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Stranger Than Fiction

The topic of this morning’s “This American Life” on NPR was coincidences. It made me want to tell about a couple of mine.

While working on a remodeling project one fall day back in the seventies, I spun the radio dial, looking for something diverting, and landed on a channel I’d never listened to before. A few minutes later I almost fell off the ladder when the DJ said, “You know what today is? According to the Guinness Book of World Records, today is the anniversary of the day Harold Oaks of Hood River broke the world apple picking record.”

Harold Oaks! He’d been my fiance! I’d been there watching the day he picked those apples!

As if this weren’t enough, the DJ went on. “I thought I’d give him call,” he said, “but instead I got his mother on the line. She thanked me for calling and said, as a matter of fact, Harold’s getting married today.”

Wow. What a weird way to find out what happened to the guy you almost married. Maybe Facebook makes this sort of random surprise a thing of the past?

Fast forward about twenty years. In the antiques mall in Lincoln City on the coast, I picked up a beautiful old scrapbook. The first time I went to put something in it, I saw that it wasn’t empty after all, as I’d thought. A few pages in, someone had pasted an autographed concert program and single newspaper article. The review of pianist Samuel Sorin was written by:

Kathryn Oaks! Harold’s mother!

I am not making this up.

Poor Kathryn. She spent a good deal of the review lamenting the poor attendance in the Hood River High School Auditorium for Mr. Sorin’s most excellent performance. She was a former opera singer herself, and now I think how hard it must have been for her to be stuck in Hood River, mothering twin boys, who would have been about three at the time the esteemed pianist briefly graced the fruit growing hamlet. I remembering seeing a gorgeous photo of her, dressed as Juliet. I was mightily impressed. I could have been her fan, but she didn’t like me. Maybe I wasn’t patient or appreciative enough, watching her son pick all those apples. But it was boring! I would have preferred hearing her sing opera….

Anyway, coincidences like this happen in real life, but you could never get away with them in serious fiction. I ran up against this in writing BRIDES OF EDEN: A TRUE STORY IMAGINED. The editor who’d worked with me on my previous books wanted me to forget what really happened when Edmund Creffield came to Corvallis in 1903. She and the others at Random House thought I should just fictionalize whatever I wanted and make it a novel.

But that was the whole point! That this strange story was true. It all really happened! I’m glad I stuck to my guns and the folks at HarperCollins agreed. Real life IS stranger than fiction sometimes, and not everything should be turned into a novel.
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Life Imitates Art Imitates Life Etc.

My father’s father, my Papa Bill, was a gentle, handsome man, an artist with the soul of a poet. He loved the Rubayatt of Omar Khayyam, and when he built a cabin at Arch Cape on the Oregon Coast, he inscribed the beam above the fireplace with this line: AND PITY SULTAN MAHMUD ON HIS THRONE.

As a little girl, this fascinated me. In my book SOMEDAY I’LL LAUGH ABOUT THIS, I fictionalized the cabin in Yachats owned by my mother’s very practical and non-poetic side of the family by transporting that line to the beam over the rock fireplace there. As my character twelve-year-old Shelby explains it, it means you feel even luckier than a king, because a palace can’t top a good cabin.

Now my husband and I are building a little cabin on one of our forest properties, and I am copying my grandfather in real life by putting the line over the doors framing the view to the west. I think he would have approved.

The next lines of the poem are perhaps the more famous:

A book of verses underneath the bough
A flask of wine, a loaf of bread and thou
Beside me singing in the wilderness
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise ‘enow!

Well, we’re usually too busy planting or limbing trees to sit around reading poetry to each other, and drinking and chainsaws are not a good mix. But the part about being out there together? Pretty much says it all.

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I am a huge fan of the TV show Portlandia. I only wish it were longer! I could sit here laughing my head off all night. I guess it’s the recognition factor for me. I’m thinking Yeah, people talk like that. And then…Wait. You mean they don’t talk that way everywhere? You mean that’s just a Portland thing? A Western Oregon thing? I feel like Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein have been spying on us and showing us sides of our laid-back selves we hadn’t even noticed.

After the first few episodes, I couldn’t help starting to collect what seemed to me like Portlandia bits here in Corvallis, eighty miles to the south. My favorite is having our eggs delivered by Dan Crall in his pedicab. Along with his backyard chicken coop project, Dan also ferries people around town in his bicycle powered cab, a business for which he was recently nominated local entrepreneur of the year.

What a privilege to eat these fresh, orange-yoked eggs laid by super happy chickens. Dan has a wonderfully mellow voice, powerfully charming enough that it used to grace the airwaves of Oregon Public Broadcasting. I’m sure his hens must enjoy being called to dinner by him!

Of course we reuse the egg cartons. Sometimes Dan writes slogans or reviews on them. Today’s says, “Eggs so good you’ll say, ‘These are good.’”

