Sunday, November 17, 2019

Love Letters to my life #17: Roots by choice

Persimmon Tree (Photo: Kansas Forest Service)
by Joyce Wycoff

(We know the day we were born, but most of us do not know the day we will die. This love letter to my life is written on the day I've designated as my death day, the 17th of every month,
and reminds me to be grateful for my incredible life.)

On the 13-acre “farm” where I grew up, there was a young persimmon tree that offered a branch perfect for climbing. It was my tree, my place. The fruits were small, hard and puckery while green, sweet and comforting when they turned that odd persimmon orange. I’ve been thinking about that place in southeastern Kansas, that lonely life on a farm outside of the village, outside of the town, outside of the world it seemed.
This isn’t my tree. I didn’t have a camera then and I don’t know if it still lives, but this is how I remember it, standing at the edge of an open field, giving me a bird's-eye view to the house, the road, and the woods behind me. Beside it, a thorny hedge apple tree dropped its strange baseball-sized, pebbly green fruits every year to animals who weren’t interested.

The woods behind the fields, though, offered a banquet: two mulberry trees, one purple and one white, a hickory tree where the squirrels hung out, and a black walnut tree with nuts so rich and sweet I always felt sorry for people in California who had to eat the bland English walnuts that we bought at Christmas time. My dad later sold that walnut tree for an amazing sum that was about four times what they paid for the whole property when we moved there.

I am currently working on a book about my two years in Mexico with photos and art from that time. There are so many memories and moments of beauty from there and so few remembered from my childhood. One theme of the book is family and roots, as well as my perceived lack of them. That persimmon tree is a memory that persists.
What is beauty?
My current project is an art, photos, and stories book:
Kaleidoscope of Mexico ... a journey homeward
Why I moved to Mexico ... what I learned there ... why I left.

Abundance surrounded our tiny, never-quite-finished house. Beyond the trees in the woods, there was a prolific pecan tree near the house and a tiny orchard with one each of peach, pear, and apple. Blackberry bushes ran along the fence row although picking them meant braving the ticks, chiggers and copper heads. We raised chickens, one pig and one calf. My dad butchered the calf but my mom had fallen in love with the pig who had to be sold when she had piglets (don’t remember how that happened) and became too much to handle. In our overly ambitious garden plots, we had corn, tomatoes, green peppers, onions, peas, carrots, green beans, potatoes, and so many watermelons that we cracked them open in the field and just ate the hearts. Had we been a real farm family from pioneer days, that tiny farm could have fed us.

What strikes me now is how little I appreciated that abundance and beauty. When I searched for a photo of the persimmon tree to refresh my memory, I found that it was native to southeastern Kansas and only adapted to the eastern slice of the state. 

For some reason, the thought that “my tree” was rooted in that land by choice shocked me. It wasn’t a transplant; it might not even have been planted at all. Somehow a seed, perhaps from a passing bird or squirrel, had dropped onto fertile soil and sprouted, sinking its roots, growing tall, providing open arms for a lonely little girl. 

I’ve had trouble finding my place and wonder if this “quirky by choice” biggest little city in the world might be what I’ve been seeking. Reno is set in a broad valley with the sparkling Truckee River running through it and the snow-capped Sierra as the movie set back drop. It is also base camp for Burning Man which comes and goes, dropping huge pieces of art behind as it leaves. 

The Gathering (part of a piece from Burning Man)
The Mod at Riverwalk
This high desert town with its history of gambling, divorce, and prostitution, now thrums with art and murals, music and festivals. It has become a magnet for the scattered pieces of our small, wandering family, so I hope it is where we will remain, allowing our roots finally rest in this stunning land.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Art Towns: Elko, Nevada paints the town!

Gertrude Stein once said,”there’s no there there,” about her hometown of Oakland, California.
Elko, Nevada, definitely has a "there there.” Long known as one of the top western towns in the US, it is quickly becoming an art town of note. 
For 35 years, the Western Folklife Center’s annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering has filled the town with music, poetry, stories, dancing and workshops focused on the old and new West. In July, the town celebrates its Basque sheepherder culture with a Basque festival, and the oldest rodeo in the state, the Silver State Stampede
Building on its heritage, Elko embraces art
Elko Courthouse

Ruby Mountains, Sierra Club photo
Art and beauty are part of Elko’s heritage: natural beauty from its location on the Humboldt River and surrounded by the Ruby Mountains (often called the Alps of Nevada), and architectural beauty including the shallow, copper dome of its Neo-classical courthouse which gleams in the sunlight and can be seen from many parts of town. Elko’s Arts and Culture Advisory Council, however, continues to build on this legacy.
When the New York Port Authority offered pieces of the 9/11 rubble to cities and towns across America if they would incorporate the pieces into monuments, only five entities stepped up to the challenge of creating a perpetual remembrance. One of them was Elko which dedicated the sculpture Freedom on September 11, 2012.  
Information about Freedom
Boots and Murals
In the past few years, the town has begun to fill up with boots … giant, painted cowboy boots … 56 to date. 

