.--I had a full hour to kill. (I don't adjust well to time changes so I'd been wide awake with bright sunshine beaming into my dorm-room window at 5 a.m., and if I'm up, I may as well do something interesting.) When the gate across the road turned me back, I drove northwest a few miles to Steptoe Butte, an immense block of quartzite rising 3612 feet from the rolling waves of green. From the top of the butte, all those rolling green waves looked as flat and fake as a child's plastic play farm, and off to the east a wind farm's slow-moving blades looked like a yoga class stretching in unison.

I heard some bird calls up on the butte but had no binoculars or camera or bird book so good luck trying to figure them out. Maybe a yellow-breasted chat in the distance, if they have yellow-breasted chats in the west. (If "tweet-tweet-tweet-squiggly-tweet" sounds like a friend of yours, please send me his name!)
Throughout my trip I was astounded by the dearth of trees and water. Where I live, you can't spit without hitting some sort of water--a roadside brook, farm pond, puddle, creek, drainage ditch, or one of several area rivers. Spit in the creek at the end of my driveway and your saliva might float downstream to the Muskingum River and from there to the Ohio River and on down the Mississippi clear to the Gulf of Mexico, but in all my driving around the Palouse, I saw only the distant Snake River and one small creek. A ditch winding through campus calls itself "Paradise Creek," but if there's any water flowing beneath all that shrubbery, it's very well hidden.

So in the absence of trees and water, I looked at lichens. Striped and streaky Quartzite rocks on Steptoe Butte were so spotted with lichens in deep earthy shades--yellow-green, gray-blue, jet-black, and deep rust--that they looked like the clowns of the rock world, their stripes and spots competing for attention. I even tried to sketch one particularly well-dressed rock, but my sorry effort looks like what happens when you give a pen to a two-year old.

So I looked at lichens, listened to birds, felt the cool morning breeze, and felt that the butte had given me a great start to my day. But it was just a start. Why settle for one butte when you can climb up two? That's when I turned around and drove to Kamiak to make it a two-butte-iful morning.

Oh, and the buttes helped me repay a portion of the debt I'd incurred when the traffic cop let me off with a warning. Because while Kamiak Butte charges no admission fee, Steptoe Butte requires a day pass costing $10. I could easily have sped past the self-service day-pass station--there was no one there to stop me that early in the morning. However, the west had conferred some grace on me and now it was payback time: I pulled over, filled out the envelope, and opened my purse to find that all I had was a twenty-dollar bill.
It was a small price to pay for a morning of beauty that touched all my senses--and a few days later when it was time to go birding, I knew the perfect place.


Wednesday, July 01, 2015

A drive, a drop, a debt incurred

By the end of the first full day of the ASLE conference, I was both exhilarated and despondent (Exhilapondent? Despilarated?): exhilarated because I was hearing so many wonderful writers reading their edgy, elegant, insightful essays and poems, but despondent because all my words were dammed up and I feared that I'd never be able to set them loose. So I went for a drive.

This was probably a mistake, given that I had spent the entire previous day in transit, had not slept well the night before or adjusted to the time difference, and don't see particularly well at dusk, but driving in the countryside soothes me and I needed some soothing. As I drove through the rolling green hills of northern Idaho, I kept hearing my father's warnings: "There's a lotta boondocks out there. Better be careful. A whole lotta boondocks." I drowned out his voice by trying to think of a metaphor to describe the peculiar landscape of the Palouse: it's like a crazy quilt constructed from angular patches of greens and yellows, tossed over a table covered with hard rolls in various shapes and sizes. Not a particularly elegant metaphor but at the time it was the best I could do.

So I'm driving south on highway 95 through rolling hills covered in green wheat as far as the eye can see, the hollows between the hills sometimes studded with groves of cedar, the sky gray with layers of rainclouds dropping lines of drops that evaporate before they reach the ground, the green waves below and the gray waves above standing before me like a watercolor encompassing the entire world, when suddenly the bottom drops out.

