On European Ground

I'm just back from two weeks in Europe. I flew to Amsterdam to give an invited talk on The End of Night, then spent the rest of the time doing research for The Ground. I also ate my weight in cheese, bread, and chocolate. And organic eggs at an English farm (a "proper English breakfast" pictured below), quiche Lorraine in a fabulous Amsterdam cafe, and steak frites in Paris. And coffee... I never drink so much coffee as I do when in Europe. They have coffee after every meal, and between meals.  It's a joy. 


But I'm not writing a book on food (just somewhat on food). I'm writing a book on the ground at our feet. And looking for stories. I found some good ones. Including the organic farm in the English countryside, with Pete Townsend's house in the distance. 


And the World War One battlefield The Somme, where on July 1, 1916 the British military lost 20,000 killed and another 40,000 wounded.  In some places you can still see the trenches and bomb craters, and in the areas which once were "no man's land" still lie unknown bodies and unexploded shells.


I also went to the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam a couple times. I think it's a great museum, and I'm inspired to write about Van Gogh in the new book. He was so inspired by nature, and his paintings so reflect his love for it... I'm hoping I can find some experts to talk with about the kinds of plants, wheat, flowers, depicted in his paintings, living things that all depend on the ground.


Of the three cities I went to--Amsterdam, Paris, and London--I like them all a lot, but Amsterdam is really so beautiful, with such friendly people. Just walking the ground there was inspiring too. One of the stories in The Netherlands is the way the Dutch are actively engaged with the rising sea. Of course, they've been dealing with the sea for centuries. But unlike some places in the US which are actively denying sea level rise, the Dutch are planning for that distinct possibility. It's clear, walking the lovely Amsterdam streets, that this is a country that wants to live with water, rather than fight it.  


I'm very much in the period of gathering stories for the new book. What I'm looking for are entertaining and interesting stories that help us see the beauty and history and future at our feet. I think I'm finding them.

Hola from Mexico City

Greetings from Mexico City, where my 27 words of Spanish are barely keeping me afloat. Thankfully, I have some wonderful Mexican friends helping me find my way as I research stories for the new book on ground. And I feel better now that at least I can ask, "Donde esta el banio?"

But first, before I flew down here on Saturday, I visited Yosemite with fire ecologist Gus Smith. Here's proof:


Actually, there's no proof of Gus in this photo, but someone had to take the photo. We also stopped by the Mariposa Grove to see some very tall trees. Some very threatened, very tall trees. After thousands of years of living, these Sequoias may not survive our warming of their world.


And now, I'm in Mexico City. The story here has two main aspects. First is that of the Templo Mayor, the main Aztec (Mexica) temple. When the Spanish arrived and defeated the Aztecs, they then destroyed the Templo and built their cathedral over it. Only recently has the Templo been found by archeologists (actually at first by a light company crew, but that's another story).  The artifacts are amazing (the photo below is a container for food for the gods, "mainly blood and human hearts," says the guide), and this morning I got to spend time with the main archeologist on the project. When I asked him about how the Aztecs seemed to honor the natural ground but now we pave everything over, he agreed and said yes, we live on false ground. 


The other story I'm pursuing here is how Mexico City has expanded to cover over more than 90% of the original wetlands that were once here in the Valley of Mexico. The costs to the birds and fish and other life that used to live here are obvious, but the costs to the people currently living here in Mexico City (more than 20 million people) are only beginning to be understood. 

The fascinating thing for me is before last October, when I came to Mexico for the first time since dominating Mexican hitters as a 13-year-old pitcher from Minnesota, I wasn't thinking at all about writing of Mexico in the new book. And now, here I am, back a few months later for more. Even with my minimal Spanish (when I came in October, I didn't even know how to say "I don't speak Spanish" in Spanish), I'm having a wonderful time. Right now, it looks like the new book will have stories from Mexico, Peru, and Chile (and California, Alaska, Minnesota, and more). I'm lucky to have had Latin America (and Latin Americans, see below) become part of my life.



