April 1 marks the end of Women’s History Month and beginning of Earth Month, two brief annual periods in which we highlight and celebrate the sources of all life. All through March, I wanted to compile a list of women who’ve made history running rivers. But I stopped each time. Why only a month? I asked. Why can’t March—and all months—be about a thing called The People’s History? How amazing we’d feel as a body united, not splintered into factions we observe according to Presidential designation.
But this is where we are. Our purposeful light on Women’s History in March and other majorities in other months continues to grow our awareness—Black History in February, for instance, Asian Pacific History in May, National Hispanic History in September, Native American Heritage in November. Recognizing all the colors and genders of our national rainbow shouldn’t be necessary. Yet it is.
So in all my prevaricating about Women’s History I came up empty, but here we are in April, the time for Earth.
This being the H20 blog, I pulled together the names of women writers of nature (and water and rivers) whose work I found or rediscovered during the last twelve months. Those have been our pandemic months, for me an especially prolific reading time. My list doesn’t include many names that often land on such lists (for instance, those in this account of “lady” nature writers on Sierra online, although it’s a thoughtful list). Authors Terry Tempest Williams aren’t here, or Barbara Kingsolver, Ellen Meloy, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Kathleen Dean Moore, and Rebecca Solnit. These are women whose deep writing on environment, nature, conservation, and the earth community I know and admire.
Instead this list includes names of authors I haven’t often seen elevated nationally. They should be.
My gratitude to them for making a difference for our earth with their lives and words, helping us see humanity, land, and water in fresh ways. They bring attention to our gorgeous, green, imperiled planet through their dedicated work. Check them out!
Chelsea Bieker’s Godshot (Catapult, 2020) reached me last year on Mother’s Day. My daughter Rose McMackin, a fine writer to watch on culture and other natural phenomena, had sent it. Rose wrote that Bieker’s is a mother-daughter tale, probably a great read for the occasion. And Godshot is—a lost mother, a searching daughter, a coming-of-age story in times of drought and disillusionment. What I didn’t know before I dove into this debut novel was that it’s also a fresh take on the perils of community life in times of drought. Set in post-agricultural Fresno, Godshot gives us a bold look at life in our changing landscape, one informed by Bieker’s own youth in the Central Valley of California.
For now the reservoirs and canals were empty basins, home to deflated soccer balls and broken glass bottles and the skeletons of birds that I imagined had died in flight, too hot and thirsty to go on. I passed where the row crops and orchards used to be, now a flat brown stretch, vegetation nowhere. Then came Old Canal Road, our main street, where every year there was a raisin parade to celebrate our bounty. Men in huge raisin costumes pumped their white-gloved hands, their chunky gold cross necklaces moving in the sun . . . I had heard that this year there wouldn’t be a parade because who wanted to rejoice over a failed harvest?
— from Chapter Two, Godshot
Now a nominee for the Ken Kesey Award for the Novel at the Oregon Book Awards, Godshot’s readership will continue to grow. It should—it’s an original look at arid lands, thirsty people, and the California dream turned nightmare.
Courageous writer, clear indigenous voice, and generous teacher, CMarie Fuhrman produces essays and poems of beauty and insight. The anthology she co-edited with scholar and writer Dean Rader, Native Voices: Indigenous Poetry, Conversation, and Craft (Tupelo Press, 2019), is a stunning collection of the work of other indigenous writers. I met CMarie in Montana when she was taking a single class with a terrific mentor we share, John P. O’Grady. Later she went on to earn her MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Idaho, publish her growing numbers of essays, and win numerous honors and awards. When CMarie and I met again in 2019, she was serving as Project Coordinator for Indigenous Knowledge for Effective Education Program (IKEEP) at the U of I, a program that works toward culturally responsive education of native students. Important work and long needed.
Of writing and revising our words on the page for truth, CMarie blogs at the Hugo House website about an essay she thought would be about climate change. Then the work took her not only through meadows and on trails that she loved but also into losses she’d suffered and “being left behind.” She finds the right specificity in nature and life and quotes beloved writer and teacher Debra Gwartney:
As Debra Gwartney writes, “Specificity? Yes, but only if it is relevant.” (This, by the way, is the title of the essay.) Don’t add roads (images, ideas, details) that distract your reader or make them wonder what might be waiting for them down a different route.
—from “What I Am Trying to Say”
And CMarie tells us how to do it by following our guts.
. . . unless you are a journalist or really good at writing toward an outcome, you should never write toward an outcome. Find the moment that sparks, that calls you to write, and begin. Let the words and images take you away. Keep the editor locked up, follow the music, the image, your gut. / We can bring mind and editor back later, but the first draft should be an account of a ride down a river, you cannot see what is ahead until you go around the first bend . . .
—from “What I Am Trying to Say”
Check in as CMarie curates the prose of others as nonfiction editor at High Desert Journal. A perfect role for this woman of the mountains, deserts, and rivers.
