Imagining Wilderness

Sitting on a rock overlooking Lamar Valley in Yellowstone National Park, I gazed beyond the grass and sage-covered plains to a more distant view. In my mind’s eye, I followed the Lamar River drainage, exploring lonely dark spruce-fir forests and meadows in the footsteps of grizzlies and wolves. An hour earlier, on a park road jammed with tourists, I had actually seen my first wolves—a few specks of black dancing at the edge of my vision. And I imagined what it would be like to wind among sagebrush that had known the touch of wolves.

It is a trip that I have taken many times since. With each passing year, its memories grow more vivid and no less meaningful to me than if I had actually backpacked into that wilderness.

In this case, there was at least some link to actuality. I was in my sixties and at last had fulfilled my dream of visiting this iconic national park. The wilderness lay just ahead, not far from where I sat. I could almost smell the sagebrush on the wind. All I had to do was head for the horizon and keep walking. But why bother, when I had already imagined it.

Lately, I have visited other wilderness areas as well, with no sensory link other than a book, map or video image. When I look at them on a map, running my fingers over the contour lines, in a real sense I feel a connection. I have stood at the very Gates of the Arctic, surrounded by virtual black flies, flower-covered tundra and the immense solitude of the Brooks Range. I have wandered through alpine meadows of the John Muir Trail from Yosemite all the way to Mount Whitney and explored the endless hidden canyons of Escalante. And I have visited, at no expense, the fabled islands of Galapagos, where I have marveled at giant tortoises and marine dragons and followed the path of Darwin.

Being the dreamer I am, it’s a wonder I didn’t think of this sooner. It might have saved me a lot of grief and confusion.

Growing up, I was always a bookish loner. Since my earliest childhood, I have imagined wilderness, chiefly from the books I read.  Writers such as John Muir, Sigurd F. Olson, William O. Douglas, and Edward Abbey provided such glowing firsthand accounts of wild places that I could feel myself there beside them. With Sigurd Olson I have skated down a silvery mirrored lake in the Quetico-Superior country, bathed in the aurora’s shimmering light. I have swayed in the treetops with John Muir as he described it in “A Wind-Storm in the Forests.” Once, while out walking in gale-force winds through a New Hampshire forest, I considered recreating Muir’s experience by climbing a tall white pine. The feeling lasted only a moment, then was quickly suppressed by common sense.

Indeed, we are indebted to writers such as these for instilling a love and thirst for wilderness that provided the first impetus for its preservation. Together with paintings and photographs, these earliest accounts of Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite and other scenic wonders first stirred the imaginations of urban readers, often far removed from these places, to support legislation  to preserve them. Only later would some get the chance to visit these places. But first we had to imagine them.

Starting in my teens, I would take long walks alone through the tame parks and state forests of Connecticut suburbia. Though a far cry from real wilderness, they provided me with a stage to act out the fantasy that I was some kind of wilderness superman, aloof from the world, sufficient unto myself, sustained only by my love for wildness. So powerful was the image that by high school I had convinced myself that the only path for me was to become a natural resource professional, protecting wildlife, forests, and scenery in the great outdoors.

I think my dad had something to do with this. He was always telling me about how he wanted to be a forest ranger. His parents couldn’t afford to send him to college, however, and he eventually landed a job as a postman with the U.S. Postal Service. There he remained and raised a family, in the small suburban city where both he and son were born. He seemed to be content with the life he had made, and I wonder if he would have been as happy spotting forest fires or cruising timber in some remote corner of the wilderness.

Rebellious child of the sixties, I was going to be different, not chained down by the stultifying sameness of Connecticut suburbia. Like my dad, I was a dreamer, but I was about to be kicked in the head.

In hindsight, I should have seen it coming, but I was a cocky, know-it-all kid who thought he had life all figured out. There were plenty of clues, if I had ever bothered to look. My dad, for instance, for all his talk of being a forest ranger, was a real homebody, a man who didn’t stray far from his front door. In so many ways, I was just like him. Yes, we took hikes in the woods, but not once did he ever suggest we try roughing it. Family trips to the Adirondacks and White Mountains always involved a well-stocked ice chest and clean, comfortable hotels. All I remember from the few times I tried backpacking myself was how much fun it is carrying forty pounds on your back, how hard it is to sleep with tree roots and rocks projecting into your butt, and the sinister rustling sounds that a mouse can make outside your tent.

