Words, words, words.

Sun streamed in through the windows of my mother’s flat, up above The Broadway in Thorpe Bay, England. To the right, too far for us to see but close enough to be felt, was the sea, and to the left, the train station that took so many commuters on a route paralleling the Thames River, up to London. We make a habit of walking along the seafront, my husband and I, when we’re back visiting my mother, but the beauty of the day made me think I didn’t want to limit our time outside to just an hour along the seafront. It was the kind of day when it would be good to be in the trees. Catch the sunlight filtering through the branches in airy beams. And give my husband’s knees a break by letting him walk on soil instead of pavement.
“Do you want to go to Hockley Woods?” I asked him.
“Sure.”
“Okay, let’s go.”

A bus ride later – a blue, double-decker no less, where we sat upstairs, at the front, with a little bit of a queasy view of all the harrowing squeeze-pasts this dieseling behemoth had to make on the narrow, curvy, two lane country roads – we were in the woods, away from the sounds of traffic, encountering only occasional walkers, like us, most of them out with their dogs.

We stretched out, the ground muddy in places under our feet, the sky a heavenly lavender blue where we could see it. Hockley Woods is what they call a “coppicing” woods, where the trees are felled in one area and the stumps left to encourage new growth. We took photos of the burly oaks, examined the seeds from the sweet chestnut trees and looked at piles of newly felled hornbeams, wondering if they’d get sold for wood.
Hockley Woods 3
Sweet chestnuts
Coppicing 1
At the end of our walk, while my husband chatted with an amiable Essex forester who started every sentence with “truth be told,” I stared at the sign detailing Hockley Woods. And lost myself in the language of it. Words like foxglove and broom, butchers broom and dog mercury made me want to stand there forever, reading them again and again, hoping to imprint their beauty on my mind. Cow wheat, willow herbs and Heath Fritillary butterfly; how could anyone not love such language?
Hockley Woods
Maybe this was just me being nostalgic for the words of my childhood but I think not. I think words are my thing, in the same way that fabric is my older sister’s thing. I remember being dragged into fabric shops by her as a teenager and standing, waiting for what seemed like endless amounts of time as she pondered the different materials, asking myself in that sullen, teenage way, why she had to touch every, single one. Now I get it. I think one of the best things about being a writer is having to go through the mental archives of vocabulary looking for just the right word. Or, even better, looking for different words to say the same thing.

I walked away from my husband and on to another sign, where I read words like pedunculate oak, paper birch, hazel, sessile oak. It didn’t matter that some of the words were unfamiliar to me; I could always look them up, I thought. Or could I? According to Landmarks by Robert MacFarlane, a fascinating book about the different words we have to describe our landscape, the following words are among those that have now been dropped from the Oxford Junior Dictionary:

acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture and willow.” (Landmarks, Penguin Press, 2016, pg. 5).

Really???

They were dropped so they could be replaced with – are you ready? – words including:

attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player and voice-mail.” (Landmarks, Penguin Press, 2016, pg. 5).

I’ve asked myself about this many times since I read it, thinking how sad that we’re moving so far from the natural world, that the Oxford Junior Dictionary doesn’t think children need to look those words up anymore. It’s true that the second group of words is more reflective of the things they run into contact with everyday but, as a friend mentioned to me at one of my book events, when I shared the above with the audience, the children she deals with in schools already know the meaning of words like broadband, voice-mail and chatroom. In fact, they probably already know the meaning of all the words in the replacement group. But what are they going to do when they’re introduced to Shakespeare and can’t look up the meaning of the word cygnet? Or lark, for goodness sake? What if they read The Wind in the Willows and wonder what is this creature called otter? Or are we to assume that the words in those texts will be replaced with more modern, more “relevant” terms.

“It was the nightingale, and not the MP3 player,
That pierced the fearful hollow of thine ear.”

My husband sidled over to me and interrupted my memorization of the sign. “You want to see what they have to eat at that pub we passed?” he said to me.
“Sure,” I answered, ready for some lunch.

We walked, single file, along the narrow band of pavement that curved up the hill from Hockley Woods, a steady stream of cars whizzing past inches from our shoulders and hips. I wondered, as we walked, whether I would linger in front of a sign that was littered with words like broadband and chatroom and bullet-point? Probably not, I thought. They’re just not as prosaic as nature words. Or do I have that the wrong way round? Is it that nature is more prosaic than technology so the words used to describe it are more evocative? Maybe if we gave our documents and devices prettier names, I’d find them more appealing. But, then again, a cell phone by any other name would still be a cell phone.

Unless, of course, we could come up with a way to replace it with the Heath Fritillary butterfly. Truth be told, I wouldn’t mind.
Heath fritillary

The View from the Sauna Porch

I’ve been thinking a lot about trees recently, specifically all the trees in the little mountain dell where I’m lucky enough to live. And when I say all the trees, I mean I can’t look out of any window in my house without seeing a tree or two. Or three. Or more. Douglas fir trees, cedars, maples, alders, hemlocks, silver firs, cherry, apple, two types of walnut, a Japanese white pine, a few sequoias – these are just some of the species that grow on our five acres. And as I’ve watched them grow, I’ve found myself reflecting on them as a metaphor for life.

I was extremely skittish when I first met my husband, and had no intention of setting roots. But one of the things he offered me was stability. My mind shied away from that offer, encouraging me to keep running from my past, something I made central to my first novel, but apparently my heart found it appealing. So I stayed. And discovered that setting roots actually suited me. Helped me grow. Thrive even.