True, Chickasaw poet Linda Hogan is a well-known national voice, but I hadn’t read her enough until Torrey House Press published her gorgeous A History of Kindness in 2020. I read this searing, beautiful book most mornings last summer and fall before sitting down to put my own words on paper. Of Hogan’s poems, I can only say she makes translating nature, loss, and hope to the page look easy. She’s been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award and the deserving recipient of several major awards, including Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships.
You never know when something, man, storm
sea creature, a great wind of the sky
might take you to some other shore,
cough you up and drop you down
on new land, into a new story.
Once you were a prophet king.
Now you wear sackcloth and ash.
Of A History of Kindness, Booklist writes, “Hogan remains awed and humble in this sweetly embracing, plangent book of grateful, sorrowful, tender poems wed to the scarred body and ravaged Earth.” May this timely, powerful collection earn Hogan more money, prizes, and kudos, continuing to feed this tender, fierce voice.
A long-time writer of land, rivers, and life, former river guide Moira Magneson has published verse in regional and national anthologies and journals. A chapbook of her poetry, He Drank Because, was published by Rattlesnake Press and to my mind should have wider distribution. Search for her online and you’ll see her name come up as beloved instructor of new poets, tireless advocate for other writers, and champion of the spoken word. Everything I’ve ever read of Moira’s I’ve loved—the first was a found poem on her sis-in-law Robin’s refrigerator. “Wow, that’s good,” I said, after reading the page tacked with a magnet among Robin’s photos and lists. She smiled and replied, “It’s Moira’s.”
Presented in clear, loving detail, Moira’s view of the world is sharp, smart, and original. Her homage to her brother-in-law and river icon Bill Center moved us all at his 2017 memorial service. Dick Linford and Bob Volpert published Moira’s plainsong from that day in Halfway to Halfway and Back: More River Stories (Halfway Publishing, 2018) and I’m glad they did. A short excerpt, with internal rhyme and an eternal question:
Woodpecker, river, shambling bear
bobcat, black oak, flea-fested lair, star-thistle,
poppies, switchback of wind—
all call you kin—where did you go?
—from “Plainsong for a River Man“
And here’s a perspective of mortality and the universe seen while taking out the trash with her husband:
We pause to look at the moon.
Her round cheeks. A star or two
bright and glittering on the dark periphery.
We’ve been doing this walk together
for years. And years to come quite likely.
Then we’ll stop. One before the other.
—from “Garbage Walk,” Verse Daily
The universal in the tiny and familiar. Moira does it with water and rivers as well. Many of us are longing to see more soon from this dedicated poet and river woman.
Lulu Miller is well known as cofounder of NPR’s Invisibilia podcast. I didn’t know her work, though, until I found her nonfiction debut, Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life (Simon & Schuster, 2020) among my local bookseller’s recommendations. In Fish, Miller tells the story of David Starr Jordan, 19th-century scientist and first President of Stanford University. The fate of his aquatic creature collection hit hard by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake anchors the tale.
Jordan’s life is fascinating, but it’s Miller’s own dark story of loss and survival that makes her book so unputdownable. Her struggle with whether to go on living is harrowing, touching, and full of twists we don’t want her to take. She sees humans and our hubris all too clearly:
Animals can outperform humans on nearly every measure supposedly associated with our superiority. There are crows that have better memories than us, chimps with better pattern-recognition skills, ants that rescue their wounded, and blood flukes with higher rates of monogamy. When you actually examine the range of life on Earth, it takes a lot of acrobatics to sort it into a single hierarchy with humans at the top. We don’t have the biggest brain or the best memory. We’re not the fastest or the strongest or the most prolific. We’re not the only ones that mate for life, that show altruism, use tools, language. We don’t have the most copies of genes in circulation. We aren’t even the newest creation on the block.
—from Why Fish Don’t Exist
In coming to terms with nature and humanity, Fish reveals Jordan’s—and Miller’s—dramatic story a piece at a time. She’s “a master of the breezy prose vernacular of the American podcast where ordinary language is plenty good enough to set out life’s biggest questions.” —The National Book Review
“It’s always nice to hear from fellow Ellen Meloy grantees!” Terrain.org Interviews Editor Melissa Sevigny emailed last month. I’d reached out to her for the first time since her Meloy-winning proposal went on to become the celebrated book about the imagined Buenaventura River, Mythical River: Chasing the Mirage of New Water in the American Southwest (University of Iowa Press, 2016). Sevigny’s excellent science, history, and political journalism have won many prizes since, including the Edward R. Murrow Award for Excellence in Writing and the Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Gold Prize for Adventure Travel Writing. Check out her Terrain.org interviews, beginning with “Haunted by the Wilderness” about author and editor D.J. Lee.