Greetings from poolside at the Hotel Santa Clara in Cartagena, Colombia. And when I say poolside, I am in fact about 15 yards from the water. But this is a redhead poolside, so that means I'm actually in my air conditioned room, in the shade, protected from that mean old sun. I'm here in this hotel in Cartagena, a walled city (at least, the old city) on the sea, for the Hay Festival. 


This is to present The End of Night, which has been translated into Spanish as "El Fin de la Oscuridad," or The End of Darkness. I feel incredibly fortunate to have been invited by the Hay this year to their Festival in Mexico in October, and now to Colombia. The chance to meet writers from Europe and South America has been something I'll never forget. Just yesterday at lunch I talked for an hour with Laurent Binet, a French writer whose novel HHhH has been a massive success worldwide, translated into 30 languages. I had never heard of him, nor of his book, but now he's a friend. And at my table of 12 were two of the most famous writers in Spain, one of the most famous writers from Greece, and others from Peru, Colombia, Mexico. It's very humbling to be included.

And to be included, to be recognized and valued for my writing--for literature--is an amazing feeling. In the US, we live obsessed with celebrity, especially from TV and movies. It may be what I expected to find, but indeed I have found in Mexico and Colombia a respect for writers that I have not experienced in the US. It makes me want to learn Spanish, and to write my next book knowing that these people to whom literature means so much will be reading my work.


It's also been really interesting to meet world famous people and see how different they are. Most treat me with respect and interest, but a few seem a bit too important for that. I love the former way of being, of kindness. I hate arrogance. One of my favorite people so far has been Jody Williams, who won the Nobel Prize for her work banning land mines. She's funny, straightforward, swears a lot, has a bad back, and she's too important for no one. She is genuine. Other people, perhaps because they have never heard of you, aren't so down to earth.


What does it mean to be "down to earth"? That's something I'm wondering these days. I think it has to do with connection, with understanding we all walk the ground for a short time, we all meet the same end, and not thinking you're so different from others you meet. I've always loved that Beatles line from "Hey, Jude" that is, "Don't you know that it's a fool who plays it cool by making the world a little colder." Here in Cartagena, I'm surrounded by some of the most famous writers in the world. Some are playing it cool, but most I've met are not. Most are grounded, rooted, confident in their artistic career but also wanting to connect with other writers and lovers of literature, whomever they are. I know which way I want to be. 



I spent some time with 500-year-olds last week. I'm beginning to visit various grounds for my next book, which has as its focus our relationship with the ground at our feet. So, last week, I flew out to Seattle, rented a car, and drove down to Oregon. I spent Thursday in Portland, visiting with folks who are helping to make that city as green as possible. And then on Friday, I got out into some original green.

I went to the Andrews Experimental Forest about 90 minutes outside Corvallis with Fred Swanson, a retired Forest Service scientist. We were just about the only humans for miles around, and the forest was filled with tall trees and fog. I took along my new camera, so here's the first photo, of Fred among some giants. 

Keep in mind that Fred is about 6'5".  

When the sun came out, things got even more beautiful.

One of the special features of the Andrews is that it is home to long-term research projects. These are projects designed to last longer than the researchers who start them. Fred took me to a small clearing under 500-year-old trees, and lying around us were logs in various stages of decay. Here is a 200-year-project--the scientist who started it is soon to retire--focused on how these ancient trees decay back into the ground. 

Sorry this photo is a little blurry. 

On Thursday, I'd met a stormwater specialist in downtown Portland under a freeway. And the level of noise from the freeway, and the freight train going by, and the monstrous trucks rumbling past, made it difficult to hold a conversation, let alone a thought. And then, the next day, I stood under 500-year-old Douglas Firs, with quiet and fog all around, and thoughts coming one after the other.

It was cold enough that I thought I could see my breath once or twice, but no, this was just the fog, as though I was seeing the ground breathe, the breath rising around me. 

It's hard to stand among these trees and imagine cutting them down.  Fred and I agreed that the decision to cut trees like these were almost certainly never made while standing among them, but instead were made in board rooms far from here. 

It's a remarkable ground, the ground that holds these ancient trees, the ground welcoming the decaying trees back into the earth.  It's spongy, as though you're walking on a foam mattress almost. I want to learn more about it. 

