Thursday, November 21, 2013

Humbug Valley Reclaimed

The news arrived last week. After a ten year wait, the Mountain Maidu would reclaim Humbug Valley from Pacific Gas & Electric. I teared up reading the email. I’ve been writing about this story for a couple years now, an almost impossible saga of a small federally-unrecognized tribe fighting for 2300 acres in the Sierras that have somehow—miraculously—remained undeveloped and are now—miraculously—being returned to them.

A celebration was planned, and I did not plan to miss it.

I drove 800 miles south along the east side of the Cascades through thin cold November air tinged with sage and juniper, past cars with headlights out and smokers in hoodies huddled outside mini-marts and the still-snowy volcanoes--Adams, Hood, Jefferson, Sisters, Shasta, Lassen—floating over it all.

A day before the celebration, I visited with my friend, elder, author, and activist Beverly Ogle. She sat beside her woodstove surrounded by her unfinished manuscripts, beneath a photo of her grandmother in full native dress, with her children and grandchildren coming and going, and she beamed. Like Martin Luther King Jr., she said, she had a dream.

“Only difference is I lived to see it come true,” she said.

The next morning I drove in circles around tiny Chester, California, lost and panicked, until I saw a vintage Ford pickup and U-turned to follow it to a newish building beside a park where kids clambered on rocks under tall pines. A dog I recognized lay unleashed in the sun. This was the place.

Inside, the crowd gathered with the casual ease of a family reunion or a church picnic. Young men, heavyset with braids and ball caps and baggy jeans, held squirming kids in their arms. A group of middle-aged women, both native and white by looks (though it’s dicey to guess who’s native by looks) set up a drum circle. Potluck dishes accumulated on folding tables including venison stew and small Dixie cups of acorn paste, a traditional Maidu staple. (It tastes exactly as you’d imagine: thick, earthy, nutty, slightly bland.)  I added my own small salad—cherry tomatoes and cukes I’d chopped at a pullout in the sun since it was too cold at my campsite—and went to talk to Beverly’s son Ken Holbrook.

Ken is the brand new executive director of the Maidu Summit Consortium (there’s never been one before.) He wore a crisp white shirt, grey jeans, and a tie, the only tie in the room. He’d recently traveled to a conference Salamanca, Spain to present their efforts to reclaim Humbug Valley and their goal to use TEK—traditional ecological knowledge—to manage the land as an example not only to other indigenous people but to land managers everywhere. When he spoke in Salamanca, he said, he stood in the exact place where Queen Isabella commissioned Christopher Columbus. He told me this story—told anyone who would listen—with less irony than giddy triumph, grinning wide, nearly bursting with it.

When at last formalities began, members of the nonprofit consortium stood to speak, people who endured years of negotiations, interminable meetings, to get to this point. Their eyes sparkled as they described Humbug Valley and how this moment was meant to be and their hopes for the future.

One woman, impeccably dressed, with the poise of a no-nonsense substitute teacher or perhaps a U.S. Senator, was the only speaker to show any hint of anger, any sense of the injustice of the past 200+ years. She stood, nearly trembling, and said simply:

“I never thought I’d live to see Indians given anything by the dominant culture.”

The applause was long. The truth undeniable.

At the end of the speeches, a surprise announcement was made. Well, it was a surprise to Beverly Ogle. Her kids had told me about it excitedly in her driveway the day before. Beverly was awarded a special lifetime achievement award by the Indigenous Communities of Northern California. With it she received a hand-crafted bow.  Her daughter, Brenda, presented the bow, and announced with pride that Beverly Ogle is the first woman ever to receive this award.

But, Brenda explained, there were no arrows to go with it. The arrows come later, next spring, when the Maidu return to Humbug Valley to begin the work ahead.

Friday, October 11, 2013


Everyone I know is weary of it, exasperated, taking great lengths to ease conversations around the subject like unwinding a hose on the edge of a fire. Don’t get too close. Shutdown. There, I said it. Very sorry. Stay with me.