Unlike my dad, affording college was no obstacle. So in 1967, at the end of my freshman year as a major in wildlife management at the University of Connecticut, I was ready to test myself against the wilderness. One of my professors had landed me an entry-level federal job for the summer cruising timber for the U.S. Forest Service, in the remote town of Cougar, Washington. Yes, that was its actual name. It sounded every bit as wild as my dreams. For weeks before I left, I lorded it over my friends. I was off to the wilderness—a real mountain man. Even bought my first sleeping bag.

The big day came, and my parents saw me off on my first airline trip—a red eye flight—to Portland, Oregon. There, early the next morning, I was picked up by a kindly Forest Service employee who drove us fifty miles northeast into Washington and the rugged mountains of the southern Cascades in Gifford Pinchot Natural Forest. Raised in New England, I had never seen such wild country in my life. Glacial rivers surging through ravines of giant boulders. Trees hundreds of feet tall, with trunks so massive it would take six men to span them. Forests that seem to go on forever. I was both giddy and slightly frightened. This was no imagined wilderness.

We finally reached camp where I was handed my first big dose of reality. The deal I had signed on for had stated that the Forest Service would provide lodging with a bed and a shared room. The supervisor informed me, however, that all the rooms were filled. So he assigned me to a cot in a huge tent shared by a few dozen fellow employees, all of whom snored so loud it’s a wonder the tent didn’t come down. Inside the tent, it was hot by day and freezing cold by midnight, and despite my sleeping bag I shivered most of the night. Nobody had told me I would spend the summer camping.

My first two days on the job involved working with a professional forester cruising timber. I took turns with another new guy measuring and recording such things as tree species, diameter at breast height (DBH), height, and defects. After a while, I got the hang of it, though the forester became increasingly frustrated with me at how all the number 2’s that I recorded in the entry book always looked like “s.” I could tell it was really starting to bug him. To this day, I can’t write a 2 without wondering if it looks like an “s.”

On Saturday morning, a bunch of us temps went out on a hike along a nearby river. There were elk tracks winding everywhere through the giant, moss-covered trees. We approached one huge Douglas fir, and it took six of us to get our arms around its circumference. And there in the distance was the snow-covered summit of Mount St. Helens. Little did I know that in thirteen years it would blow its top and lay waste to much of this forest.

That evening, we went into the local town and headed for the bar. I wasn’t into drinking back then, but I enjoyed shooting some pool and swapping stories. I remember one guy in particular, who made quite an impression on me. Frankly, he scared me. He had grown up in Washington and loved the back country more than anything else. He wanted to get as far back in the timber as he could to get away from people and modern civilization. “All you folks coming here from back East,” he said, his eyes ablaze with righteousness, “are ruining this state. Soon there won’t be any wilderness left.” For him, the state was already too crowded. People were the problem, and as far as he was concerned they could all go to hell. Who needs ‘em?

It’s funny how one conversation can bring everything into sudden focus. Up until that moment, I had thought that maybe things would be fine and that I could tough it out. Sure, I was homesick and had to sleep in a damn tent. Deal with it. But suddenly all the thoughts and impressions of the past few days crashed head on with my romantic notions of wilderness and myself. Is this really the life I wanted, a life alone in the wilderness? All I really knew was that I was not that guy back in the bar. I could hear Barbara Streisand singing “people who need people” in my head. It was all a mistake and I had to get out of there fast.

My supervisor tried to talk me out of it, then shook his head and accepted my abrupt resignation. He had seen it all before. Everyone was remarkably cool about it. The forester who had driven me into camp agreed to take me back to Portland and even loaned me the money to catch a flight back East. So I came home, tail dragging between my legs, and started life over again. The worst part was the way my dad looked at me as he saw his dream to be a forest ranger go up in smoke again.

Of course, I still dream of what my life might have been if I had stuck it out, a life full of adventures in the wilderness. But it wasn’t me. And as I look back on the life I have made for myself, I wouldn’t trade it for all the adventures in the world. Yes, it was painful and embarrassing to come home and admit my mistake. But if I hadn’t made that journey, I would never have found out who I really am.