The Snake River merits only one dependent clause in John McPhee's monumental Annals of the Former World: "Just as magma moving under Idaho is causing land to collapse and form the Snake River Plain," and then he's on to another terrain entirely. What I know now about the Snake River is that it meets the Columbia River in Lewiston, Idaho, a city sitting in the Lewiston Plain, which stretched out before my eyes as an expanse of brown: brown stony flats, dry brown hills decorated with darker brown streaks. It was a lovely view--what little I saw of it.

I later learned that the twisty stretch of highway 95 that runs from the high green Palouse down to brown Lewiston runs seven miles at a seven-degree slope, which would perhaps have been a lovely scenic drive if not for the orange cones. Yes: that entire stretch of highway was being resurfaced. The new pavement was beautifully smooth but lacked some of the basic elements that make driving on a steep, twisty road safe, such as, for instance, edge lines and clearly marked lanes without orange cones intruding into them. 

Did I say driving soothes me? Driving without being able to discern the edge of the road does not soothe me, especially when there's a steep cliff that leads to destruction just beyond that edge. I had to keep one eye on the orange cones intruding from the left, one eye on the cliff dropping off to the right, and a third eye on the speedometer, while trying not to visualize the nightmare scenarios that would follow any minor error, most of them ending in fiery death.

Which is probably why I didn't see the traffic cop until he was right behind me, lights flashing. It took a while before I could find a safe place to pull over, since the shoulder was either covered with cones or leaning dangerously cliffward. I was vaguely aware that I'd passed signs saying "Traffic fines doubled in construction zone," and I knew I'd never find a way to disguise a traffic fine as a business expense. I calmly explained my panic at being surrounded by traffic cones in unfamiliar territory, and I must have seemed harmless because I got off with a warning. That's middle-aged white lady privilege for you!

I left, however, knowing that I owed a little something to the state of Idaho and the west, but how would I pay my debt? I found a way fairly soon--but that's a story for another day.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

From blocked to bursting

On my first day without access to a computer, I didn't write at all. I was busy enjoying the zoo with my granddaughter--and besides, my arm hurt. Muscle spasms in my shoulder made my whole right arm limp and useless, with shooting pains when I tried to hold anything--a pen, a pickle, my granddaughter's hand. Good thing I had decided to leave the camera and computer bags behind on my trip to Idaho because I never could have carried them through the airport.

On my second day without a computer, I didn't write because I was in transit. My arm felt much better, but when called upon to sign the rental-car receipt, I used my left hand to lift my right hand up to the counter, and I did all my driving one-handed.

On the third day I started scribbling little notes on the conference program and on the backs of receipts and other little scraps of paper. I wrote down interesting concepts ("birderazzi"), titles of books and poems I want to read ("The Long Rule" by Nathaniel Perry, everything on, unusual place names I saw in my travels (Excelsior Road near Spangle, home of the Spangle Gun Club, and aren't you just dying to see their club jackets?). Late in the afternoon I bought a notepad and started taking serious notes at conference sessions, but writing more than half a page by hand seemed daunting, the ideas dammed behind a solid block of pain and inadequacy.

This is it, then, I thought. I've dried up entirely. I don't need or want to write and if I tried to write I'd have nothing of any significance to say.

On my fourth day without a computer I woke up (too early) without pain and picked up the pen. The dam had broken; words started flowing out and refused to stop, filling my notebook with streams of ideas I can spend the summer following.

What happened to break up the dam? Terror--sheer, unadulterated terror caused by a long drive that took an unexpected turn.

But that's a story for another day. 

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Traveling light

Whereas my new lightweight college laptop (which was supposed to arrive by the end of May) is still in limbo, and

whereas I don't want to go schlepping through multiple airports with a not-entirely-reliable laptop hanging heavily from my shoulder, and

whereas my dying camera will only break my heart if it pulls one of those I-refuse-to-save-that-photo tricks while I'm basking in the beauty of some majestic waterfall in Idaho, and

whereas I don't want to spend all my free time at the ASLE conference hunched over a laptop or muttering angrily at a cranky camera, and 

whereas the nasty plumbing bill ate up most of my new camera fund,

Be it therefore resolved that I'm traveling with only one suitcase and a tote bag on my trip to Idaho, leaving behind computer, camera, and all associated accessories.

(Except maybe my Kindle. Gotta have something to read. And my Garmin. Gotta find my way around confidently. And my cell phone. And charger. But nothing else.)