Even the fact that National Parks, about which I care a lot, are at the center of it rankles. What about National Forests that cover more acreage nationally? Not a single news show I’ve listened to has mentioned that the United States Forest Service is shutdown. Why? Because the Forests are less glamorous, less high-profile, and therefore less essential than the Parks even though, for example, the trail workers we know who work for the Forest Service do the same work for the same reasons as Park Service crews do, except for less pay … a point which is moot right now because no trail workers for either agency are getting paid.
Why? Because work is non-essential.

What’s essential? Carrying a gun. Pasting up closed signs. Handling the media. What’s essential, apparently, is how things look from the outside, not how they work on the inside.

Which reminds me a little of writing.

Conversations about writing inevitably lead to talk about publishing or agents or marketing. All of that is important, I know. You want your books to reach readers the same way we want National Parks to be user-friendly. But people go to National Parks because of what’s actually there.  And people read books for what’s actually there. The present, not the wrapping paper. The content, not the elevator speech.

There are many people who see this position as old-fashioned and unrealistic. Which is exactly what doing trail work is like. Or maintaining an apple orchard. Or doing carpentry on historic buildings. Or planting willows along a salmon stream. Everyone I know who does that kind of work is shutdown right now. They are pawns, and they are angry … but not as angry as you might think. They know exactly where they sit on the totem pole, and they’ve chosen to sit there. They take enough pride in the good work they do that it doesn’t matter that they’re deemed non-essential. (Besides, they worked seasonally for so long they learned to save pennies, and crucially, few of them have families to support.)

I’ve decided that’s what I aspire to. Non-essentiality. I realized with considerable shame a few years ago that many of the people I admire most in the world—and nearly all the people I did trail work with—don’t have Facebook accounts and never will. The fact that I do, that I always try to straddle these worlds, sometimes concerns me. I can see the value in reaching out even as I work. But I never want that to be the end in itself. The work is the end: trails brushed, trees pruned or planted, boards nailed, words written, then revised. That’s what matters to me.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Inlandia - Bound

Next week I'm heading south to do a series of very cool events in the Inland Empire (and of course, to celebrate Mother's Day with Mom.)  If you're in the area, it would be wonderful to see you.

Wednesday, May 8 at Riverside City College
Room AD 122  7 p.m. - 8:30 p.m.
RCC campus map

Reading and signing.

I'll be reading from Test Ride on the Sunnyland Bus and hopefully showing a few slides (do we still say "slides"?) from my research visits to Tallahassee as well as some historical photos courtesy of the Florida State Archives.  I've been revisiting my research notes in preparation for the trip, and the test ride story still gives me chills.  I'm eager to share the stories. 

Friday, May 10 at the Cellar Door Bookstore in Riverside at 6:30 p.m.

Reading with the fine essayist, Riverside's own Jo Scott Coe

I plan to read from my most recently published book Potluck as well as sample brand new work from my most recently completed essay collection, The Hole in the Snow.   I'm not sure I can read about snow in Riverside in May with a straight face, so I'll find a summer-themed snippet or two.

The event is sponsored by the Inlandia Institute who maintain a fine blog co-sponsored by the local newspaper The Press Enterprise.  Check it out:

Then on Saturday, May 11 at Claremont Craft Ales 12 p.m. - 2:00 p.m.  hosted by the incomparable
Yi Shun Lai

Memoir Writing Workshop

Everyone has a story worth telling from the poignant to the humorous, from the sprawling family saga to the chance encounter at the check stand.  But how do you craft your story for the page in a way that readerswill find compelling?  Join Ana Maria to try out an easy step-by-step approach for aspiring writers at any stage.  

Bring a pen-and-paper or a laptop.  The workshop will last two hours.  
$20 cost includes instruction, sandwich and chips, and one beverage.
RSVP to AMS (e-address on the website)

Thursday, March 14, 2013

It's Not About Ego

I’d been warned there’d be 12,000 egos to contend with.  I’d prepared myself for that, as I’d prepared myself before for writerly gatherings.  It’s easy to dismiss ego, even in yourself, to say: there it is, the worst of me, on display.  So I landed in Boston for AWP and for four days wandered in a maze of snowy sidewalks and sky bridge and mall – past the Louis Vitton store over and over – and into panels and meetings and, yes, the bars, expecting plenty of ego.  But I did not find it. 

Instead I sensed yearning.  Desperate palpable yearning.   Times 12,000.   And I was unnerved.

I wanted to dismiss this, too, chalk it up to fame-envy, the every-writer desire to be Terry-Gross-ed, Oprah-ed, Pulitzer-ed.  As if AWP were American Idol.  But that was not true, or not wholly so, either.  The yearning felt closer to the bone.   I went to one panel on how not to alienate your friends and family when writing memoir.  (The flippant answer “don’t write” was followed by nuanced answers, and two hundred heads nodded.)  Another panel on how to write political memoir without being polemic addressed real hard every day writerly decisions that require grace and courage, not just a grasp of story arc or dialogue or, god forbid, an effective social media platform.  I realized, slowly, over four days and with both relief and terror: All those people yearn to tell the story that’s inside them, to tell it real and tell it right and tell it beautifully.  And to be heard.

Enter the terror.  When I walked through the book fair and saw all those booths for lit journals and small presses, all those stories being told, I had to wonder:  Does anyone listen?

I wasn’t sure until I got on the plane to leave.  Late on Sunday after a run along the Charles River and some fine sushi and negotiating the subways, I walked the aisle of a super-packed Boston-Seattle nonstop and noticed everyone was reading.  Must’ve been conference attendees, I realized, because these were not just mega-sellers, but modest books of poetry, story collections, even essays.  Essays!  It’s easy to dismiss ours as an esoteric world, academic, insular.  Easy to say: Do you only write for writers?  (Well, maybe, but only to the extent that ballplayers only play for other ballplayers.  I figure the percentage of my readers who are non-writers is higher than Mariners fans who've never touched a glove.  But I digress.)  The thing is: I adore these books.  They say to me things that the mega-sellers don’t or can’t.   I love listening to people—musicians, artists, filmmakers, and especially writers—say what they must say as beautifully as they can.  People on that plane did, too.

So … I told myself not to buy more books than I could afford, but there was no point controlling that urge.  Among the fine writers whose books I hauled home in the roller bag were:

Amy Fusselman
Elena Passarello
Joy Castro
Harrison Candelaria Fletcher
Bonnie Rough
Roxane Gay
Lia Purpura
Barrie Jean Borich

Then there were the inevitable craft books:

Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Flash Nonfiction
Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction ed. by Nicole Walker and Margot Singer
Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction by Tracy Kidder

Finally there was To Show and To Tell by Phillip Lopate.

Lopate hardly counts as a yearning new voice, but I had to buy this book anyway.  I went to his signing and told him the introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay changed my life in 1994.  He shook my hand and said “I hope for the better.” 

Was AWP a good experience?  On balance not as good as hiking the Lakeshore Trail today with two good friends and the first wildflowers of spring and, yes, 12 000 ticks.  But it was good, and it certainly changed my perspective.  For the better.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Going Short

I blame Ben Affleck.   I heard him on the radio last week talking to Terri Gross about his movie, Argo, and the conversation turned to doing impersonations.   Affleck does a mean Denzel Washington, a decent Morgan Freeman.  Terri asked him how he does it, if it requires practice.  Affleck said, sure, doing impersonations takes practice, but it’s also a gift.  It comes easy.  Because of that, he said, he doesn’t like to do it too much.   He compared it to playing speed chess, where every move is timed and the game moves super-fast.  Back in the day, he and Matt Damon played a lot until a friend intervened to say this:

“Don’t play speed chess.  It will ruin your game.”

That line stuck in my head.  It will not go away. 

Here’s why:  I write a lot of short essays.   I write them because I’m asked to or because I’m paid to or because I have something I want to say that doesn’t merit twenty pages … and I write them because they’re easy.   