I still dream of wilderness, and even hike there sometimes. Though I’m certainly no John Muir or Bob Marshall, I have logged enough wilderness hours to know some of the sensory images and feelings that only such places can provide. Each of my wilderness hikes, even if only for a few hours, has been a privileged moment. Whether in one of the great wilderness parks like Death Valley, Canyonlands, or Yellowstone, or in some smaller corner of wildness in Maine, New Hampshire, or the Great Smokies, I experience the same kind of emotion. I become a different person. Crossing the wilderness boundary, I can feel myself expanding, filling with new possibilities. These moments have provided me with a sensory record of detailed memories that I can call up faster than a mouse click. With this record I can not only recreate these actual trips but, by using input from many sources, including words and images of wilderness recorded for me by others, build upon them to create entirely new trips in my mind.

There are definite advantages to this kind of trip. Age, physical ability, and money are no obstacles. There are no bugs, rapids, or grizzlies. Also, if we agree that wilderness areas are precious, does it then follow that all of us must visit them? I doubt that the American wilderness would long survive such a loving assault. Maybe it’s better that most of us limit ourselves to an occasional visit, making do for the most part with experiences of the virtual kind—the kind that leave no footprints.

This is not about turning wilderness into some kind of video game. For no matter how convincing the experience might seem, there is no substitute for the actual. It is the source of all images, all input.  The virtual wilderness is only as good as its programming, and for that we need raw data from the real thing to feed into our devices and dreams.

I suspect imagining wilderness will become easier in the near future, with virtual reality headsets and “interactive imaging systems.” Fascinated as many of us are with technology, I can imagine a time when virtual wilderness trips become so vivid and convincing that people may prefer them to the real thing. After all, why get wet when you can just put on a helmet and float down the Colorado?  Who am I to judge when I can still get a virtual thrill from reading about John Muir swaying in the wind atop a tree?

I now live in Tucson, a city surrounded by mountains and bona fide wilderness. On a recent short hike at Sabino Canyon, I paused to rest my stiff, arthritic limbs. Just ahead was a sign marking the wilderness boundary. I gazed up longingly at the steep
trail winding for miles through the solitary feeder canyons, where new wonders beckon … if only my feet would take me there. But a man can always dream.

 

Latest Review of Trash Picker on Mars

A new review of my book Trash Picker on Mars. Thanks, Susan.

In Trash Picker on Mars, Gene Twaronite ends a poem with “They are the people I carry within. I’d show you their picture if I could.” Yet that is exactly what readers of this small volume of poetry come away with: snapshots of everyday people our society tends to ignore, those lost on the streets, asleep on the subways, or hidden behind plastered smiles as they serve daily lunch crowds. Through detailed imagery, insight, and compassion, Twaronite takes us behind their concealing smiles to the persons within, to their hopes and dreams and frailties, revealing them to be a reflection of ourselves. From the moment that lasts no longer than a handshake where we dare touch one another before stepping back into our “fortified trenches” of safe anonymity, to the eyeless faces of modern day mannequins, Twaronite’s poetry introduces us to trash pickers with their dreams still intact and to strangers on buses who will nod and recognize us as lifelong friends. I urge lovers of everyman American poetry in the vein of Robert Frost or Walt Whitman to pick up a volume of Trash Picker on Mars. Amazon customer review Trash Picker on Mars

–Susan Shell Winston, editor at New Myths, and author of Singer of Norgondy 

Emily Dickinson Puppet Show

There were so many memorable events at the recent Tucson Festival of Books. I wanted to share this delightful performance by my local poet friend Jeanne Missey Osgood, a fellow docent at the University of Arizona Poetry Center. She has now memorized a hundred of Emily Dickinson’s poems – a feat which astounds me. I can’t even memorize one of my own poems. Jeanne seamlessly recites Dickinson’s words through her charming puppet, bringing this beloved poet (and her dog) to life on the stage. Bravo, Jeanne!

