Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Ditchwater Tales by Moderator Robert Michael Pyle

Discussion Topic: The Thunder Tree: Lessons from an Urban Wildland

Everyone who opens a book, I suspect, is looking for a story. And everyone who steps outdoors in the morning, senses open, is bound to find one. When we get together and talk about the wild spots, wild creatures, and wild times of our youths, back when we lived as wildlings ourselves at least now and then, what we do is to tell stories, back and forth. When I ask people at gatherings about their own places and times that made them who they are, invariably they are eager to tell tales spawned of those times and places. Of course, that's what The Thunder Tree is: a gathering of narratives, large and small, from the artificial watercourse that was the fountain of my youth. I have always thought of this book not as a memoir of myself, but of those waters and lands, told through the lens of my own stories and those of others for whom that particular old ditch has mattered. And in that sense, these ditchwater tales connect my place, and my life, to yours.

It has been an honor to discuss The Thunder Tree on Wild Read. I mentioned at the beginning of these essays that our goings-forth as children gifted with the freedom of the day often involved some element of risk. It's that very quality (Will the train come before the kids cross the trestle? Are there rocks or snappers under the surface of the swimming hole? Will the bullies (or worse) be lying in wait behind the hedge?) that gives story its essential tension. Most of our risks were small ones: farmers and ditch-riders intent upon our being elsewhere, Big Kids with designs on our allowance or magpie eggs, fragile tree limbs and high pipes to cross, and the like. But the risk turned personal and serious one sultry afternoon in 1954, when the great hailstorm of July 27 reduced the roofs of our young subdivision to pebbled pulp. You can read the details in the first chapter of the book, if you wish; but the outcome was that my older brother Tom, 11, saved our lives by tugging me, 7, into the great hollow cottonwood that gave the book its name.

No doubt that sounds hyperbolic. Tom and I grew up believing (and repeating) that another kid had actually been killed by the hail, trying to hide beneath a tractor in the field next to us. Well, I'm a conservative when it comes to fiction vs. non-fiction; our memories are all different, but I believe that if we're going to call something non-fiction, it should actually have happened that way according to our own lights. If we're going to make something up whole-cloth, fine, but call it fiction. So I researched the hailstorm carefully, and while most of my sense of the facts held up (hail the size of softballs, and so on), there was no evidence of a fatality. When I brought it up with George Swan, the very ditchrider who used to throw us out of the canal, then in his nineties, he confirmed that no kid had been killed. "But you knew about the cattle, right?" he asked. It seems half a dozen cows had been killed by the hailed, brained or back-broken, and he'd had to deal with the carcasses. So the story was even better, with no kid lost; and the risk had been real.

What stories will this hollow tree spawn?

Naturally, the hailstorm became one of the main narratives of our lives; the hollow tree, one of the great icons (it was already the center of our available universe). In just such a way, stories themselves save us: save us from taking the days, and the world, for granted. There is no sharper key for engagement than Surprise with what comes up, and how it works out. And though there is no excuse for boredom in this fecund world, the best antidote when it threatens has always been story. This is why I feel today that the old ditch saved my life not just on July 27, 1954, but over and over again. It wound through our days, warp and woof as one, giving texture and discovery and solace and surprise, whenever I walked its dusty loops. My first writing came from there. And ever since, when I have attempted to "make words fast on paper" (as Sequoyah, creator of the Cherokee alphabet, put it), my stories have flowed directly out of that canal and all of the wild places that have succeeded it.

As I conclude my hitch as Wild Read's wildwriter, I find myself asking whether the love of land and literature can still save the world; or, if not quite that, then make life more worth living. And I have to answer is yes, I think so. At least we know that writing about what needs to be done has sometimes gotten it done, or moved it closer, or perhaps begun the conversation necessary to getting it done. Re-read Cristina's final posting on trophic cascades and The Wolf's Tooth if you doubt this. "To save the world" is a pretty pretentious idea, and the world doesn't need it anyway. But the gods know that parts of our estate that we have mishandled to our detriment, and that of many other lives, can indeed be restored or repaired, and further such mistakes prevented. This is certainly one reason we write--like Rick Bass and David James Duncan's recent emergency book, the remarkable Heart of the Monster: Why the Pacific Northwest & Northern Rockies Must Not Become an ExxonMobil Conduit to the Alberta Tar Sands.

But we also write (= share our stories) in the hopes of improving upon each day's encounter with life's demands and disappointments. In an unsatisfactory world, a good book can make it better; I know that this has always been one of my own main reasons for writing, the hope of making a personal connection with individual readers, and perhaps improving upon their day. Welcome letters from readers let me know that this sometimes happens. As John McPhee said in an interview "How else can I know that anyone really reads the books, or cares?" But just as letters are growing rare, readers too are thinning out. A terrific recent book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr (Norton), shows how, thanks to neuroplasticity and our new habits, many people are losing the ability and inclination to cope with longer texts and "deep reading." Yet there are signs that some people are recognizing the insidious suck of the shallows, and are throwing lifelines back to books; and some have never left. For my part, as long as I have a sense that my stories may affect others, I will keep writing them. And reading, of course. Because it is only through that magic mix of wildness and words, told back and forth across the fire, the printed page, or even the screen, that we can learn to love the world enough.

Final questions:
Do your childhood memories suggest a central story, about which all the others revolve?

Is literature becoming a bygone among those you know?

Do you ever write to writers whose work has mattered to you? Do! It matters to them. And thank you for reading my posts.


Katherine said...

I have enjoyed your blog posts so much!

Bob Pyle said...

Thank you, Katherine! You're kind to say so.

will stolzenburg said...

"Do you ever write to writers whose work has mattered to you?"

Yes, to one of particular interest, about 12 years ago after I had read The Thunder Tree and then saw him speak at NCTC in Shepherdstown during a seminal conference of environmental writers and thinkers called Fire and Grit. He was a naturalist who wrote, or a writer who was a naturalist--either way, the model of what I wanted to be. And he graciously humored me for several rounds of correspondence, all of it enlightening and cautiously encouraging to somebody who was longing to strike out on his own and write something important.

I'm a bit late with this, and still working on writing that important thing, but thanks, Bob. Your words and your work matter much.


Bob Pyle said...

Will, what a sweet post! Thank you very much. Your modesty becomes you, but any readers here should know that you have indeed written important things. "Where the Wild Things Were" was an instant classic, and fully deserved it. I haven't yet read "Rat Island," but look forward to it; it sounds important indeed, to me. I hope to see one of your books discussed here one day soon, and I look forward to all you'll write. Bob

WILD READ Team said...

See Will Stolzenburg's WILD READ blog posts

Bob Pyle said...

Oops! I see you've already been here, Will...I guess I gave away that I've failed to review the entire series of Wild Read postings! Now that I'm finished with mine, I'll belatedly do so. I'm looking forward to Bill's first one.

will stolzenburg said...

All best to you Bob. And please keep steering us clear of those shoals in The Shallows.

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