The Ground Beneath Us

It has been more than seven months since I've posted. I've been waiting to announce the new book. Since my last post at the end of January when I turned in the initial draft I have done two major revisions of the new book, and while there are still some loose ends to tie I am happy to report that we have a cover and a publication date: March 21, 2017!  

I can't wait to share this new book. More soon!

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Closer to The Ground

I am happy to report that I completed the initial draft for the new book last week. Since then, I've been revising and revising (and revising and revising), cutting it from 130,000 words down to about 100,000 before sending it off to my editor next week. After he reads it and makes his usual insightful comments, I'll go back to revising. Between sending it off and hearing from him, I'm planning a few days in New Mexico with a good novel. I'm excited about the new book, but there's still a long way to go before it reaches publishable form.


The last trip for book research took me down to Colombia, to Bogota (above) and then up to the small city of Santa Marta. It was a fantastic trip, one that--when I spent time with the indigenous Colombians trying so hard to preserve their native ground--brought me nearly to tears. 


This story from the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta will be the next to last chapter in the new book. 


The last chapter has me in Virginia. On a rainy day I walked down the street to the local park and took off my shoes. The fallen leaves clung to my wet feet, and I lay down on the grass for a while looking up at bare tree limbs against a gray sky. I left my shoes off as I walked back to my house, until my heels got tired of hammering against the concrete. You don't realize how hard streets are until your soft bare body comes in contact.


I'll end the book in Minnesota. Here's a photo I took as I came in over the lakes earlier this fall, downtown Minneapolis in the upper left, a big moon in the upper right. I'll head up north to the cabin where Luna's buried and tell her I've had a good journey, that I've been a lot of places over the past year, and now, I'm home. 

Into the Ground

Hello from a rainy autumn night in Harrisonburg. I went walking in the woods at dusk and saw no one, several times standing with eyes closed trying to filter out the Interstate 81 noise and just hear the ancient sound of steady rain hitting leaves and limbs. All things considered, it was incredibly beautiful. Otherwise, I've been inside all day writing the new book.




I am happy to report that I have drafted the first third of the book, writing about my experiences in New York, Mexico City, London, Gettysburg, and Yosemite. I've also written about 8000 words on my visit to Treblinka in Poland. This I found quite difficult to write because it's hard to say anything that seems to match the history of this ground where 900,000 people were murdered. I'm now about to write my chapter on soils. When I told my class the other day that I was thinking about how to write 20,000 words on soil I definitely saw some stunned faces.  


The first week of September I was lucky enough to return to London to give a talk, and while I was there I visited a site where the new Crossrail tunnel is being constructed underneath the city. This new tunnel, which will take a train from one end of the city to the other, is an unbelievable bit of engineering. They're having to find their way through (and under) pipes, subways, wires--you name it--sometimes passing within a foot or two of already existing spaces. I was there to talk with archaeologists who are reveling in the opportunity to learn more about the ground under this amazing city, including graveyards underneath one of the city's busiest streets. One guy I talked with told me they'd found the skeleton of a woman holding a plate, which they figure must have been her most prized possession--she's been lying undisturbed for 300 years just feet below the living feet walking the street above her. 

Here's an action shot:


There is so much work to be done on the new book, but it feels wonderful to be in the drafting stage. I mean, it USUALLY feels wonderful. Sometimes it feels agonizing, or stressful. And sometimes it all feels as though it's going to collapse. But right now, I'm feeling lucky to have the work I do, trying to create something beautiful to give back to the world. 


A few weeks ago, before I drove from Minnesota to Virginia in 21 hours and started teaching again and flew to London to give a conference talk and do research and then flew back to Minneapolis for Dave's 50th Birthday party and then drove up to northern Minnesota to be at the lake for a night and then flew back to Virginia to get back to teaching...I went to Alaska. Yes, it's been a bit hectic for me the past few weeks, but I wanted to share some photos from the trip. I was hoping to gain a story or two for the new book, and I wasn't disappointed. 


I can't wait to write in the book about being on the tundra. The colors of the plants and berries, and the spongy feel--it's like nothing I've experienced before. By the way--this photo above--this is what was at our feet. You look down and you see this.


I have an old friend from my New Mexico years named Shane. He lives in western Alaska in a town of 6,000--which is the biggest town for hundreds of miles--in the middle of the Yukon Delta Wildlife Refuge. When Shane moved there 13 years ago, he knew nothing about hunting and fishing. But he's learned a lot, and he was kind enough to take us along. 


We caught some salmon.


We shot some ducks.

And when I say "we," of course I mean Shane. Being in western Alaska means being in a subsistence culture, a culture that depends on the natural world to supply its food. I had a hard time watching the salmon flop around, spitting blood, until they died at our feet. And watching the ducks fall from the sky... really hard. But good. It's good to experience this, because obviously I--as we all do--kill every day to live. I just don't pull the trigger like Shane does.


We also went to Denali National Park. We were lucky to see the mountain clear all morning, as well as plenty of moose and half a dozen grizzlies. 


The grizzlies did not scare me.

And now comes the fun part, where I get to write about this trip for the new book. The ground in Alaska, whether the western tundra or the central Denali area, is unlike any I've ever walked. And that is good. That's what I wanted. 

I'm pretty much done with the research for the new book. My initial draft is due January 15, and let's just say I have quite a bit of writing to do between now and then. A lot of hard work. And in the final few weeks, it will be a mad rush of long winter days where I'll do nothing else for 16 hours except try to create a book worth reading.

I am lucky.   

