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LETTERS FROM WAKE ROBIN FARM

Fire on the Wind, Again

When I was young and we were just starting out the grand adventure of renovating Wake Robin Farm, I was constantly hurrying to finish projects.  I operated on a foolish notion of fixing things up "once and for all."  Life would start, I thought, when things were nice. Ha!

 

Now I know better.  It's the journey, not the destination, as they say. In recent years I've been reading a lot of Pema Chodron and the principles of Buddhism.  It all makes a lot of sense to me, relaxing into the inevitability of change, approaching each day in a spirit of curiosity rather than with a fixed To-Do list in hand, the day's score dropping to the extent it veers out of my control.

 

I love the idea of restoration, so when we built the little cabin I wrote about in Accidental Addict, I used salvaged porch posts from Aurora Mill Architectural Salvage. They look great, but sitting out there on that western facing ridge, the weather quickly takes a toll. Some weird fungus was even growing out of one of them.

 

Well, we've been trying to make lemonade during the pandemic, taking care of various  maintenance projects, so a few weeks back we went out to the cabin armed with tools and supplies and I got to work.  One post was just falling apart, with deep cracks.  A startled spider crawled out the top when I started scraping.  I used a lot of wood putty before even priming it.

 

"You know," I said to my husband,  "this thing is in such bad shape, I'm really just doing a stalling action."

 

But then I remembered: everything's a stalling action. Everything's growing, dying, building up, falling apart. So what? My assignment for the day was to be doing this job in pleasant weather with a beautiful view every time I looked up.  Nothing to gripe about. Moments to enjoy.

 

The trip to put the final green paint on the post was last Monday, September 7th, the day the historically unprecedented winds were predicted to blow into the Willamette Valley.  On the way home, my husband said maybe it would turn out like so many other weather predictions…not the big deal they were saying.  We got into a silly spat about how best to direct our energies the next day.  Should we go back to the forest property for more work the very next day?  It was one of those inane conversations which included a lot of lines such as "Well, I thought you said you wanted to blah blah blah," and "No, that's not what I said and don't we have the right to change our minds etc. etc." We were soon laughing it off, conscious of the ridiculousness of this debate, knowing we were just  needing  to blow off some  steam thanks to the stresses of the pandemic.

 

At 5:25 our daughter Mary texted from Portland:  You guys getting this smoke down there???? Super smoky and windy. Visibiltiy super low too.  Happened pretty quick.

 

Just about an hour later the smoke started pouring in here too, and that's the last we've seen of the blue sky.  Good thing we didn't spend any more time arguing about what to do the next day!  The universe had delivered our assignment, loud and clear: Stay in the house. So my husband's been canning his amazing produce and I've been working on my forthcoming novel, Family Trees.

 

We are now on our fifth day of living under a cloud of the very worst air on planet earth.  It's totally claustrophobic and reconfirms  for us how good we've had it during the pandemic up until now: even if we can't  be around other people, Herb and I could always go out to the garden or forests where we're happiest anyway. Now we're seeing first hand what apartment dwellers who have declined to be hoodwinked into complacentcy by the President have been experiencing for months.

 

Fresh air is a big deal to me.  I've never smoked a puff of anything in my life.  I'm thinking I probably wasn't the nicest daughter-in-law when we visited my husband's parents in LA. I couldn't get over standing on the beach and not being guaranteed a westerly blast of fresh, cool air.  I was appalled. Worse, for house guest manners, I probably said so. But I'm a fourth-generation Oregonian!  Land of the rose and sunshine, land of the summer breeze….

 

As I write, our pollution index in Corvallis is at 450, well into the hazardous zone.  I really can't stand this. It's making me crazy, thinking about all the people evacuating for their lives ahead of the flames, as well as the millions of people with their own personal stories of what they're trying to deal with in the choking smoke and the fear of Covid.  Children who can't go to school.  Old people who can't understand why they don't have visitors.  People of color faced with the choice of working in hazardous conditions or going without money for food. All of us cursed with the malevolent power and control of that sociopath, Donald J. Trump. 