And, in September, 2019, the council worked with Art Spot Reno to create the Elko Mural Expo, which, in five days with 43 local, state and international artists, painted the town a  thousand colors. Here is a sampling of the 61 incredible murals:

I'm in Elko, too ... come see me!
No ... come see me ... I'm bigger!

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Book Review: The Feather Thief

Amazon: As heard on NPR's This American Life

“Absorbing . . . Though it's non-fiction, The Feather Thief contains many of the elements of a classic thriller.” —Maureen Corrigan, NPR’s Fresh Air

“One of the most peculiar and memorable true-crime books ever.” —Christian Science Monitor

A rollicking true-crime adventure and a captivating journey into an underground world of fanatical fly-tiers and plume peddlers, for readers of The Stranger in the WoodsThe Lost City of Z, and The Orchid Thief.
On a cool June evening in 2009, after performing a concert at London's Royal Academy of Music, twenty-year-old American flautist Edwin Rist boarded a train for a suburban outpost of the British Museum of Natural History. Home to one of the largest ornithological collections in the world, the Tring museum was full of rare bird specimens whose gorgeous feathers were worth staggering amounts of money to the men who shared Edwin's obsession: the Victorian art of salmon fly-tying. Once inside the museum, the champion fly-tier grabbed hundreds of bird skins—some collected 150 years earlier by a contemporary of Darwin's, Alfred Russel Wallace, who'd risked everything to gather them—and escaped into the darkness.
Two years later, Kirk Wallace Johnson was waist high in a river in northern New Mexico when his fly-fishing guide told him about the heist. He was soon consumed by the strange case of the feather thief. What would possess a person to steal dead birds? Had Edwin paid the price for his crime? What became of the missing skins? In his search for answers, Johnson was catapulted into a years-long, worldwide investigation. The gripping story of a bizarre and shocking crime, and one man's relentless pursuit of justice, The Feather Thief is also a fascinating exploration of obsession, and man's destructive instinct to harvest the beauty of nature.

JW: This is a book about obsession and beauty.  It is a unique story that opens up worlds I wasn't aware of and is told by a master storyteller. I not only fell in love with the book; I became a fan of the author who is a deeply troubled person, plagued by PTSD from Iraq and committed to rescuing the Iraqi translators whom we left behind when the war ended. He becomes the obsessed chasing the obsessed and writes a powerful story that I will long remember. The opening quote captures it perfectly:

"Man is seldom content to witness beauty.
He must possess it.
-- Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare,
Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea, 1979

From book: "Before the Hermès bag or Louboutin heel, the ultimate status indicator was a dead bird." (43)

"a shawl made from eight thousand hummingbird skins." (45)

"With demand for birds like Herons and Ostriches far outpacing supply, entrepreneurs around the world set up feather farms. Since Herons weren't redisposed to life in a cage, farmers blinded the birds to make them more docile, running a fine filament of cotton thread through the bird's lower eyelid and tugging it over its upper eyelid." (46)

For a better idea of the birds that were decimated by the feather craze prior to laws preventing the collection and exportation of rare bird feathers, watch this video:

Other reviews:

August 9, 2018
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase

July 19, 2018
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
This is a startling true story about the lengths a man will go to satisfy an obsession. The reader is introduced to the world of fly-tieing, the art of creating intricate fishing lures from bird feathers. What is remarkable about this activity is there is a subset of these tiers who collect extremely rare and valuable bird feathers and pay exorbitant prices for the most exotic ones. The subject of this book is such an individual. Edwin Rist is an accomplished student musician and avid fly-tier who steals hundreds of rare birds from the British Museum in 2009.

The book is a study in obsession as the author himself, an Iraqi war veteran, becomes fixated on the crime and the man who committed it. The story is immersive. Johnson, the author, has spent an incalculable amount of time researching the history of fly-tieing and the lure of exotic feathers to the point of even surreptitiously attending a fly-tiers convention undercover. He becomes a principal investigator in solving the details of Edwin's crime, identifying accomplices and tracking bird skins.

