One of the fan mail comments I most enjoy receiving has to do with the places in which my novels are set. In most cases, that’s Cornwall, England, which is kind of my second home…at least in my heart. The comment is this: “I don’t need to go to Cornwall now; I feel I’ve already been there in your books.”
I may be a bit unusual among authors in this regard but to me the physical setting of a story is a central character: make it come alive and the reader becomes a companion of the other characters living in and responding to that vivid and often defining setting. That’s especially true in Cornwall, an ancient landscape full of history and wild natural beauty.
The wonderful nineteenth century English landscape painter, John Constable, once wrote: “We see nothing until we truly understand it.” This curious observation seems almost backward: you’d think a painter of landscapes would be focused on the visual. But Constable understood what many of us miss: that the underlying structure and shape of a landscape has a fundamental, even controlling effect on how we experience it.
Recently, and for the first time, I drove through the eastern half of Washington, my home state. Unlike the western half, which is lushly green and often misty, the eastern half, through which the mighty Columbia River flows, is arid. Except where it is irrigated, this is a world of barren sagelands and bizarre, towering volcanic cliffs. It is almost surreal. But what is it that makes it so utterly different from anywhere else in Washington State or, for that matter, the entire West?
The answer is: the most catastrophic flood in perhaps the earth’s entire history.
It happened during the last Ice Age, roughly fifteen thousand years ago. A glacier hundreds of feet high blocked what is now called the Clark Fork River and water backed up into Idaho and Montana. How much water? The lake—called Missoula Lake by geologists—was 200 miles long, 2,000 feet deep, and held 500 cubic miles of water. That’s more than several of today’s Great Lakes.
Then the dam broke.
In the span of what is estimated to be only 48 hours all of that water raced west and south, between 17 and 60 cubic kilometers of water per hour at a speed of up to 80 miles per hour. It ripped through eastern Washington tearing up the landscape, stripping away topsoil, digging valleys hundreds of feet deep, exposing massive cliffs of volcanic basalt, and hurtling house-sized boulders all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Portland, Oregon, for example, would have been under 400 feet of water had it existed then. Geologists now speculate that this catastrophe occurred not once but several times, utterly reshaping and gouging out a landscape that today consists of deep, bone-dry valleys bounded by cliffs of columnar basaltic rock (which look like the pipes of a church organ), dry waterfalls hundreds of feet deep, and vast areas that look like the ripples in a sand bar, except those ripples are thirty or more feet high and run for miles.
In much of the rest of the world, the history of the landscape is hidden beneath layers of soil and thick vegetation…but not in Eastern Washington. There, the earth remains naked, the unimaginable destruction on full view. Driving through it, awestruck at every turn, I wished I could have been there to see the spectacle…but of course I’d have been killed in moments, as was every other living thing that had the misfortune of being in the way.
Pictures are said to be worth a thousand words, but the pictures of this landscape today beggar description and cannot hope to capture the sheer scale of this epic destruction. Here are some links to give you a sense of the catastrophe wreaked by this event. The landscape is tortured; it is nearly beyond comprehension.
So today, at home, look around the landscape where you live and remember what Constable said: “We see nothing until we truly understand it.”
What story does your home landscape tell?
It’s that time of year again when people all over America celebrate the Fourth of July and, for the most part, have no idea why. It’s official name is Independence Day, and that should be a clue, but the significance of that name seems largely to have been forgotten by those bent over charcoal grills searing hamburgers and hot dogs and waiting for the fireworks to begin.
Here on the island in Puget Sound where I live there is a fireworks display so spectacular that it rivals the Macy’s show in New York City. Unofficially here we call it “Scare the Bejesus Out of Animals Day.” This is a largely rural island full of animals and they are not avid celebrants of our nation’s Declaration of Independence: Dogs (universally terrified); cats (pay no attention at all); horses (who assume there’s a war going on nearby and fear being pressed into service as of old); sheep (too dumb to notice), goats (too smart to care), cows (who just keep on placidly chewing, though their milk curdles); llamas (who wish they were back in the remote and quiet Andes); chickens (who run around idiotically even when there are no fireworks)…and so on.