When I found Sevigny’s essay on early Grand Canyon explorers Elzada Clover and Lois Jotter in the Atavist Magazine in the Atavist Magazine in 2019, I cheered. Finally, the hardy botanists and pioneering Canyon women brought to life. They’d always been relegated to a dusty corner of history, two fading faces in my beat-up waterproof map and guidebook.
Unnamed sources told reporters that the two women in the crew were “one of the hazards, as they are ‘so much baggage’ and would probably need help in an emergency.” They were scientists—botanists, to be precise. “So they’re looking for flowers and Indian caves,” a river runner said. “Well, I don’t know about that, but I do know they’ll find a peck of trouble before they get through.” / In fact, Elzada Clover and Lois Jotter had come from Michigan with much hardier plants in mind. Tucked into side canyons, braving what Jotter called “barren and hellish” conditions, were tough, spiny things: species of cactus that no one had ever catalogued before. Clover and Jotter would become the first people to do so—if they survived.
But the newspapers didn’t much care about that. Journalists crowed that the women had come to “conquer” the Colorado, and they fixated on the likelihood of failure. In the privacy of her journal, 24-year-old Jotter had a one-word reply: “Hooey.”
—from “The Wild Ones,” Atavist Magazine
Sevigny’s book Brave the Wild River, expanding on the botanists’ historic trip, will be published by W.W. Norton. Can’t wait!
Ann Weiler Walka
Writer and naturalist Ann Weiler Walka has been exploring and writing the Colorado Plateau since the 1970s. Her work in museums (the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum, Idaho Museum of Natural History, and Museum of Northern Arizona) has helped her see into the landscape with an ecologist’s eye. She’s been key to celebrating the work of her good friend, the late Ellen Meloy, through the Ellen Meloy Fund for Desert Writers. Ann describes her field methods for exploring the landscape in her book Walking the Unknown River (Bluff City Books, 2002):
Learning a place is not a linear project. On these ventures we start with … (the) power of observation … Resting from sensory intoxication, we hear local stories and first-hand accounts of other explorations here, with our bundle of field guides and our collective great brain, we try to identify the plants and animals and rock formations, and the connections among them … We read poems and sometimes write them. We sit in silence. Day after day as we open to the country it opens to us.
—from Walking the Unknown River
Her poetry also shows up in the beautiful but little-known Going Down Grand: Poems from the Canyon (Lithic Press, 2015), edited by Peter Anderson and Rick Kempa. Possibly “the first poetry book in world history to be dimensioned to fit into an ammo can,” writes Canyon author Don Lago in The Boatman’s Quarterly Review. It’s “brought together by two editors who . . . can spot from a mile away the difference between a condor and a turkey vulture, a wave and a hole, an honest or bad Canyon poem.”
Look for Ann’s honest and good words in that book and in Waterlines: Journeys on a Desert River, a collection of poems and stories inspired by the San Juan River. Read her foreword to This Desert Hides Nothing, by Ellen Meloy and Stephen Strom (Torrey House Press, 2020). Don’t miss her!
Kathryn Wilder has been part of the western writing scene for decades: anthologizing the work of others, publishing in journals, winning awards, and quietly putting together her memoir Desert Chrome: Water, A Woman, and Wild Horses in the West (Torrey House Press, 2021). It’s a book worth waiting for, a tough story of a tender heart and told with “stunning prose” (per fellow Torrey House author Brooke Williams). Wilder’s words in my advance copy of Desert Chrome brought me to tears many times. Its chapters are full of compassion, understanding, and a huge willingness to look at life and trauma.
. . . when I lived in Flagstaff, Arizona, I heard William Kittredge say at a bookfair in Denver that people in the West moved a lot, searching for the next best place. That eventually they would find there’s nowhere else to go and they’d have to stay put and fix where they were instead of leaving it in hopes of something better. / I heard him and left anyway, supporting my lifetime average of moving every year and a half. Perhaps turning my back on hurt and facing different instead of fixing what was wrong became habit. Habits are not necessarily bad for you—think yoga or meditation—though I tend toward the other kind. Like sugar. Or heroin. / Whether leaving is a skill or a malady, I know how to do it. It’s staying that’s a mystery.
—from Chapter One, Desert Chrome
Wilder’s debut memoir takes us on an unexpected journey, from islands to mountains and deserts and on rivers. Finding the home within is the big challenge she tackles in Desert Chrome, and she shows us how to do it. Her journey may not be the same one we take on the map, but it’s recognizable to anyone who’s loved, lost, and lived to love again.
All these women writers are still at work, thank the many stars in our Western skies. Definitely worth a look, and a look again, to see what they’re tackling next.
Subscribe to my occasional newsletter for news of my forthcoming book, Swimming Grand Canyon and Other Poems (Finishing Line Press, 2021). And find my 2020 Nautilus Book Award Winner, The Oasis This Time: Living and Dying with Water in the West (Torrey House Press, 2019), at your local bookseller, Bookshop, Indie Bound, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon.