The rare-bird reports reach my phone from Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s citizen-science app, ebird, around six in the morning. I always look to see which species have been found in the last twenty-four hours in my home county. Having managed several community stream-data projects through the years, I’m curious to read ebird reports even if they’re unconfirmed.
Mid afternoon a few days ago, two California condors had been spotted in Bodega Bay (of Hitchcock’s The Birds fame)—”absolutely massive birds” who swooped out of the fog, evaded photo-capture, and eased out of sight.
So, the next morning, Paul and I launched a day quest for the condors. We found plenty of coastal birds and smaller raptors, as well as cooling fog, and makeshift encampments along the roads. Families of clammers armed with shovels and white buckets dug furiously in the state park tidelands.
When U.S. Coast Guard cruisers passed on their way out to sea, the clammers mysteriously dispersed, leaving their diggings to the mobs of gulls who’d been casing their work like bank robbers.
We continued on, searching the overcast, as a great blue heron stopped to stalk the hillside near the trail we were walking. We looked, it looked, and we moved on to let it feed. Not a word from any of us.
No condor sightings, though we have been fortunate to see their magnificence in other parts of the West. We’ve also seen no further reports of them from the bay where Tippi Hedren took her first hit from a passing gull.
But the heron’s curiosity has stayed with me. Back at home, I recalled a heron haiku by Chiyo-ni (translation Gabriel Rosenstock). Although we haven’t had morning snow in a while, Chiyo-ni’s words about voice and visibility resonate.
The heron, the haiku, and the loss of a good river friend last month got me thinking of Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It. The classic river book, written late in life, also can’t be ignored, and has inspired plenty of outdoor writing and film-making and fly-fishing in America. I’m sharing my Cool Tip about Maclean’s haunting work here.
May your own voice be heard loud and clear this month. Enjoy the rest of your summer!
He was obsessed with the waters of his youth, persevering in documenting them long after he’d first known them.
Maclean, however, chose the word haunted instead of obsessed to describe his state of mind.
Haunted, as in “frequented by a ghost” and “perhaps implying mental anguish or torment.”
In claiming to be haunted, Maclean admitted that he was frequently visited by the people and places in his book. Their stories were still with him.
He had narrated the tales to his children, again and again, before committing them to paper. They’d entered not only his literary bloodstream, but those of his son and daughter. His words shone with not just waters but with people and places from the time in which he had come of age.
It was a greener time, remembered. As Maclean writes in the Acknowledgments for A River Runs Through It, one publisher who had rejected the manuscript wrote, “These stories have trees in them.” As if that were a bad thing.
The trees in the stories offered breaks from the barrooms and streets and family losses. The forests and rivers were characters, too, a reminder that memories consist of not only close-ups but also of the terrain that shapes us and guides us and reminds us to pause.
By the time the title short story, “A River Runs Through It,” ends with “I am haunted by waters,” we aren’t surprised. We’ve come to be haunted, too.
We’ve seen the lined face of the author’s beloved wife and the broken bones in his departed brother’s fighting fist. We’ve learned about the movement of eddies of his favorite rivers. We’ve met a thoughtless brother-in-law and the author’s preacher father.
Maclean’s world has come alive with the waters he fished with loved ones and the details of the loved ones themselves.
Today’s Tip touches on the “show-not-tell” approach to writing well. To say we’re haunted by memories may be a bit too “on the nose,” but to render a past world with such fullness that it lingers with a reader is how we writers do our own haunting.
Today and this week, when you’re writing your work-in-progress, tap into the detail of what haunts you. See with clear eyes and write with an honest pen the sensing you can remember. Put on paper the entities that still do the haunting.
In Maclean’s last line, we read of and share in the full weight of waters he has brought to life.
To pay forward that literary haunting is to pass the torch with love.