Things Forgotten

There’s a store in the mall selling
personalized engraved gifts
to remember every occasion.
Too bad there’s not a store
to help you forget
those moments
engraved on your brain:
that time in second grade
when the bully won and you ran away,
the slap in your daughter’s face
and the slam of the door when she left,
the thud of his head as it hit the windshield,
the look in your wife’s eyes
when she caught you in your naked deceit,
the words that still echo in your head
or the words you should have said,
the relentless pain she endured
that helped you decide at the end,
the hour just before dawn when you
relive the horrors again and again.
No need for fancy gifts—sandpaper
and a buffing wheel will do,
applied judiciously to remove
just enough letters to dull the pain
without losing their meaning,
just enough to let you sleep at night.

Originally published in Tipton Poetry Journal Issue #32 (see page 76). Read more here (click lower right corner to expand to full screen mode).

My First Booth

There I was, all alone, with just the power of my personality and my six published books, to fill that 10 x 10 foot booth for two whole days at the Tucson Festival of Books this past weekend. Fortunately for me, I had plenty of good company.

Award-winning author/illustrator Rita Goldner came by on Saturday morning to speak about her beautiful book Orangutan: A Day in the Rainforest Canopy and to demonstrate how to draw an orangutan’s head. 

There was also my alternate ego The Absurd Naturalist, who gave a brief reading of his essays “The Well-Equipped Naturalist” and “Ten Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Garden.” Like my new hat band?

 

 

 

Best of all were the many readers and book lovers and people who simply dropped by to say hello and wish me well. Turns out, I was never alone. Why, I even made a few sales. Thanks to all for making this first booth of The Twaronite Zone an event to long remember.

For those who couldn’t make it or are now maybe having second thoughts about not buying one of my books, you can still go to my online store above and purchase signed copies (or unsigned copies, if you prefer).

Explore New Worlds of Imagination

This banner for our booth #477 (The Twaronite Zone) at the Tucson Festival of Books says it all. If you’re in the area, please join us for a weekend of literary fun for the whole family. The festival will be held on the beautiful sunny mall of the University of Arizona, on March 11 and 12, from 9:30 am to 5:30 pm.

We have a number of activities planned, including a drawing demonstration by award-winning illustrator Rita Goldner, author of the picture book Orangutan: A Day in the Rainforest Canopy, readings by Gene Twaronite from his children’s book Dragon Daily News: Stories of Imagination for Children of All Ages and his first book of poetry Trash Picker on Mars as well as a visit from the Absurd Naturalist, fully equipped and dressed for a day in the field.

For those who can’t make it, you can purchase signed copies of my six books in my online store. Just click on store to enter.

As many of you have noticed, for personal reasons I am no longer on Facebook or Twitter. I would be much obliged if you would pass along this link to anyone who might be interested in following my writing.

Tucson Festival of Books

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our Tucson Festival of Books is now the third largest in the country. tucson festival of books  If you’re in town March 11 or 12, please join me in Booth 477 (The Twaronite Zone) on the sunny University of Arizona mall.

We have a number of events planned. On Saturday, from 10:30 am to 11:30 am, award-winning author and illustrator Rita Goldner will give a brief description of her new book Orangutan: A Day in the Rainforest Canopy and how it came to be, then lead an exercise on sketching a simple orangutan head. For young and old, age 4 to adult. Copies of her book will be available for purchase and signing.

Of course, I will also be doing some readings and performances from my six published books, including an appearance by the Absurd Naturalist himself, in full costume.

If you know anyone who’s visiting here that weekend and loves books, please pass along the word. The Tucson Festival of Books is our biggest event of the year and one not to be missed.

 

Free Universe

 

It was a nice space
as universes go—
everything was free there,
from love, will, and time
to lunch, radicals and verse.
But the cost was too dear,
it could not last,
as even the strong force
was freed of its role
and things flew apart.
They had a big sale
but no one came,
so they closed their doors
and blinked goodnight.

Originally published Jan. 2017 in Care, a special publication of the science fiction fan magazine Not One of Us

Things to Do Instead of Watching the Inauguration

 

Wondering what to do this Friday? Here are some thoughtful suggestions:

1.) Read a good book (Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin, for instance).

2.) Find someone who needs help and show that person a little kindness.

3.) Write something in more than 140 characters.

4.) Learn about a religion, philosophy, or culture other than your own.

5.) Engage in a conversation that doesn’t require a screen.

6.) Say something reasonable, honest, and true.