The connection between declaring our independence back in 1776 and blowing things up has never been very clear to me, so I looked it up. It turns out this is all the fault of Founding Father John Adams. You have to remember that blowing things up is a revered tradition in England. Rebels and dissidents just like our own tried to blow up the English Parliament only a century and a half earlier.
The declaration was approved on July second but not formally signed until the fourth. In a July third letter to his wife, Abigail, Adams proclaimed that:
"I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival…It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more."
Of course, Adams, who became our second president, had no idea what the rest of the “continent” involved; he only represented thirteen colonies claiming now to be states independent of Britain. Can you imagine the reaction when the many Native tribes occupying the rest of the continent got the email about the declaration and the celebration? They’re sitting around a fire having dinner when the news arrives, and a chief says, “Guys, I don’t think this is good news, you know?”
Much grumbling follows. Another chief says, “Look, these are people who are believers in the Age of Enlightenment—you know, Descartes, Locke, Hume, Adam Smith. I don’t see a problem.”
“May I repeat, my friend, that these are people who like to seize land and blow things up?”
Memorial Day is, of course, the occasion upon which we honor those who have given their lives to ensure our freedom as a people and protect our independence and strength as a nation.
But it’s not just a remembrance day, as solemn as that is. It is also the official beginning of…
…you thought I’d say summer, right? Well, okay, you’re close, but nope. Memorial Day officially opens the season wherein men can bring their white bucks out of winter shoe hibernation and don them at last without fear of opprobrium. This is a cause for celebration in certain circles.
White bucks may only be worn between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Nobody has ever been able to explain why this season should be bounded by holidays commemorating fallen heroes and the labor movement, but there you are. It’s a mystery, but a mystery assiduously heeded by those of us who actually own white bucks.
Yes, I am one of them. Mine are actually white buck wingtips, with those odd little holes in a pattern on the leather. Very spiffy. They’re sort of “dress bucks.” But they are not just for formal summer occasions—lawn parties, croquet, and the like, for example. Oh no. They’re for everyday enjoyment.
There are a few rules, naturally, for something as significant as this. For example, one does not wear socks with white bucks. Never. Wear them barefoot with old worn bluejeans, or freshly-pressed khakis. But not shorts. Shorts are for schoolboys, not grown men. Wear them with your cream-colored lined suit (any man worth having has one), or even beneath light gray trousers and a double-breasted navy blue blazer. And if you live somewhere between Atlanta and New Orleans (but no further north), a seersucker suit. Texas does not count because in that benighted state, men still wear white patent shoes in summer, with matching white patent belt. With some cow’s head on the buckle. This is one persuasive reason (one of many) to encourage Texas to become an independent nation.
I confess that white bucks are mostly an East Coast passion (I hesitate to say “affectation”). Here in the Pacific Northwest where I now live, white bucks are ill-understood. And for good reason: it rains here a lot, even in summer, and rain splatter would be so unfair to the bucks. You can almost sense them wince if you open the door to showers. They are sun lovers.
So there you have it: the rules for wearing summer white bucks. Gentlemen, take heed. Ladies, slip this missive to your guy. And if you live in the Northwest, tell him to take his muck boots off first!
It is a very old, very lame joke you will remember (sadly) from elementary school: “If April showers bring May flowers, what do May flowers bring?” (Answer: Pilgrims!) I know. Stupid, but cute.
But “May flowers” hold a very specific and wonderful memory for me.
A little over a decade ago, I went out for a walk. In England. It took three and a half months and I covered between 1200 to 1400 miles, solo. It was magical and it changed me forever. But that’s not the point of this story.
One day, about a week into my walk, I was loping along a footpath beaten into the top of the Berkshire Downs high above the valley of the River Thames. It is called “The Ridgeway” because that is exactly what it is: a footpath that runs for hundreds of miles along the ridge of a limestone escarpment that runs almost to England’s east coast. It has been in continuous use by walkers for more than 5,000 years. Why? Because, being high, it was safer and easier to navigate than the thickly-choked wooded valleys below.
It was mid-May as I traversed the Ridgeway. And May in England is a special month (I shall refrain from relating the pagan origins of “dancing around the May pole…”): it is the month the “May tree” blooms. “May tree?” I’d never heard of it. What is it? It is the lowly hawthorn. The trees and, of course, those wonderfully green hedgerows dividing English fields (hawthorn is the principal component shrub) burst every May into frothy and incredibly fragrant white blossoms so abundant you feel like you are walking down a flower-strewn church aisle and about to be married.