So don't be looking for blog posts, or photos, or any type of communication for at least a week. 

(Unless I change my mind.) 


Friday, June 19, 2015


How many gnats does it take to knock me off my feet?

I don't know the answer and, frankly, I don't want to know. I'm just glad they're gone. Well, mostly. After two hours of cleaning this morning, I'm still seeing occasional dead gnats tucked in around the edges of everything, but that's nothing like the swarm that descended last night.

We've never seen such a swarm in our house before (or outside either) and this one arrived with particularly poor timing. I hadn't seen my husband for nearly two weeks because of our overlapping AP/conference schedules, so I was sitting in the living room reading while eagerly awaiting his arrival. I guess my reading lamp right near the front window attracted the gnats to the front porch, so that when I saw my husband's car drive up and opened the front door to greet him, the gnats rushed through the door like a curtain of creepy-crawlies falling all over me.

It was startling. I'm not afraid of gnats but then again I've never had that many attack me at the same time, so some shrieking may have occurred. And then of course there they were all over the house. I don't know if you've ever tried to repel a swarm of gnats inside your living space, but it's no fun at all. Flyswatters and bug spray are required. It would be great to have some full-body hazmat suits, but alas, that's not part of our household equipment.

This morning we found dead bug bodies everywhere both inside the house and out on the front porch, where a large spider web held a solid curtain of little dead bug bodies. Earlier this week we had to complain to the neighbors again about their recalcitrant cow that keeps wandering into our garden, but I'll say one thing about cows: at least they don't come barging into the house, knock me over, and interrupt a passionate reunion. If they did, I believe I'd move someplace devoid of bovines and bugs. (Do you suppose there's any great need for literature professors in Antarctica?)  

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Avenging the honor of the humble meatloaf

To avenge a great evil and fulfill a promise, today I made meatloaf.

Is there any dish less heroic than the mundane meatloaf? The word "gourmet" would be embarrassed to share billing with meatloaf, and "artisanal" would slink from the room in shame. And yet a juicy meatloaf served with mashed potatoes and salad makes a tasty, satisfying meal--and it's so easy!

I made my personal meatloaf pledge last week, on the first night of the AP reading in Louisville, when I was served a dish purporting to be "meatloaf in tomato gravy," which had all the flavor and texture of a cardboard box left too long out in the rain. On first biting into this travesty on the name of meatloaf, I told myself, "As God is my witness, when I am released from this dungeon I shall make meatloaf!"

And I did. It's not at all difficult, and it filled my house with the comforting scents of garlic, good beef, and slightly charred ketchup. (No "tomato gravy" at my house. There's no shame in slathering meatloaf with ketchup.) 

How was it? I don't want to toot my own horn, but the universal response to my meatloaf is to ask for seconds. Go ahead, give it a try. Now that's a dish to avenge the honor of meatloaf everywhere! 


Next stop: Idaho

Today I turn my tired eyes westward toward Idaho, where next week I'll present a paper at the biennial conference of ASLE (the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment). I've never been to Idaho but wow, does it look great online. Mountains! Waterfalls! Lakes! Rivers! Buttes! We have many lovely land formations in Ohio but we suffer from an unfortunate dearth of buttes.

And then there is the conference itself. This will be my third ASLE conference and I've enjoyed every one, from the engaging panels to the networking opportunities to the many people passionate about literature and nature. It was at an ASLE conference that I first encountered Joni Tevis and bought her first book, The Wet Collection, which was the start of a rewarding relationship; next week I'll ask her to sign her new book, The World Is On Fire, which is also terrific.

ASLE lacks the intensity and pretense of a big conference like MLA; no one is interviewing for jobs or trying to impress anyone, so the atmosphere tends to be relaxed. I won't even pack a power suit. Instead, I'll take lots of hiking clothes and hope to get out into the wild a few times. 

But where? 

That was my morning project: finding locations I'd like to visit within an hour's drive of Moscow, Idaho. I'm staying in the dorm on the cheap so I can afford to splurge on a rental car, and I'm accepting suggestions for terrific things to see. I don't know Idaho, but I like what little I can see from this distance.