I want to go back and wander among these trees, those towering now and those that once were. I want to take my shoes off and walk the ground that holds them. I want to feel what it's like to stand, here, as they do, and think about time--the moment, the past, the future when everything standing has fallen.

new grounds

A couple nights ago in my parents' Minneapolis house a neighbor asked where I was coming from... I know she meant where do I live now (Virginia), but when I tried to answer I found my head spinning with all the places I've been lately: Mexico, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Minnesota, Virginia, Los Angeles, San Francisco. It's hard to keep straight exactly where I AM most recently coming from.

And wow, this is just the start. Beginning the end of January I will be traveling almost non-stop for at least three months, gathering material for the new book on ground. It's exciting, and it's exhausting (even imagining it). I'm working wherever I go--not lying on the beach (mostly). But my main emotion is one of thanksgiving.  How great is it to have as my work trying to write a beautiful, thoughtful book about this world I love?  It's a privilege (though one I've worked very hard for) and I give thanks.

I'm sharing a photo of some recent ground I walked: Amsterdam.  What a beautiful and unique city. Of course much of the city is water, as it has always been. I'll be returning to the Netherlands for more research on how they have reclaimed and protect the ground while living below sea level in so many places. 

And tonight, I'm back at the cabin in northern Minnesota. Last night, my parents' dog ran after some deer in the woods at dusk, and so I spent the next 90 minutes looking for her. (There's that great part in the movie "Up" a few years ago when the talking dogs all quit whatever they are saying and shout "squirrel!" and race off, not to be stopped. I thought of this.) This tromping around the woods in the dark wasn't exactly what I had planned to be doing, and it was unnerving not knowing where Iris was, but otherwise it was a wonderful experience. I would often stop to listen for the sound of her bell, standing as still as possible, holding my breath. The quiet here in the winter woods is intense--everything else here is standing as still as possible, holding its breath too. And for 90 minutes I heard nothing. Then, I heard the bell across State Highway 6, and soon we were running together back through the woods to the cabin, both of us eager to be warm inside.

The ground here is frozen now, with a few inches of snow in areas, and some areas bare. Whenever I get back to the cabin the first thing I do is walk over to Luna's gravesite and say hello. Her body several feet deep into the frozen earth, the ground marked by stones. Fifteen months have passed, but I still miss her every day. I like coming back here and speaking with her again. There's a connecting that happens, a returning to before fifteen months ago. I like coming back to this ground. Whenever I do, I know where I'm coming from, I know where I am. 



My ears ring. I’ve had tinnitus in both ears for thirteen years. I wish I didn’t have it, but I do. I remember when I first got it how depressed I was, and I remember a good friend who had experienced ACL tears in both knees telling me, “I’d take a little ringing in my ears over having both knees fucked up.” Yes, it’s true, a little ringing in the ears is not the worst thing in the world. Usually I don’t even notice it, but sometimes I really do.

            This fall in Harrisonburg I’ve been sneezing like crazy, blowing my nose constantly. I’ve always had allergies, but this year they are particularly ferocious. I am slow to reach for medicine, though, and so I haven’t been fighting back as maybe I should have. I say that because this past week, the day after driving eight hours back from Massachusetts, often with a blasting car stereo to help keep me awake, I felt my right ear begin to feel plugged up and ringing like never before.

            I flew to Minneapolis on Saturday, and on Sunday morning it was worse—I could barely hear out of my right ear. And on Monday when I flew to Los Angeles  I was basically deaf in that ear.  Was it the allergies?  Was it all the flying? Was it blasting the car stereo for several hours on the drive?  I don’t know. But I know I did not like this feeling—ringing and whirling in my right ear, the sound of faint sirens, the flutter of an endlessly clicking fan, and the sensation of the ear being totally plugged up.

            I’d come to California to attend a conference on soils for my new book (on The Ground—and if you’re reading this and have ideas for unique grounds for me to visit, please let me know). But as I was listening to people tell me about their projects, I could only half-hear them. I could hear nothing in my right ear except the swirling and whirling and whistling and ringing and the distorted noise from a concrete-floored conference center. I felt embarrassed having to ask a graduate student to stand on my other side so that I could hear her. She smiled and patted me on the shoulder, “No problem, grandpa.” (She may as well have.)