I’m afraid it’s ruining my game. 

It’s near sacrilege to say so.   Short nonfiction, like flash fiction, has been all the rage for a long while now, especially in MFA programs where honing stories down to their essence is seen as excellent practice, maybe even cutting edge.   I’ve encouraged it myself plenty.  (I also daresay, from a teaching perspective it’s a lot easier to critique 1000 words than 5K … but no need to be cynical here.)  I adore Brevity as much as the next person.  

(If you don't know Brevity, definitely check it out -- essays <750 words that amaze.  Here's one of mine they published last year: 

I still think it might be ruining my game.

When I sit down to work on my book project, I struggle.  Part of it is pure endurance.   Writing a book is like training for a marathon.  You need patience and pacing.  You need to think really hard.  The answer is simple, I know: Sit longer.  Just like a long slow run.  And, still, no long distance runner will tell you sprint workouts are useless.  They work different muscles.  They’re part of the package.

I just don’t want to ruin my game.

Here’s what Ben Affleck said:  When you do an impersonation, you use the techniques of acting but don’t get at the heart; you do the external work but not the deep internal work.  The same can be true of writing short pieces.  I want to be vigilant about that.  I need to be.  I will be.  

But I don't suppose I'll give up Going Short any time soon.  I have a new collection of short essays, in fact, The Hole in the Snow, which is very close to finding a home. 

“Don’t be afraid to do what comes easy,” says picture book author and Whidbey colleague Bonny Becker.  “It probably means you’re good at it.”

I hope that’s true.  I sincerely do.  

Monday, August 20, 2012

Re-found Love

Years ago Laurie and I bought rings with Hopi symbols etched in silver.  Laurie, the skier, chose storm clouds.  Me, I chose water.  Swimming, after all, was what I loved best.  As a kid, I’d spent long summer days in backyard pools, in lessons at the park, in the waves at the beach.  On the high school team, we practiced outdoors after dark.  In college, I’d wake at dawn to swim laps before classes.  An hour in the pool, I found, followed by a large coffee, made even the most boring lecture fascinating.

But the truth was, even before we bought the rings, my swimming days were mostly over.  We lived in a place with no pool and a lake too cold to loiter in, and there was an injury to boot.  One day on trail crew I’d tossed a long limb off a switchback and heard my shoulder snap.  That ruled out swimming for years, long enough that I figured it’d be forever.

Until this spring when I decided to join some of the Whidbey MFA students in a triathlon right before our ten-day summer residency.  A half mile swim?   A cinch.   I mean, it was a cinch twenty years ago, so it should be a cinch now.  Right?  Right?  Maybe?

I started training.

I swam alone in the Pacific in the early morning fog before the Jesus people arrived to set up day-camp-on-the-beach and sing too loudly.  (“I’ve got the joy joy joy down in my heart …”  No no no, not again.) 

I swam in New Jersey in a tree-ringed lake where my young nieces compete on a team with lane lines on the surface and sun fish and snapping turtles below.  Watching them approach the starting block, strong shoulders held high … well, if that’s not inspiration, nothing is.

I swam a few times in the outdoor pool in the nearby faux-Bavarian tourist town, a half-hour workout wedged between the ferry and the city.  Pure bliss.

I swam in Lake Chelan on the downlake end one morning, and because it was warmer than the end uplake, wore no wetsuit.  Shivered until noon. 

I swam uplake one evening and breathing one direction watched the pink sunset glow on still snowy mountains and breathing the other way watched the black sky of a fast approaching storm.  Got home just before the deluge.

I never once swam indoors.

The race went fine.  My favorite memory is all of us writer-triathletes, my tribe if ever there was one, treading water awaiting the start.

The next week I swam in Puget Sound on graduation morning with my first-ever thesis advisee.  Cold even in my wetsuit, or afraid of being cold, I made it only a short distance from her rental house to the dock at Captain Whidbey Inn where dual red flags waved, the only color in the universe. 