 

The news reports and stories of the fires remind me so much of all the research I did for my book about the Tillamook Burn of 1933, Fire on the Wind. Both historic fires, the old and the current, were fanned by dry east winds. Those winds have stopped now and there's currently not a breath of breeze. I keep staring out the windows for movement in the leaves. We're just waiting--longing--for the winds to shift and come again from the West with blessed moisture. I keep thinking of a scrap of a medieval poem I used in Fire on the Wind:

 

O Western Wind, when wilt thou blow?

That the small rain down can fall

Christ! That my love were in my arms

And I in my bed again.

 

Yeah.  That.

Hang in there, everybody.

And be sure to vote Democratic.

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Deep River by Karl Marlantes

About a month ago I walked into my local independent bookstore, Grass Roots, with a singular mission:   I needed a book printed on actual paper.  I had been reading too many on my Kindle and one actually pointed out that reading on screens right before bed is not conducive to good sleep.

 

On the new book shelf I immediately spotted just the ticket: Deep River by Karl Marlantes. I'd read his earlier book, Matterhorn, and was impressed.  Here was his new, big fat hardback for thirty bucks. I liked the idea of the serious commitment buying this would represent, for I have noticed how easily a book on Kindle may be left unfinished, unseen. If this guy sat there and did the work to produce a seven hundred page book on a subject of interest to me, attention should be paid, and I would read it.

 

Also, the cover itself called to me.  I had probably looked at that very photo—a turn-of-the-century logger standing behind downed sections of a huge old growth fir—when I was doing research for my own novel featuring historic logging, Fire on the Wind. This was territory I had been over myself, and I would definitely be interested to see how Marlantes would handle it.

 

Well, the answer is, he handled it thoroughly, in great detail.  Excessive detail.  In his acknowledgments he thanks no less than five Grove Atlantic editors, a lot for any book, all of them female, and I had to wonder—had they given up, one after the other? How many manuscript pages had Marlantes originally turned in?  Do female editors lack the nerve to pass along to a male author a rule I thought we all understood, that it's not necessary to include every last detail of information discovered in research? I can hear Marlantes arguing he actually uncovered much more and I'm sure he did, but the point remains—you want to be finding the right amount of detail to tell the story without overwhelming it.

 

Deep River is a historical family saga spanning decades over the turn of the previous century, the story of Finnish immigrants to the Southwest region of Washington State and Astoria across the Columbia River.  I loved learning about this and thoroughly trusted the accuracy of his information, but never have I read a book I so wanted to edit. Places I think of as "false steps" in my editing of my own writing just kept jumping out at me.

 

A blatant example—a scene where Matti runs out into the night to chase down his sister, who's taken off from their cabin into the night, terribly upset:

 

"I'm going after her."  He tossed the glowing cigarette to the ground and took off running.

He ran past the old snag.  Such a waste, he thought.  Must be fifty thousand board feet in it, mostly vertical grain.  Just past Ullakko's farm, where the Tapiloa road became a trail, heading for Snappton and Reder's Camp cutoff, he caught a slight movement……

 

What can I say but No!  No, no, no! He can't be stopping to calculate board feet while his sister is in peril.  Even if this were the author's hamhanded attempt at making a commentary on the way Finnish men see the world, it still doesn't work.

 

Toward the end of the book, during the Depression, a hungry man approaches the main character, a woman named Aino. 

 

"I haven't eaten in two days, except some apples.  Those watery Yellow Transparents they grow around here.  Salmonberries, you know."

"I hear St. Mary on Grand helps out with food.  Also, the Finish and Norwegian Lutherans."

 

This breaks a rule I always apply to my own work, that people must never say things just to impart information.  That's the stuff of soap opera, and I'll bet no hungry man has ever in history stood around complaining about apple varieties.

