Tag Archives: Bear River Writers Conference

WHAT’S LIGHTING US UP: KEITH TAYLOR’S GLADNESS

I WAS A FAN of Keith Taylor’s nature essays and poetry for years before we met, so it’s probably not surprising that I liked him from the first time we shook hands. It was at the first Bear River Writers Conference, on Walloon Lake, Michigan, in 2000, and I liked him so much that I decided we would be friends for life, whether he wanted it or not.

We’ve been pals ever since, and my appreciation for his work just grows stronger. Every Keith Taylor book is extraordinary for its openness, candor, and clarity, and his observations are always sharp and fresh. Consider this, from his new chapbook, Fidelities:

GREEN LIGHT

just for a few weeks, from full summer

into September, on quiet days,

warm, humid but not hot—and the light

above the river turns green, like leaves,

reeds, water weeds or water itself

on its gently inexorable

slide through hills to the blue lakes beyond.

 

Keith travels widely, reads everything, and is one of those people who thinks deeply about the world and our place in it, so I’m always interested in what’s on his mind. I asked him to tell us what he’s been enthusiastic about lately, and his response is pure Taylor:

Oh, I wanted it to be something big! A big book that I could feel was changing my life even as I read it. Proust or Wittgenstein or something! Or something cool out there in the popular culture—a song, a movie, hell, I’d settle for a television show—so I could establish some kind of cultural cred. Or an adventure, undertaken or just planned. Australia, maybe. South Africa. Uzbekistan. Somewhere. Or a poem, one of those that came out of nowhere and just picked up the world, moved it a quarter of an inch, and changed everything (“We must have/the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless/furnace of this world.” Jack Gilbert, “A Brief for the Defense.”). I wanted it to be my rage at oppression and prejudice, but this week I just feel tired. I’m sorry. I’ll be outraged by something next week, I’m sure.

But, no, all I got was one tiny little bird, barely two inches long in a beat-up city park next to a freeway and a factory. A Northern Parula Warbler. A blue-gray back broken around the shoulders by a greenish haze. Two shades of yellow on the upper breast separated by a deep orangish/red band. The lower belly a pure white. It’s song some musical chips followed by a buzzing call. You can see and hear it here: http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Northern_Parula/id.

Northern Parula

Northern Parula

It landed just above my head in an invasive honey-suckle early Monday morning, just before a rain shower. It was on it’s way from somewhere in the tropics to its breeding range in the Upper Peninsula or north of Superior. It sang and sang, right into the rain. I had to leave and it was still singing.

And its light has filled me for the past two days. I’m sorry but that’s it. One little bird I saw when I was alone.

—Keith Taylor’s most recent chapbook is Fidelities: A Chronology (http://www.alicegreene.com/publications/fidelities-a-chronology/). He teaches a little at the University of Michigan.

 

GETTING THE SENSE OF A PLACE: A GLIMPSE OF NORTHERN MICHIGAN

Today I’m thinking ahead to the University of Michigan’s Bear River Writer’s Conference on Walloon Lake, near Petoskey, Michigan, which will be held May 28-June 1. This is among the finest writing conferences in the country, and I’m pleased to have taught workshops at it every year except one since its inauguration in 2000. Our special guest this year will be the esteemed poet, Stephen Dunn. He’ll join director Keith Taylor and a terrific array of faculty members for five days of hard work, abundant inspiration, great fun, and pretty darned good food. I look forward to it every year.

My workshop will focus on writing about place, so I thought it might be helpful for those who are working with me (and for anyone else who’s interested), to read some of my thoughts on the subject. This is from my book, The Windward Shore, from the chapter “Home Place”:

Getting to know a place is a lot like getting to know a person. As we become acquainted with someone we discover their quiddity, the totality of qualities that define them. Personality is never revealed in just one characteristic, but in their entire being, from the words they say and the way they say them, to the scent of their body, to their manner of walking, to that indescribable but palpable spirit or aura that becomes apparent only when you know someone intimately. Many have wondered if this package of qualities is what we mean when we talk about the soul.

A place, too, has quiddity, or what the ancients called genius loci. It is what people usually have in mind when they talk about the spirit of a place. Many cultures have legends of genii, animated spirits that inhabit specific hills,creeks, and valleys. We’re familiar with the word as the root of “congeniality”—that sense of well-being and welcome we feel when we arrive in a place that seems convivial to us. Find enough congeniality there and you’re likely to say it feels like home.

The spirit is in the details. In language, meaning builds gradually, letter by letter, word by word, but no word exists in isolation. Each is an organism surrounded by communities of association, memory, rootstock. Likewise with a place. Taken alone, every snowflake, cloud, goldenrod, and meadow vole is just itself. Together, in their entwined relationship, they add up to a greater meaning: the fingerprint of the place, its character, its spirit. Every house,stone, tree, the wind, signature scents and colors, the angle and intensity of sunlight, the rain and snow, the songs of birds and insects, the hum of automobile traffic and roar of surf—all add up to make a place itself, unlike any other. They create its fingerprint.

To borrow a word from my vintner neighbors: a place has terroir. Another word applies: autochthony, from the Greek for “of the land” or “emerging from the soil,” and suggesting deep involvement of the sort that results only after we have lived and worked in a place long enough to know it profoundly. Its history entwines with our own until they’re inseparable. When you walk the land, you see stories from your own life blended with it. There is the yard maple I pruned too late one fall, so that the sap poured from it in February. There is the low ground in Martha’s field, where one wet spring a five-acre pond formed, inspiring 12-year-old Nick and his buddy Dan Linsell to haul the red canoe down from the rafters in our garage,portage it across the driveway, and set off paddling downwind on the new lake.When we become involved in a place we feel rooted to it and connected to the other people who live there and who lived there previously and will live thereafter we are gone. We care about it. We will defend it.

Once you recognize what makes a place unique, it is unmistakable. You could be blindfolded, spun around, and led to the backyard of a home you have not seen in years, and the moment the blindfold is removed you would know where you were. You would know it by a conjoining of sensory perceptions too subtle for language, all working together to give the “feeling” of the place…

(From The Windward Shore: A Winter on the Great Lakes, University of Michigan Press, 2011)