Here’s the thing.  You buy rings when you’re twenty-five and wear them because of love until the silver wears thin and brittle, never imagining that someday – this November? Right? Right? – they’ll count for real.  Meanwhile, there are other things, lesser things, that you give up despite love.  So, what a delight, in your mid-forties, to find yourself, like I did today, swimming through the green water glow of a windless day, watching your shadow on sand.  Just you and your thoughts.   It’s like re-found love.

I’m not the only one.  Diana Nyad was a long-distance champion in her youth, but she gave it up for thirty years – thirty! – before she decided to get in the water again.  Today, right this minute, at age 62, she’s making her third attempt to be the first human to swim from Cuba to Florida.   She’s not superhuman, but she’s super-committed.  And she’s probably going to make it. 

If that’s not inspiration, nothing is.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Thurgood Marshall and the Sunnyland Case

A few weeks ago my brother stumbled upon a cool postscript to my book, Test Ride on the Sunnyland Bus, about our dad’s involvement in the early civil rights movement in Tallahassee, Florida.  We’d known he’d been arrested and that his lawyers had appealed his case to the U.S. Supreme Court.   What we didn’t know was that one of those lawyers was Thurgood Marshall, the famous civil rights attorney who later became the first black Supreme Court Justice.

This shouldn’t be a huge surprise.  Marshall was the Chief Counsel for the NAACP from 1940 -1961.  During that time, he argued 32 cases before the Supreme Court and won 29 of them.   My dad's case Leonard D. Speed, Joseph Spagna, and Johnny Herndon v. City of Tallahassee came in 1958, but Marshall never got the chance to argue it since the high court justices refused to hear the case, citing issues of procedure and jurisdiction.

It’s enlightening, nonetheless, to read the transcript of the appeal which has recently come available – for a pretty penny – from The Making of Modern Law.

Readers of Test Ride will recall the gist of the story.  My dad and five other young men – three of them black, three white - tried to test Ordinance 741, a law that gave Tallahassee bus drivers authority to assign seats based, supposedly, on passenger weight and the “maximum health and safety” of the riders.  

When my dad and his friends boarded a bus called the “Sunnyland”, the driver, Emory Elkins, assigned them seats as you might suspect: whites in the front, blacks in the back.  Mid-way through the ride, my dad and two of the black guys moved seats so now they sat together as interracial pairs.  The three who moved seats were arrested, and they hoped to take the case to court to prove that the law violated their rights under the 14th Amendment.

They started by pleading “Not Guilty.”

According to federal appeals court judge Dozier Devane, a known segregationist, that was their big mistake.  Instead of entering a plea, they should have entered an affidavit citing the unconstitutionality of the law.  Since they were inarguable guilty of breaking the ordinance, there was nothing to appeal.  End of story.

That’s not a complicated position.  But the prose in response to the appeal, written by Tallahassee attorney Leo L. Foster, is so convoluted as to be almost unreadable. He refers repeatedly to a seating chart admitted by the bus driver as evidence, a chart which didn’t specify race.  Therefore, Foster argues, race was not a factor in the seating decision. In the eyes of the court, in fact, the defendants could’ve been “six negroes” or six white men.  Huh?

Thurgood Marshall’s prose, by contrast, is clear, easy to read, and to the point.  He makes a thorough condemnation of Ordinance 741 not by addressing what goes unsaid – that seating will be determined based on race – but what is said.  The ordinance is “so vague as to make an innocent act a criminal one.”  He uses the example of a married couple.  If a man gets on after his wife, and sits next to her without the express permission of the driver, he has committed a crime.  How is a “reasonable man” to know what he can or cannot do?   

As you read, you get a keen sense of why Thurgood Marshall won so many cases.  Because he was articulate.  And because he was right.  It’s easier to make sense when you’re telling the truth than when you’re lying.  I’m pretty sure the attorneys for the city weren’t lying, but they were going to great lengths – the whole nation was – to sidestep the truth.