So I was striding through this lovely scene when, suddenly and right above me, a bird began to sing. And the song was so melodic and so complex that I was transfixed. I stood stock still, turned on my little pocket recorder, and taped it for minutes on end. I’m not a “birder,” but I had never before heard this song. I never saw the bird; it was deep in the blossoms. But I never forgot it.
Then, just a week ago, while driving and listening to the radio, I heard the bird again…at the end of Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird.” And that’s what it was. The English blackbird, unlike the American version, is a prolific singer. And it loves hawthorn hedges. Oh, by the way, McCartney has often said that the song and the word—“blackbird”—refers to black women fighting for justice in America in the 1960s…
Here’s the real song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=997RTKzc39c
May spring bring you birdsong…
“April is the cruelest month…”
That would be my kid sister quoting T.S. Eliot in between her curses this spring. She lives north of New York City and received eight inches of snow on Easter Sunday. And that was after three epic snowstorms in a row. Talk about cruel… Of course Easter also coincided with April Fool’s Day this year, so it might just have been some sort of cosmic joke.
And speaking of jokes, I was born on Good Friday. I am not making this up because, all in all, this has not been a good thing. Good Friday, you may remember from Sunday School, was the day Jesus was crucified. I don’t mean to be sacrilegious or anything, but I’m guessing Jesus didn’t think it was a particularly Good Day. I’m not so sure that my first day was a good day, either. Unlike Jesus, however, I didn’t suffer way back then, as near as I can recall…which is not “near” at all because, you know, I was only just born. But I have been suffering ever since (get out your hankies). My sainted mother took some sort of strange pride in reminding me often that that was the day I was born. She also raised me to be a gentleman. This, it seems to me now, was a sort of double whammy of a curse: Good Friday plus gentleman. It is, pardon the expression, a heavy cross to bear.
Seriously, what good does being good actually get you? This has been a mystery to me. For example, back in high school the good girls always fell for the bad boys, like it was somehow ordained. It just didn’t seem fair. My childhood sweetheart (the first woman I got in trouble with, having been caught kissing her behind the tropical fish tank in kindergarten when it was supposed to be nap time) fell for a bad boy in high school. Well of course she did. He was, after all, handsome and sleekly Italian while I was almost six and a half feet tall and so skinny I could turn sideways and disappear. I’ve tried to put that all behind me (and she and I have been lifelong dear friends), but as I recall they were the King and the Queen of the Senior Prom (happily, years later, she married the most hopelessly good guy I’ve ever known and they’ve lived happily ever after).
So here we are today, many decades later, and the curse persists. See, if you still feel compelled to be a “good boy,” you tend to DO things for people. It’s like a reflex. It doesn’t even rise to conscious thought. But it is problematic. If, for example, you grew up in a New York apartment building with a building superintendent who got all the broken stuff fixed, you developed absolutely no useful skills of your own. None. So DOING things for others, especially women you may be trying to impress, almost always ends in humiliation. Fall off a ladder with a full can of paint in one hand while trying to look useful and you’ll know what I mean. Hopeless.
But not in fiction! In fiction, see, good guys sometimes win. Not often, I’ll grant you, but sometimes. I’ve received any number of letters from female readers of my more romantic novels that claim my male lead characters are “too good.” They pitch in when there is a problem or a crisis. They don’t give up. They take risks for love. They can be depended upon. And to be honest, I feel sorry for these readers, because there are real men out there you can count on. Maybe not a lot; I don’t know. But they’re genuine. Sometimes you have to look under a rock.
Ah, but there is a curse within the curse, and here I want to be serious for just a moment. This is important. What I’ve learned…and it’s taken a very long time…is that if you are a chronic helper, the guy who rides in on the white horse, what it really does is weaken, not save, the person you most want to help, often the person you most love. You are effectively sending a signal that the other person is somehow unable to get it done, or get it done right. Ultimately, this is crippling in a relationship.
So I am still hoping for someone to give me bad boy lessons…