7.) Sit in a quiet room and see how long you can keep two opposing thoughts in your head … or three if you dare!

#THINGSTODOINSTEADOFWATCHINGINAUGURATION

 

How I Met Vonnegut or Goodbye Blue Monday

vonnegut

It was November 1990, back when I lived in Providence. A short, offhand blurb on page four of the local paper for which I wrote quietly announced that Kurt Vonnegut would be in town to address Brown University students at Alumnae Hall. “Check to see if any tickets remain,” said the article. Say what?!?

In exactly twenty-fours, one of the major writers of the twentieth century and my all-time hero was scheduled to appear at my very door. My chances of getting a ticket now were about as slim as finding a rent-controlled apartment in Trump Tower. Nonetheless, I ran like a bad rumor over to Brown—only to be told that all 600 tickets had been handed out a week ago, two tickets per Brown ID. It was shaping up to be blue Monday, indeed.

“Why don’t you just go over there and tell them you write for a local newspaper?” asked my wife in a cheery, optimistic voice. “There’s your ticket.”

Raising my head slowly out of a bowl of soggy corn flakes in which I was trying to drown myself, I looked at her and laughed. “Yeah, right. With hundreds of bigwig journalists there, from George Wills and Mark Patinkin to Hunter Thompson and, who knows, maybe Tom Wolfe, do you really think they’re going to let me in there? Don’t be absurd.”

“Got any better ideas?” asked Josie, in her gentle tone of why-did-I-marry-this-jerk sarcasm.

I did not. So I called the Brown News Bureau and introduced myself. “Hello, my name is Gene Twaronite and I write for The East Side Monthly. I’ve been assigned to write an article on the Vonnegut lecture. I was wondering if …”

“Who did you say you are?” asked the young woman. “Isn’t that the paper that runs all those disgusting sex ads?”

“No, that’s the other paper,” I reassured her. “We only run ads for poodles and politicians.”

“A press conference has been scheduled for three,” she said. “Just show your press card at the door. There will also be a section reserved for the media at tonight’s lecture.”

“I don’t have a press card. My publisher says they’re too expensive.”

“Are you sure you’re a writer?” she asked, like I was something from the bottom of a dumpster.

After a short enumeration of my writing credits and the promise that I would throw myself off the Point Street Bridge if I didn’t get to see Vonnegut, she reluctantly agreed to meet me later at the door. I will remember her kindness always.

Shortly before three, I was allowed to enter and ushered into the inner sanctum—a small side room of the Maddock Alumni Center. Furtively I looked around, still expecting someone to challenge my credentials. But the expected horde of media hounds had so far failed to materialize. There wasn’t even a podium or microphone in sight. Just a few dozen folding chairs set in front of an overstuffed pink chair in a corner near the window.

Journalists started trickling into the room, though none of them were from the NY Times or Newsweek. There were eighteen of us in all, many from student newspapers. Tom Wolfe was nowhere to be seen.

Expecting to get no closer than 500 feet, I had brought with me a 300 mm telephoto lens for my camera, which I hoped would also certify me as a bona fide journalist. I had also equipped myself with a crisp new first edition of Vonnegut’s latest novel Hocus Pocus. One never knows.

Suddenly, he appeared. Wearing a dark grey suit, tie, and V-neck sweater, he strode gracefully into the room like a wise, beloved professor and quietly took his seat. Then, as if addressing old friends, he began to talk in a soft, reassuring voice.

“I’ll be speaking six times this year, speaking in some strange places … though this isn’t one of them.”

Then he launched into his opening remarks about the deplorable state of the country today and how “we are miserably led.” As he warmed to his subject, the pace and intensity of his words picked up. He described the choice of Dan Quayle for vice-president as “a terrible insult to the American people.” Sitting back and crossing his legs, he reminded me of a less flamboyant Mark Twain. His hollow, slightly vacant eyes—eyes that had seen too much yet never enough of this crazy world—stared back at us with a mixture of mirth and madness, inviting us to join the party. “Life is fooling around.”

With the precise timing of a good comic, he fired off one extravagant remark after another, occasionally interspersing them with common sense observations revealing the intense humanism that fueled his cynicism.

“I can understand people wanting to be doctors or lawyers or teachers. But people who want to be managers, well … something is wrong with them.”