The book grabbed my interest from the first few pages. Johnson's book has all the pacing of a well-crafted mystery novel and manages to hold the suspense of exactly what happened and who was involved throughout the entire book. He covers this story with all the zeal of a professional investigative journalist. I would recommend this book to anyone who likes psychological character studies and true crime.
May 1, 2018
I loved the crazy nature of the crime and the way it was reported, including the background about the small group of fly-tiers, most of whom don't even fish, whose obsession provided the raison-d'être for a very bizarre crime. The crime was wrapped up about half-way through the book, so I wondered what the rest would entail. It turns out that the author spent time, energy and money on the un-asked-for pursuit of the birds that had not been accounted for by the authorities or by the museum from which they were stolen, both of whom assumed that most had been dismembered and sold as "parts." This mission has its moments, as the thief himself is interviewed at length, but, overall, this section is less satisfying. I'd give the first half of the book five stars, but the second half just two. IMPORTANT: When reading this book on the Kindle its not clear that there are many plates and illustrations at the end of the book showing the birds and the flies, along with pictures of the principals.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Book Review: The Clockmaker's Daughter

A rich, spellbinding new novel from the author of The Lake House--the story of a love affair and a mysterious murder that cast their shadows across generations, set in England from the 1860s until the present day.

My real name, no one remembers.
The truth about that summer, no one else knows.

In the summer of 1862, a group of young artists led by the passionate and talented Edward Radcliffe descends upon Birchwood Manor on the banks of the Upper Thames. Their plan: to spend a secluded summer month in a haze of inspiration and creativity. But by the time their stay is over, one woman has been shot dead while another has disappeared; a priceless heirloom is missing; and Edward Radcliffe's life is in ruins.

Over one hundred and fifty years later, Elodie Winslow, a young archivist in London, uncovers a leather satchel containing two seemingly unrelated items: a sepia photograph of an arresting-looking woman in Victorian clothing, and an artist's sketchbook containing the drawing of a twin-gabled house on the bend of a river.

Why does Birchwood Manor feel so familiar to Elodie? And who is the beautiful woman in the photograph? Will she ever give up her secrets?

Told by multiple voices across time, The Clockmaker's Daughter is a story of murder, mystery, and thievery, of art, love and loss. And flowing through its pages like a river, is the voice of a woman who stands outside time, whose name has been forgotten by history, but who has watched it all unfold: Birdie Bell, the clockmaker's daughter.
JW: Disturbing book but compelling. Kaleidoscopic. "The Art of Belonging" manifesto by Edward Radcliffe about the connection between human beings and places; places and art. "The land does not forget. Place is a doorway through which one steps across time." Do we find our belonging in a place? Do we belong to a place.

From School Library Journal

Although Lily Millington, the titular character of this novel, is a smart and compassionate ghost, she's unreliable: Was she the victim or the perpetrator of a murder that happened one night in 1862 at Birchfield Manor? To escape stuffy London for the summer, Lily and her lover, acclaimed artist Edward Radcliffe, and assorted bohemian youth went to Edward's house in the country. Then his proper Victorian fiancée showed up-and someone died. Another guest was Lucy, Edward's beloved little sister, 13 at the time. A conventional murder mystery might have ended there, with readers believing Lily, but tough, sympathetic Lucy must carry on this epic that spans generations, eras, and wars. Her famous brother, Radcliffe, unable to recover from the tragedy, has disappeared. She grows up, eventually inheriting Birchfield, which, she learns, is over 400 years old, and reinvents it as a school for young girls. That's where readers meet Ada, yet another impressive character, whose accidental proximity to a death repeats the pattern. Whodunit fans will gobble up this work, trying to solve the multiple mysteries. This best-selling Australian author's absorbing saga of family, love, and history has much to offer eager readers. VERDICT A must-have for all collections.-Georgia Christgau, Middle College High School, Long Island City, NYα(c) Copyright 2011. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted. 

Product details

July 1, 2018
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )

October 19, 2018
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase

Friday, October 18, 2019

Bioneers 2019 - The first day begins with 10,000 tears

If the Bioneers folks intended to have the first day of the 30th annual Bioneers Conference grab us by the heart, they succeeded. The beloved founders Kenny Ausubel and Nina Simons were greeted with a standing ovation before they even opened their mouths. And when Nina told us of the recent departure of her mother, the tears began, hers and ours. 

Tears continued as Terry Tempest Williams approached the podium after Nina and, obviously affected said, “I don’t know how to speak.” After a pause, she said, “Maybe we should just hold the silence and weep together.” 

And we did, until she began to tell us about Castleton Rock where scientists recorded its vibrations which pulsates at about the same rate as a human heartbeat.

Terry played a recording of Castleton Tower to a pin-drop silent audience."The earth has a pulse,” she said. 