Visions of Fragments (of ground)

A big theme in the new book will be vision. What do we see when we look down? I begin the book with the fact that we spend 90% of our time inside, and when we do go outside and look down so many of us see concrete, pavement, or asphalt. We are literally separated from the natural ground, and there are physical, psychological, and even spiritual costs to this separation (all of which I will explore!)

But this literal separation is also symbolic of our separation from so many other grounds. For example, where does our food, water, and energy come from? How much do we know about what happened--and what is happening--to grounds that, because they are out of our sight they are also not in our thinking? For the new book I've tried to find fascinating grounds that maybe we aren't thinking of, or haven't been to, or have forgotten. Here are a few more.

I recently decided to take a few days and drive from Minneapolis up to the Bakken oil fields of western North Dakota. This is where oil and gas exploration has completely taken over. If you don't believe it, just google "Bakken at night" and you'll see the view from space of the flaring gas wells lighting up the sky as brightly as the nearest cities (Minneapolis, Chicago). But to see it on the ground is something crazy. Here's a good example, where I was taking a movie of a fracking station when two of the gazillion trucks on the highways here drove by.

The feeling I'd had in April in southeastern Ohio of being in an occupied country returned. I'll be writing about the way our thirst for oil and gas is having a tremendous effect on the grounds, so much so that places like the Bakken are increasingly referred to as "sacrifice zones." We are simply sacrificing the ground here--destroying it--in order to have energy.

I also took time in North Dakota to visit the Knife River Indian Villages. I am fascinated by the story of the painter George Catlin who in 1832 sailed up the Missouri river on his quest to paint the land and Indians before they were destroyed. Here are examples of his work:


And here is an aerial shot of the village site:


I've also been back out west to spend some time Yosemite, walking in John Muir's footsteps. One place I hadn't been to before is Hetch Hetchy valley. Hetch Hetchy (or "Fetch Tetchy" as my spellcheck would have it) is in Yosemite National Park... but the valley itself is dammed and filled with drinking water for San Francisco. Muir lost his fight to protect the valley in 1912, near the end of his life. Especially after spending time in the glory of Yosemite Valley, it's a shock to see this other valley filled with water. We are foolish if we think such things can't happen again.


Another issue I'll be writing about in the new book is habitat fragmentation. This is a big problem with oil and gas development, and an issue I don't think many of us understand. Simply put, many species need unbroken habitat to survive. They cannot adjust when we come in and destroy some of the habitat--put a road through, create a drill pad, clearcut some of the forest. They need habitat that is whole. Unfortunately, and in so many ways, our world is becoming increasingly fragmented.

I'm always shocked when I see clearcuts from the air. 


I'll be spending much of the next six weeks in northern Minnesota gathering and sorting the research I've done over the past several months. Then, in August, it's off to Alaska! Stay tuned.

Ground in life and destruction

I'm back from another few weeks of travel that has taken me to Nebraska, New Mexico, and Ohio. I've seen ground that supports incredible life, ground that has witnessed horrible destruction, and ground under incredible assault. This morning I stood under the maple tree outside my boyhood bedroom and marveled at the red buds returning for another spring. The new book continues to grow and take shape, and I'm off to Europe again in a week to gather more stories--including visits to Treblinka and Auschwitz in Poland. It's a pleasure to imagine that at least a few of you are out there following my progress through this blog.  Don't hesitate to let me know who you are, and if you have suggestions.

For years I have wanted to be in Nebraska in March/April when some 500,000 sandhill cranes migrate through on their way north. I've seen the cranes in one of their winter homes, the Bosque del Apache NWR in New Mexico, and the sight of their great Vs drifting in at dusk is something I'll never forget. The grounds these birds rely on are the Platte River's sandbars and surrounding fields. Here's some of what I saw:


From Nebraska I traveled to New Mexico to see the Trinity Site where the world's first atomic bomb exploded in 1945. The Site is open to the public only two days a year, and so I'd planned on being there April 4. It's funny to me now--I imagined I might be there alone or with a handful of others. In fact, there were more than 5,000 visitors that day, and the place had the feel of a county fair. One curious thing about the Site is that there is no mention of Japan.


From New Mexico I traveled to southeastern Ohio where I witnessed an entirely different form of destruction, that caused by fracking for natural gas. I'll have so much more to say in the new book, but for now I can tell you that what I saw and heard (both the words I heard from residents and the noise from the compressing stations) was shocking. I had the distinct feeling of being in a land that had been occupied by a foreign army. I didn't feel like I was in America anymore. Whatever you imagine about fracking I think you have to see the destruction to the land and people to believe it. I've read a lot about fracking, and I thought I had a good idea of its reality for the ground, but I didn't.


This image doesn't do justice to what I saw in Ohio. But try to imagine that until just a couple years ago this ground was forest and farmland. It is now more like a military base, and there are installations like this all over the place. I'm grateful to Ted Auch, my host from FrackTracker, and the many Ohioans who spoke with me.

And now this morning, the new buds of spring 2015. For all the destruction we humans impart on the natural world, it sometimes amazes me that nature continues, comes back, keeps its cycles. And just on a this-is-so-wonderfully-mysterious-that-I-could-say-a-prayer-of-thanksgiving-each-time-I-walk-outside level, the fact leaves emerge from limbs to shade and sing in summer wind and then in autumn turn to flames and fall to ground... It reminds me of my friend the poet Alison Deming writing that it's as if the natural world were a series of questions, and astonishment is the answer.


And one bonus photo: the scene Sunday morning last week in the U of New Mexico library. This is what the new book looks like right now. 

Sifting stories and research, making plans. The writing will begin in earnest come July.