This morning I found this deceased dragonfly tucked away in this clivia, and I’m reminded of the poem “Design” by Robert Frost.
I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth--
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
Like the ingredients of a witches' broth--
A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.
What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?--
If design govern in a thing so small.
As I reread the second to last line of the Frost poem, I wonder why he thinks that the possibility of design that governs things so small is “dark” and “appalling”? I would think in his time, he’d think it was divine.
However, I’m not a proponent of the religious concept of intelligent design. Rather, I think that the earth’s stunning atmosphere and life forms came about by cells mindlessly dividing and multiplying over and over and over, failing constantly, until different things succeed. I think all this beauty and design is the result of infinite attempts at life– the result of chance– which eventually develops patterns that create life. Therefore, I don’t see chance and chaos as the enemy of order (as many seem to think — and as is often proposed in wonderful works of fiction like Gaiman’s The Sandman, as I discuss in my post, The Sandman: Allegory and Anthropocentrism. Rather, it’s chance and chaos are the zing of life– the thing that causes new life, new orders.
So, I’d like to substitute the words:
What brought the kindred dragonfly to this scene
then steered it into matching wings of green?
What but chance sublime,
If chance result in a thing so designed?
One of the joys of writing is how it connects you to other people. The discussions we have in my writing group are deep, thoughtful, and caring. My publisher, Stephanie Larkin, of Emperor Books is a constant source of encouragement and energy.
However, figuring out how to design and promote the book has been less fun. It requires a lot of cold-calling and asking for attention, which can feel shameful.
One unexpected joy of publishing came with the cover design of Against the Grain.
I had to reach out to people who live or lived in Northern California to find images, and I ended up having warm exchanges where they introduced me to other people.
That was how I happened upon Brian Maebius, who designed the cover for the hardcover version above. I’ll tell you later how I nearly drove Stephanie crazy with our paperback cover design, which is also beautiful. I offered to pay Brian, but he refused. Such is the devotion redwoods inspire. And such are the people who love them.
It was a community that connected like the mycorrhizae connect the trees underground. It’s hard to explain how much this means to me, especially as our country seems to be coming apart at the seams. Here, in his own words is why he did it.
“I attended a graduate program in Scientific Illustration at UC Santa Cruz in 2000-01 (The program is now part of CSU Monterey Bay. My wife and I rented a small cabin surrounded by redwoods in Lompico, near Felton, CA, a short drive to Santa Cruz campus. It was such a neat experience with the misty fog, salamanders, banana slugs, trillium, ferns and towering trees. We had to climb 150 stairs up the hillside from our parking spot near the creek to get to the cabin. I’m always happy to contribute to any author/artist that promotes conservation of such a unique ecosystem like the coastal redwoods.
We have a related tree in the Texas Hill Country. The bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) is closely related to Montezuma cypress in Mexico. It grows along the rivers and creeks around Dripping Springs. Some are 800 years or older. I’ve planted quite a few in the grotto and along the creek on our property. They’re not quite as tall as coastal redwoods, but they should reach 120 feet one day! Another fascinating and related tree is the Dawn redwood, Metasequoia, rediscovered in China in the 1940s, and previously known from Cretaceous fossil record.”
Now is the time
when earth cracks her skirt like a whip
and sends her dress up in flames
The place where she strips down to her bones
and dances fiercely with the stars
Where instead of bundling up against bitterness
she throws down her ashen cloak
and covers ground with softness
as air-akin as moth.
Where she turns her naked face
to the outer dark
seared by stars and eyes
of owls with sight so keen
no mouse is safe
in its warmest, most secret,
most carefully padded nest
Where all the labor of harvest comes to naught
and death flies on furred wings across
to grinning, starry heights
Where she pauses to sing among bare barked trees
that glow brown as dove breasts,
and mauve as dusk,
“It has ended! It has ended!”
Then she rests, mute and hard, seemingly for eternity
before she has to put her shoulder back
to the sun-warmed, moss covered,
millstone of life.
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Lately, I’ve been writing and reading realistic stories with a hint of guilt. Why guilt, you may ask?
Because I’ve been a staunch defender of the literary merit of fantasy, sci-fi, and magic realism, and because my turn to realism in middle age is accompanied by a bit of skepticism about the paranormal and a bit of boredom with its fiction, even as these genres are gaining status in the publishing world and as writers are beginning to blur genres with greater effect and fewer apologies.
In a recent interview with the New York Times Book Review, Samantha Hunt said: “’Magic’ is a tricky word. It separates the unexplainable from our daily experience. Yet eyeballs, snowflakes, quantum physics and birth (along with many other things), are magical and habitual. I prefer the word ‘science.’ I like to write about wonder found in the ordinary.”
Basically, she’s saying, reality is so amazing that she uses the concept of magic to call attention to it. That’s sort of what I do—use magic to externalize emotional, psychological, physical, and spiritual truths – make metaphor materially (or at least verbally) manifest.