“It is alive.” And we knew it was true because we had just heard it. (You, too, can hear it here.) Then she went on to read from her powerful new book, Erosion, Essays of Undoing. I was delighted to have her sign my book and let me take a picture of her and her husband Brooke holding up a poster highlighting her reading: "Boom! Erosion of Belief.”

My favorite quote: "I refused to perpetuate this lie, this myth, 
this abuse called silence. 
If birds had a voice, so did I."

Eve Ensler of The Vagina Monologues fame prompted more tears as she told the story from her new book The Apology about what she wanted, but never received, from her father who sexually and physically abused her for years. She wrote the apology she wanted from him and advocated it as a way to finally reach forgiveness. Then she spoke her own apology to the earth and we all wept again.

Jerry Tello, co-founder of the Healing Generations Institute, made us fall in love with his abuela (grandmother). Jerry grew up on the rough streets of Compton but says that his abuela telling him every day, “You are a blessing, just the way you are,” inoculated him from the wounds of that rough world. “When people are related to you, you treat them different,” he said as he greeted us all as relatives and invited us to do the same with others.

David Orr, Professor Emeritus of Environmental Studies and Politics at Oberlin College and author of Dangerous Years: Climate Change and the Long Emergency, warned us that we are experiencing the most dangerous challenge to free government that any of us have experienced. He explained that democracy seldom fails due to outside forces but normally commits suicide as inequality and despair become the norm in a society and lead to oligarchy where money and power wind up in a few hands.
In the evening, four environmentally focused films were shown. My favorite was REBBL with a Cause, the story of how a company is fighting human trafficking by helping communities build a sustainable income source through a healthy product. I didn’t realize that "Human trafficking is the fastest growing illegal industry of our time with 45.8 million people currently being exploited worldwide.” This is an inspiring and uplifting story of what a company can do when it focuses on people over profit and who knew that Brazil nuts grow in a ball?

Brazil nut ball.Photo credit:
Throughout the day, music and poetry weave through the often intense presentations and the repeated reverence shown to the land and the cultures of the indigenous peoples create a sense of sacred not often found at conferences.

Bioneers 2019, Day 1 - Babies and Baskets

Thursday, October 17: Babies and Baskets: Honoring California Indian Woven Knowledge

Blue sky and the bay welcomed us to McNears Park (San Rafael) as we formed a large circle and three indigenous cultural leaders prayed and sang for the day to come. One Hopi leader from a desert farming community was overwhelmed by the abundance of water.

The first day of Bioneers is always an offering on Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK). This year focused on baby baskets and the gathering of materials to make them.The baskets are not just something to transport the baby in, as I had thought, but a central part of the culture. I was amazed at how much respect it shows the baby, surrounding her or him with natural materials to smell, touch, and chew on as well as giving them a sense of safety, security, and belonging.  

One of the most touching stories I heard was about a basket project for children who have been fostered out of the culture. Women make baskets for a specific child and accompany it with his tribal history. The baskets are stored and offer a re-entry point, so that when the adult is ready, s/he can come home. The baskets tell them, "These are your roots.”

One basket weaver showed us her daughter’s baby basket (they takeabout a year to make) and told us how she “became a mom,” which was not the normal story of impregnation and hospital trauma. 

In her culture, the new mother stays in a special place for 10 days with her baby, while the women of the tribe take care of her and the baby and give them time to bond. Her story made me think about what my own teenage mother went through as she was already divorced, under-educated, and forced to ask her father to pay her hospital bill. Life created a situation where we never bonded properly, leaving both of us wanting something neither of us knew how to find.

Lunch was a Native American offering ... not only delicious, but a special treat for me since I didn’t have to worry about garlic.( I had emailed the chef in advance.)  The squash-apple-ginger soup was incredible (and simple enough for me to make (I think) and the hit of the day were the blue corn huckleberry cookies.

There was a lot of discussion about what the tribes are doing to revitalize their customs and reclaim their culture and their roots. And, there is obviously great pain about what they have lost and how badly they have been treated. One leader called herself "extinct."

It makes me also wonder about the pain of never knowing those deep roots ... not knowing what we lost. All of us at one point were indigenous, native to and connected to a land. Somewhere in the deep past of time, we left the world of hunter-gathers, became farmers, became industrialized, became immigrants to a new land or lands, leaving behind language, ceremonies, and knowledge. Because all of that is buried so deeply in our past, we can't even name the ache. However, maybe it is a part of our call to consumption as well as the soul sickness that shows up as depression, greed, hatred, violence.

Later, the day became even more special when I found two incredible trees on the grounds of the Convent across from Dominican University. Here's one of them ... they were huge!