“Government’s a TV show.”

“The ideal government is an extended family.”

“I took my junior civics course in grade school very seriously.”

Asked by Providence Journal-Bulletin reporter Bob Kerr if “there is anyone you find particularly hopeful,” Vonnegut replied without hesitation. “Yes, the American people.”

Swallowing hard, I finally summoned the courage to ask my own question. “In your novel Galapagos, you raised the point that our brains may be too big for our own good. Do you …?”

He cut me off, delighted to be given this tangent, and went on to compare our brains to the ridiculously over-sized antlers of the extinct Irish elk. “Nature may have made a mistake.”

For a few more minutes, Vonnegut bantered with the media. He came to lecture, he told us, usually at the invitation of students, not faculty. He doubted if anyone from the English Department would be in attendance that night. To hear him tell it, he was a virtual nobody in the academic world. (This despite the fact that a seminar on his works was held by the Modern Language Association at its annual international convention back in 1975, where he was compared to such world class authors as Nabokov, Swift, and Twain. It was not the first or the last of such seminars)

Lost in sad reverie over one of his parting comments that “there were a lot of swell writers in the world who just weren’t ever going to be noticed,” I was caught by surprise when suddenly the author bolted out of his chair and began heading for the door. I remembered the book in my knapsack and lunged to intercept him.

He was almost home free, but I nabbed him just in time. “Mr. Vonnegut,” I asked in a timid voice. “This may seem tacky, but …would you mind signing my book?”

“Not at all,” he replied, staring at me with those wild, wonderful eyes of his. Then on the endpaper he made his famous scribble, complete with a certain orifice that some people mistake for a star.

That evening, having been told that press seats would be limited, I arrived at Alumnae Hall forty-five minutes early. I needn’t have worried. The first three rows on the left had been reserved for me and my fellow journalists. Being the first one there, I sat down in my privileged seat as the hall quickly filled to capacity and overflowed to the balcony and much of the floor.

Actually, the best seats in the house were reserved for the creative writing class. And sitting among the students, as if to nullify the author’s earlier prediction, were some unmistakably professorial types.

I was especially interested in hearing what Vonnegut had to say about how to be a writer. This time, there was a podium and even a blackboard. Right on time, he stepped up to the microphone and began to address the crowd with the same unpretentious grace as that afternoon.

He introduced himself as having been born of the last generation of novelists “whose brains were marinated in books.” He then told us that, if as some people claim, rock ‘n’ roll can cause suicides, he did not want anyone to read his latest book.

Commenting on the Voyager Spacecraft’s trip past the Outer Planets, the author displayed his scientific bias, proclaiming this “the most beautiful thing humans have ever done. Just think of it—we made that thing!”

For a while, he read animatedly from a prepared speech, which emphasized the darker side of his worldview. “We are swamped with bad news,” he reminded us, then ran through a checklist of his most deeply felt social and environmental issues, as if making sure we all knew he wasn’t just some flaky novelist.

He even slipped in a quick lesson on transcendental meditation, describing this state as like “scuba diving in warm bouillon.” Then he compared it to reading—“the meditative state of Western Society.”

Finally, he got around to the topic I’d been waiting for, though I really didn’t expect he’d have much to say. In his diverse collection of essays and stories, Wampeters, Foma & Grandfalloons, he wrote that “you can’t teach people to write well. Writing well is something God lets you do or declines to let you do. (This from an avowed atheist.)

He told us there are two main ways to support yourself as a writer: inherit money, or marry a rich person.

He then gave us one of his cardinal rules of revision—throw away the first three pages of any manuscript. It’s just needless introductory clutter.

Stepping to the blackboard, he began to draw graphs illustrating the curvature of various kinds of stories. He was always trying to bring much-needed science to English departments.

At the end of his lecture, commenting on the changing nature of student questions these days, he recalled that back when he was a young man on campus, when the world seemed to be in flames and Europe and Asia were on the verge of being swallowed up by Hitler, the burning question was: “Does penis size really matter?”

Whereas now the question he is asked most frequently is: “Do you use a word processor?” I detected a note of sadness in his voice.

So it goes.

(Author’s Note: An earlier version of this piece first appeared in East Side Monthly, Providence, RI.)