How about this:

 

"I haven't eaten in two days, except some apples."

"Have you tried the churches?"

 

How much shorter this book could have been!

 

Another rule: Don't let your research show.

 

Marlantes breaks this on every page. I felt I could see the very newspaper clippings he'd collected.  Once a character was actually waving one. I could too easily picture his office wall plastered with the master calendar of his book. Why else would we be given so many specific dates for events that did not need dating?  We do not need to know that the solstice fell on a Tuesday a certain year so they had the party on Saturday.  Just have the damned party!  I think of so many comments my Random House editor Wendy Lamb used to write on my manuscripts: "We already know this" or "We don't need to know this." Maybe this is why people secretly enjoy YA novels—they are thoroughly, lovingly edited.

 

I absolutely do not mean to trash this book. There is so much here that is of great value.  But in the end, what it added up to for me was a book that, thanks to the author's wonderful descriptions, I could see like a movie, but could not feel.  Because he is mainly convincing when he's outside the characters, not when he's inside looking out. Yes, I could see the women, forever making the coffee, forever waiting to see if the men had come to harm at whatever misadventure they'd set out on; I could see the men doing their frightfully hard and dangerous work;  the children with their chores, living close to the land. But I was never moved, never choked up once, not even when a precious little girl is buried with flowers.  It struck me over and over: I would see what he was trying to do in a given scene, but it just wasn't quite working. Not for me.

 

Maybe he felt in trying to depict a strong, independent woman he was giving female readers a nod, but Aino never seemed like a real person.  Her interior life and thought processes didn't ring true, and she was for the most part quite unsympathetic in the decisions she made.

 

Marlantes—a veteran of the war in Vietnam—seems so much more at home in describing men drinking, smoking, and fighting, whether with fists, knives or guns, than he is in trying to plumb the depths of a woman's heart. I think men will be the best appreciators of Marlante's work in Deep River and I'm passing this book to my husband, who I think will enjoy the vivid background on logging and fishing and life in general during these early years in the Pacific Northwest.

 

I, meanwhile, will now turn to  American Dirt.  I want to see what all the fuss is about, plus, right now a book billed as an emotional page-turner sounds appealing, no matter what the controversy.   

 

 

 

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Fire on the Wind

The forests of Oregon are on fire, and we are sitting under a blanket of smothering smoke. My town of Corvallis, situated on the west side of the broad Willamette Valley, had been spared the worst, giving us only the sun as a red disk at rising as a smoke indicator. Then, Sunday, the overcast layer began to thicken, smell like smoke, and become truly oppressive.

It makes me think of the scenes I researched for my historical novel, Fire on the Wind, which details with an accuracy of which I’m proud the course of the huge Tillamook Burn of 1933. All the descriptions of the fire and smoke darkening the skies were taken from eye-witness accounts published in newspapers of the time.

One scene I wrote jumped to mind—that of a young farmwife on the coast, running out to greet the welcome rain pinging on the roof, only to find falling from the sky blackened fir needles.

So, last night, when my daughter—that’s her at fourteen on the cover of my book—texted that ashes were raining down on her Southwest Portland neighborhood, I felt like we were all living this story again. These would be ashes blowing in from the Eagle Creek Fire in the Columbia Gorge, blown east by that same drying wind from the desert that played such a part in the Tillamook Burn. My Mary, the model for Story Faye, the log camp girl in my book, is now thirty-one and pregnant. I want breathing her fresh air!

If you’re stuck inside, waiting for the skies to clear, you might find Fire on the Wind diverting. It’s such a fast read, in fact, that if you download it to your Kindle and start in, you’ll likely be finished long before the smoke over Oregon blows away.

I used this 16th century poem in my book and I thought of it again today:

Oh, Western wind, when wilt though blow
That the small rain down can rain?
Christ, that my love were in my arms
And I in my bed again……

Yes, please let it rain. Read More 
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