            One of the most interesting things I’ve read about this past year was a program in London where they teach young people to work with the elderly by having them wear a suit of weights that mimics what it feels like to be old. A BBC reporter went to investigate, and first they had him run down to the coffee shop and bring back some coffee.  Of course he did this with ease, actually running down the stairs and coming back in no time.  Then, they suited him up in the old age suit and asked him to do the same thing. This time it was entirely different.  In addition to the suit making it feel as though your limbs are stiff, your balance off, and your fingers almost immoveable, they had him wear goggles that smeared his vision, and they put ear plugs in that blurred his hearing. At the coffee shop, he could barely read the menu, couldn’t count his change, and—when he dropped some of the change—couldn’t bend down to pick it up.

            I’d like to wear this suit sometime. I’d like to wear it knowing that I will be able to take it off when I want to. I’d like to wear this suit because I know it would teach me empathy and gratitude in a way that just telling myself to be grateful for my relative youth and health can’t. Even as someone who tries every day to give thanks for these qualities I still often feel like you just can’t know what you have until it’s gone.

            That’s just how I was feeling this past week with my ear. I didn’t like the noise—the noise that paradoxically goes along with not being able to hear—but the thing that worried me most was that I could not hear. How I wanted my blessed hearing back. I so take for granted the ability to hear when someone speaks to me—in the airplane seat next to me, at a restaurant, at a conference—and I found myself looking around meeting rooms and conference hallways at peoples’ ears, thinking, all you people with your ears can hear just fine!  

            After a few days, my hearing began to return in my right ear, and the noise began to die down. It’s still ringing, and more than normal, but at least I can hear. I will take a little ringing in my ear over losing the ability to hear, that’s for sure. And as I find myself now on another flight from Los Angeles to Atlanta, and then tonight on to Amsterdam, I am sitting here cramped into a completely full flight thinking I can hear, I can hear, I can hear.

lake house, source of life

At midnight I walked out onto the dock, and for the next half hour I simply looked at the sky. It was one of those amazing nights here at the lake in northern Minnesota, the Milky Way running from the southwestern horizon to the northeastern, disappearing into the pines behind our house. My parents and grandparents built this lake house the year I was born, and I've come here every summer (and many winters) since. My grandparents are gone, and in the past few years my parents have hit hard financial times. And so I find myself paying a mortgage on this house to keep it in the family. I want my parents to have this place to come to for the rest of their lives. And I want to have this place for me. It's a lot of money each month, though. Sometimes I wonder if it makes sense.

This summer I've been here more days than perhaps any summer of my life. From the end of June to early August I had 40 days in a row. And after a week out west to see friends (and visit the OTHER house I own but don't live in), I got to come back here for a week before I head back to Virginia to teach.  I leave here in two days.

No matter how much time I get here, it's always hard to leave. And no matter how well I live the time I'm blessed to have, it passes. I find myself befuddled by this every year, but especially this year. I mean, I had FORTY days here. When I tell my friends this they roll their eyes and sigh and say they should have been a professor. But even forty days pass, and now even this bonus week is almost gone. There's just nothing to be done.  Except give thanks.  

I've been doing that a lot this summer, giving thanks.  I don't know what else to do. I am really, really good at beating myself up for not working harder. And yes, maybe I didn't need to take a nap every afternoon.  But the nap on the screened-in porch, after a run, a swim, and a late lunch--the moment when I lie on the floor and wrap myself in my grandmother's old quilt is... I mean, it's why I'm spending a quarter of my monthly income (maybe it's more, who knows?) on this place. That, and the time I get to spend with my parents. And the sounds of loons at night, and the barred owls, and the crickets, and the quiet. And the clear, cool lake water--that alone is worth it, at least that's the thought I had when I first went swimming this summer: this is why I'm paying for this place. That, and the last minute of a long run when I'm coming down the slope through the woods, sweating, feeling all high on endorphins, and kind of proud of myself for overcoming the thousand excuses for not running, or for stopping during the run when my calves were screaming. And too, the fact my old friend Luna is buried here, and after nine months away it feels almost like I'm with her again. 