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I promised an honest report and here it is: today, Monday, the well-drillers hit a deep vein of good water at 130 feet. First try, drilling where David Brinker arranged the pink tapes at X marks the spot. Make of it what you will, we're happy!
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Water Witching

We have to dig a well at Plunkett Creek, one of our tree farm properties. It’s silly, actually. We have no intention of building, but in order to maintain the right to build, we have to go ahead and do it. I wonder if the people who made these laws thought of these consequences--ugly and perhaps unoccupied white trailers parked here and there, blighting the forest zones of Oregon. They’re place savers. Why can’t we just have a legal paper stating the property is buildable sometime in the future? Since that doesn’t seem to compute, and we’ve paid a price reflecting the right to build, we must build to protect our investment.

As the self-appointed Director of Cute of this operation of ours, I have vetoed the ugly trailer bit and hope, for the same money, to have some locals build a little cabin. Even the smallest picnic house requires all the services.

Thus, the well. Yesterday we went up to the Kings Valley property with our timber manager, David Brinker, and watched him do the witching. My husband and I both held the witching wires and felt them go nuts over the spot where David said we’d find water.

I thought it was exciting and magical, but last night I went on line and found nothing but material debunking the whole idea of water witching. No proof ever of it working, they say. And lots of stories of people doing just what we did, holding the wires where X marks the spot and claiming they’d felt them move in a decisive way. These people were not being written of with admiration!

But everybody, including David, has stories of having found the water with witching and coming up dry when the witching process was bypassed.

So, next week, we’ll drill. I want to watch. I can’t wait to see if David’s right. Stay tuned! I promise an honest report of happens.
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IN THE KEEP OF TIME by Margaret J. Anderson

We are celebrating the brand new availability of our dear friend Margaret J. Anderson’s charming novel, IN THE KEEP OF TIME, as an eBook. Originally published by Knopf over thirty years ago, the story of four English children sent to Scotland for a bit of summer vacation in the countryside has many fans who adored the book as children themselves and now want to share the time-slip adventure with their own children. That the book--as of today--can be speedily downloaded is especially good news for all of those who have been unable to find the out-of- print paper versions.

It seems particularly appropriate to me that my first book read on a Kindle should be this tale of travel to the past and to the future. It's a story that offers up much food for thought for young readers about the way we care for our planet and yet manages this without miring itself in the darkness of many of the current dystopian titles being published. As a Scot, born in Lockerbie, the charming lingo of “wee bairns” and the like come naturally to Margaret, and her background in science afforded her a prescience in imagining the consequences of global warming long before it was much discussed.

I love picturing a brand new generation of readers being introduced to this exciting and yet somehow cozy adventure by the parents who loved it when it first came out so many years ago. IN THE KEEP OF TIME is a book which has stood the TEST OF TIME!
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When I fell in love with and acquired a twenty-five acre forest parcel on the Luckiamute River in Western Oregon last spring, I thought it was amazingly free of invasive species. None of the English Ivy I hate so fiercely. Just a bit of Scotch broom—nothing we hadn’t seen and conquered previously on other acreages. No poison oak, thanks to being on the west side of a coast range ridge, just outside the oak savannah range. To me, it was a wonderland of wildflowers—the meadows blooming with wild roses, larkspur, columbine, Douglas iris and others.

What was I missing? Only the fact that I didn’t know Japanese Knotweed when I was wading through it. It turns out to be an incredibly invasive species, and our new land had plenty. No sooner had we signed the purchase agreement than we got a call from Peter Guillozet, manager of the Luckiamute River Enhancement Project. He offered the help of his grant-supported program to bring in teams of forestry workers to eradicate the weed and replant the streambanks. Since this is work we’d be trying to do ourselves anyway, we were glad for the help, pleased to learn that a coordinated effort was underway.

We were invited out to the charmingly named Happy Workers Club yesterday, an old one room school on Luckiamute Road, to meet our neighboring landowners and hear about efforts to eradicate this fast spreading weed. Peter gave a talk about this plant and showed frightening comparison maps of its spread in the UK and Ireland between 1900, when it was starting to be deliberately planted as a garden ornamental and 2006, by which time it had pretty much taken over the whole island. We’re talking old growth knotweed over there! Seriously, Peter said, the roots of this stuff could eventually eat your house. It could ruin the streams for fish.

But here in Oregon, we’re not going to let that happen. I just loved this meeting—a bunch of like-minded people getting together to figure out how to do the right thing. Few issues in life seem this straightforward: Japanese Knotweed is bad and we must get rid of it. Nobody disagrees. Everybody seems to just want to take care of their forests and be good stewards of the land.

A big thank you to the environmental foundations which are supporting this project—the Bonneville Environmental Foundation and the Meyer Memorial Trust. And thanks to the volunteers coordinating the effort.

I’m so happy my husband and I can be part of this.

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