The following is a conversation between Bill Sherwonit (asking questions) and me (tapping out answers). It was originally posted on the 49 Writers website.
What are the roots of your memoir? Or, perhaps put another way, what sparked your desire to write the story that became Faith of Cranes?
Prior to fatherhood I was doing my part for conservation: letters to the editor, trips to D.C., responding to action alerts. When I first learned my wife was pregnant a couple of things quickly came into focus. First, nine months was not enough time to protect wild places or ensure an ecologically intact world for my child. Second, children are sponges and I did not want mine soaking up my despair for the future. If I couldn’t stop the planet from heating up or ensure the cranes would always come, what could I offer my daughter? If I didn’t want to pass on my despair, where could I put it?
So, while our child pushed and stretched the skin of Anya’s belly, I set out to grow my sources of joy. The book chronicles, in a way, that homework assignment. It tells the story of how one man, blinded to present beauty by the fear of an ugly future, regained his sight.
The memoir is episodic rather than continuous narrative; it skips around while presenting times, places, and/or events that might be described as turning points in your life. Did you have a clear vision of the book’s structure—and content—from the start? And how, if at all, did your vision for the book change over time?
The first draft, finished a week before my daughter was born, had nine chapters, one for each month of my wife’s pregnancy. I didn’t pick the manuscript up again until we were done with diapers, enough time for me to see the structure was flat, the content boring, and the sentences stiff. If not for the encouragement of a couple of close friends, that first draft would have followed the diapers out the door and I’d have kept on doing all the things you do when you’re not writing.
There was never a clear vision. No ah-hah moments. I made final tweaks to the narrative structure the day before it went to the copy editor. A friend told me that a writer’s need for good editorial advice is like an owl’s need for a good fat mouse. When it comes, you pounce on it, swallow it whole, and then puke out what you don’t need. I was well fed. A couple of great writers were deeply generous with their time. My work was figuring out which suggestions to keep and which to hack back out. I still find bits and parts of earlier drafts tucked into piles of forgotten mail or buried in the bottom of the wood bin.
In your “Thanks” section, you mention that the book is “a journal of sorts, a chronicle of an ongoing inquiry about how to keep the diminishment of beauty from making us less alive.” When did that inquiry begin? Is that part of what inspired the book? When did you first sense or experience such diminishment in your own life? And what, exactly, do you mean that the world’s diminished beauty makes us “less alive” as humans?
Urban sprawl, in this country alone, consumes over 3 million acres a year. Most all of us can tell the story of a creek or canyon, meadow or mountain that is a part of that statistic. We all see the same population graphs and climate models. We worry, to some degree, about food security and ocean acidification. Rubbed by the daily trickle of grim news, our hearts can form a protective callous. While numbing us to the bad news, such a callous can make us less alive by closing out the beauty that saturates our days. How do we respond to the grim news in a way that keeps us open to the joy of life? This is an active question for me, one I’ve pondered for decades, and it’s a motivating force in the book.
You also mention that “the conversation [about diminished beauty and its affects on us] is expanding . . .” Is one of your goals or hopes for this book that it will help to broaden that conversation?
My front yard is one of the most biologically rich places on the planet. The concentration of critters that show up to feast on the bounty is astounding. Along with the whales and gulls, salmon and sea lions, thousands of humans show up each summer. The animals are drawn by a hunger for calories. The people are drawn by a common hunger for beauty. The human capacity to not only create but to absorb, appreciate, celebrate, be struck dumb, and moved to tears by beauty is one of our most fantastic qualities.
Unfortunately, the conservation movement in general is crippled by the notion that humans are ugly, that we are a cancerous, unnatural part of the world. Even the ethic of “Leave No Trace” is rooted in the idea that a bear track is diminished by a boot track. Now imagine some bizarre critter who sat on the beach or perched in a tree, simply observing and contemplating beauty while all the other animals dashed about gathering food. If such an animal existed, it would be on the top of every totem pole every carved. Well, that creature is us and we need to carve those poles. We need to put them up every place we can. While humans are obviously capable of great destruction, we are also capable of great beauty. We need to remind each other that we have the choice.
I found that several of the book’s most vivid and riveting passages focus on death (the death of a deer, a bear, a good friend, your partner Anya’s father). Did you sense the power of those passages while writing them?
Encounters with death are the most powerful moments in our lives. I like the Buddhist’s saying that the man who learns how to die learns how to live. Holding a dying person’s hand or removing the heart from a still warm deer is loaded with lessons. In those moments, we can feel our humanity wrapped in shared mortality and grief. We can sense the insignificant flicker of our life spans. We glimpse that death is not a singular event but a constant flow. We are reminded to move slowly and love fully.
The stories of death in the book were powerful as they were experienced. I did my best to bring a bit of that power onto the page.
What were the easiest parts of the book to write? The hardest?
Easiest stories were moments of joy and beauty – the crane’s return, my daughter reveling in a gale, planting seeds, diving into the cold, rich sea. Hardest were the most intimate – washing my friend’s body [after his death], sharing prayers around a pile of bones.
The book’s title—and the story itself—make clear the importance of cranes in your life, but deer seem to play an equally important role, if not more so. One might say the cranes feed or nourish your spirit and deepen your connection to place, while deer clearly tie you to place and also feed you, in both a physical and spiritual manner. Perhaps one might say they simply feed you in different ways. What are your thoughts about that?
Deer could have easily been the book’s central character. Like the deer, I’m rooted. I hunker down through the long winter, run around and fatten up during the long light of summer. Deer hold the center of gratitude in my life. They brought me and hold me together with my wife and dearest friends. They feed me in so many ways.
But cranes were far more creative a critter to build a story around. First of all, they are ancient. They were squwarking away while deer were still a glimmer in the eye of some yet to mutate quadruped. They also migrate which turned out to be key in telling my story of being rooted. The led me places I did not want to go, forced me to acknowledge that Alaska is not as big as I wanted it to be. And through their movement, they connect my story to crane lovers everywhere, from Homer to Lodi, Nome to Nebraska. Who knew, when I built a house under the migratory path of flying dinosaurs, they’d make such a handy literary device.
What do you hope that readers will take away from your memoir?
A high school sweet heart tracked me down after reading the book. She told me she laughed and cried and closed the book with renewed gratitude for where she lived and what she wanted to share with her children. What more satisfying feedback can a writer get?