But while I agree with Hunt that molecular structure is wonder-inducing, calling into question, as it does, the nature of solidity, I disagree that science equals the magic or the miraculous. The words “magic,” “supernatural” and “miraculous” specifically mean that which is beyond nature – that which has no rational explanation.
So why do we keep using it in fiction if what we are really talking about is our perception of reality? Why, in the wonderful featured story, “The Thing In the Walls Wants Your Small Change,” does author Virginia M Mohlere use the tiny dragon to symbolize the main character’s need to let her own inner monster out to fight the very real monster of her abusive, alcoholic mother? Why didn’t she just write a realistic story about that? Wouldn’t that be more complex to have the character fight her own battle, thus inviting the question of whether it’s right to fight violence with violence?
I don’t know if I can answer that question, but I’ll try: the tiny dragon is a more delightful, more beautiful, more loving solution to rancid reality. The dragon is allowed to be an animal. It’s right and correct for the dragon to bite and scratch the mother—because it is acting in accordance with its true nature, whereas it would be wrong for the narrator to do that because humans are supposed to transcend their basic nature, to transcend violence. The dragon construct, therefore, allows us to have both. It allows us to deal with a heavy subject in a light way.
But, at the risk of offending, I wonder when approaching my own writing on this score, if I’m dodging the difficult. If one goes much further down this road one might conclude, as some do, that all of fiction is a contrivance, and that only “real stories” are worth reading. Is there something wrong with relying on a construct? Is a construct the same as a contrivance?
Ursula Le Guin, in her essay, “The Critics, The Monsters and the Fantasists,” would object to this line of questioning. She says, to assert that fantasy is mere metaphor or allegory is to reduce it and negate its primary power, which is to point us outside the box of quotidian life, which she sees, I think, as an inherently good activity because it opens us up to tolerance for difference and to imagining a better life.
Of course, we all know how subjective reality can be. And we’ve all heard the adage that fiction (good fiction anyway), is truer than truth.
I remain conflicted and curious about this issue, and ultimately, I think the world takes all kinds of fiction and needs all kinds. After all, there isn’t just one version or a willow, but thousands, and new ones crossbreeding every day.
We stood on the shore of Schroon Lake after the sun had set. A fingernail moon and a single star hovered above Adirondack foothills. Up the bank, toward the house, a three piece band played Django Reinhart-like jazz, the kind of quick upbeat notes that make you dance in spite of yourself. I had come down to the shore in search of my husband and found him talking and walking with man with a cloud of white hair. I could barely see the man’s face in the dusk, only the faint glint of glasses.
It had been humid day, but as soon as the sun went down, a breeze began to blow off the lake, sweeping upland and inland, cooling our brows, stirring our hair, reminding us of the luxury of skin.
He told us he lived in the woods and loved being surrounded by the trees, but missed this kind of view, gesturing to the broad sheet of water and the mountains beyond.
Together we tried to name of the star above the moon. Venus? Mars? He said he had little telescope that he could see the moons of Jupiter with. “That’s how Galileo figured out we were circling the sun. He saw the moons circling the planet.” He smiled as he told us this, and we nodded, taking it in. The breeze blew.
My husband said he just couldn’t get his mind around the idea infinity. It hurt his brain.
I couldn’t imagine anything but infinity. If the universe stopped somewhere, there would have to be nothing after it. “How could that be?” I asked. In nature there is no such thing as nothing. My husband and the man nodded and smiled. We looked up at the sky. The moon sank closer to the hill. The breeze blew.
He lived in Malone, up near Canada, a small town struggling since its businesses had left America, a shoe business and something else. Like many small towns, it had accepted the building of three prisons. They provided a few jobs, but nothing else.
He was a painter and owned a gallery in the town. He wanted to do some work with the inmates, but the warden didn’t like the idea.
He told us about a man he’d known, who had once worked for Sunmount—an institution for the developmentally disabled in Tupper Lake, where a staffer was allegedly stabbed in the eye with a fork and three other staffers were recently found guilty of abusing residents.
Sometime in the 90s, there was an escape attempt, and the man was run over by the escape vehicle. He was awarded only a 20 thousand dollar settlement, though he had to stop working and was hobbled for the life.
He could have spent it on a chair lift or a new car. Maybe he should have used it to pay off a few bills. It might have been wise to invest for the future. Instead, he spent the entire settlement on a powerful telescope with a computer attached that would give him a view of the universe. Our new friend said, “He used to invite a bunch of us over all the time to look through it. We could see suns rotating in the nebulae.”
I’d always wondered whether those pictures of prismatic nebulae swirling in stellar winds were real, yet this man had seen them with his own eye because a crippled man had helped him to.
Tourmaline sky resolved into black, and the light of long lost stars parted the darkness at a million points.
“He used to say the telescope was too big not to share.”
Standing on the shore of that shimmering lake, looking up at the sky, while the wind brushed us clean, we shared a moment of limitlessness.