And... so, I have tried to live this time as well as I could. To work as hard as I could on the new book idea, to read for hours a day, to swim, to nap. And to walk out onto the dock at midnight and simply look at the sky.

But looking at the night sky is never simple, at least not for me. I am almost always brought to thoughts about my life, and how I'm living, and how time is passing. I think these are good thoughts to have, good things to be thinking about--how am I living this brief time I've been given. I'm guessing this is a pretty common human response to coming face to face with the universe.  I always think about how seldom I see a real night sky like the ones here at the lake. And how most of us in the industrialized world never come face to face with the universe anymore. In The End of Night, one of the people I interviewed told me he didn't think losing the sight of the universe was the worst thing that was happening in the world, but he thought it was symbolic of the worst things.  We are cutting ourselves off, he said, from the sources of our lives.

This lake is the source of so much of my life.  That's why I come back each summer.  To give thanks.    

lake sunset.JPG

Luna, the lake, the ground

So, I'm back in northern Minnesota at my family's lake cabin. I've come here every summer of my life, so to come back from Virginia (after other years from North Carolina, Wisconsin, Nevada, and New Mexico) feels natural, as though I am a migratory species returning to summer breeding, feeding, and stomping grounds.  I will only be feeding and stomping this summer, though, as I am sad to say I left a relationship behind two weeks ago, and I'm learning once again about being alone at the end of the work day when you want to share what you've done and haven't done and wish you'd done and hope to do. But so it goes.

The first thing I did when reached the lake a week ago was to walk over to see Luna's grave. My parents and I buried her last August before I returned to Virginia for the start of the school year. I dug a deep hole and laid her curled at the bottom, added a dog bowl and her favorite biscuits for the journey ahead, and then covered her body with two old t-shirts of mine so that she could take my scent along with her. The worst part--the part that pulled heaving sobs from my body--was covering her face with one of my shirts, her face never to be seen again. (And it's funny how that works--she was dead, she wasn't feeling anything, it was me who wanted to cover her body and face with my clothing before covering her with dirt... but that last movement to do so... my parents had their hands on my legs as I lay at the edge of the grave, reaching in.) We took turns covering her with dirt, then covered the graves with stones. I often thought of her grave this winter, as Minnesota experienced its coldest, longest winter in years. When I got here, I walked over and smiled. The woods has already started to grow through and around the grave, with grass and plants and even a tiny oak tree flowing up around the gravestones. Luna isn't alone out there but instead is surrounded by life.

I remember one of the last nights she was alive last summer. I woke late, around 2AM and helped her out to pee. There was a waning gibbous moon over the lake, and the whole night was still and soaked in moonlight. We walked out onto the dock, and I sat and pulled her into my lap. We simply sat there, me stroking her fur, in the moonlight, the lake calm, the sounds of the northern night beginning to rise again around us, surrounding us with life. 

I've been thinking a lot about "the ground" lately, as I'm working on a proposal for a new book idea. I know I'll want to tell the story of burying my friend Luna here last summer, how it was so important for me to do so. She was dying of leukemia, but she may have lived a couple more weeks if I'd taken her back to Virginia.  Nothing against Virginia, but I did not want her to die there, and I did not want to bury her there. I wanted to bury her here at the lake where we'd returned together every summer in her fifteen years. And now she is in this ground (I even thought for a moment, as I first stood next to the grave last week, of how I could grab the shovel and dig up her body, touch her again, remove those t-shirts and see her face. But of course, not really. She's taken those biscuits and is long gone on that next journey), and she will always be in this ground. She's taken into the ground every memory we have together, like the night we sat on the dock in the moonlight--I think now of her body glowing some from all that moonlight--and her being here makes this ground mean more to me than it already did.  I want to think more about this, to explore our relationship to the ground. I think this will be the next book. If you're reading this and want to offer your thoughts, please do.