So of course, every time I look out my kitchen window, and see these majestic life forms manifesting the power of stability, I can’t help but want to put them in my writing. But at the same time, I feel like the natural world around me touches me on so many sensory levels, I’m not sure I can squeeze all that into just a few sentences. I love trying, because it makes me feel like I’m out in the woods, with the trees, but I hesitate to share because what if I’m not getting it right? I was discussing this dilemma with my friend, Lisa, in Seattle last weekend. She looked at me, with her big, beautiful eyes, and said, “Oh but please keep trying. Because some of us don’t live with trees around us, and the closest we can come is to read about them.”

It was a wonderful, gentle reminder that the reason we write is not just for ourselves but for those who might read what we write. It encouraged me to want to share a couple of short pieces inspired by the trees around me. For Lisa, or for anyone who doesn’t get to live in the woods.

The first is a short passage from my new novel, describing the view from our sauna porch after a big rain.

“The storm was over and Joe and Lucy sat wrapped in towels, on the porch of the sauna, zoning on the moisture-laden trees in front of them. It was cold, and steam from their bodies wafted up past the flickering lights of the candle lanterns hanging from the log beam above their heads. The dogs sat on either side of them, their noses occasionally bumping the air above them in the interminable quest for passing scents. Lucy was lost in the drip, drip, dripping of accumulated rainwater coming from a thick patch of spongy moss on the trunk of a burly maple tree, while Joe was focused on the sporadic splashes from saturated lichen on a leaning length of vine maple. It wasn’t that they were seeing what they were staring at in the candlelit dusk of the evening, so much as hearing it. And in their post sauna, meditative states, it sounded like a rainforest rhapsody, with the creek to their right creating a constant bass, and the pop of firewood burning in the sauna stove adding occasional percussion.”

sauna-porch-2sauna-porch-1stock-tank

The second piece is a short poem.

Co-Dependency

Her arms twine tight around you
Like the blackb’ries on my tree
‘Sinuating, thorny vines
That latch tenaciously

I want to snip and yank and tear
To rid you of her brambles
Knowing you will flourish more
When thus you’re unentangled

But when I freed the silver fir
From that which stole its luster
It drooped and paled and fought for life
With all that it could muster

And so I learned relationships
Like berries on my tree
Are not always ‘bout strength and love
But co-dependency

I shared this with my writers’ group and some of them wanted to know what happened to the tree? I knew the tree had survived, because I see it everyday in my front yard, but until this question I hadn’t really considered exactly how well it had survived. So I went outside and really looked at it. As you can see from these photos I took, it’s not as tall as the two other silver firs planted at the same time, but it is nevertheless lush, darkly verdant and very healthy-looking. It’s thriving.

silver-firssilver-fir

A Walk in the Woods

Pumping up the hill in the State Park this morning, my dog, Molly Moon, gamboling easily, happily, ahead of me, I think about a monologue I wrote some time ago – I was an Illegal Alien – and how I haven’t recited it in a while. It’s quiet in the park, morning moist and aromatic with the gentle scents of the abundant foliage. I’m not someone who likes to listen to music as I walk but rather hear the sounds of nature as I run dialogue or envision plot twists in my head for things I’m working on. Or sometimes, I choose to do a monologue for an imaginary audience. Today that audience is in New York, in a small space, maybe a reading room at the Dramatists’ Guild.

“For a short while, after I first came to this country,” I start, seeing the straight up and down of the bark on the tall cedar trees that stand sentinel, on both sides of the grassy path I’m climbing. It’s amazing how different the bark is on a cedar tree from a Douglas fir, both of which are prolific in the Pacific Northwest. Firs trees have chunky, swirly, pitted bark, like a walnut shell, that will put you out of your house with the heat it can create in a fire, whereas cedars have long strips of paper thin bark, reminiscent of tobacco in cigars.

Somehow my mind captures this information without me really thinking it because I’m well into my recitation by now and enjoying the response of the imaginary audience. “Not that I intended to break the law,” I tell them and I can see them vacillating, wondering whether they should believe me or not. Peter Brook says all you need is am empty space to create theatre but I think all I need is an imaginary audience in my head. Of course, maybe my head is an empty space…

I watch Molly stop to sniff a frond of a sword fern and my eye is drawn to a series of tiny magenta blossoms strung like Christmas lights on a Salmonberry vine. I push on getting to the part in my monologue where I describe being offered a job making fundraising calls in the development department of Metropolitan Opera, and I hear the audience chuckle as I say, “I think she thought my British accent would be just the ticket for talking people out of their hard-earned cash.” Ahead of me, sunlight filters through the trees and I wish, as always, that I had a way to describe the many shades of green I see in these woods. Somebody told me once that Norwegians have many different words for snow and I think we should have an equal number of words for green. Maybe, if I were like Shakespeare, I would invent these words and people would sit behind the actors on the stages of my plays because they want to “hear” the play rather than see it.

But I’m not like Shakespeare. I don’t invent language, I just enjoy it. I wrote this monologue for an artistic director who was at the end of her life and wanted her last hoorah to be an evening with playwrights she had nurtured in her career. She overheard me once telling the story of my student days in NYC, and she said, “You outta write that down.” So for her last hoorah, I wrote I was an Illegal Alien, and shared it first that evening. Now I find myself slipping parts of it into my new novel and feeling ahead of the game that I already have this sticky note of material.

I reach the top of the hill and turn left, starting down the trail that runs alongside the creek. Coincidentally my monologue also makes a turn, away from illegal work activities and onto what it took to become legal. “Did you know, for example, that in order to become a permanent resident I had to swear that I was not a sexual deviant?” The audience laughs out loud, and I add the line, “Who gets to decide what that means?” although I think it might be too much. They get it. To my left I see a dogwood tree in full bloom, its wide, white petals laid flat around its yellow stamen. To my right the creek water clatters uninhibitedly downstream but it’s a sound that blends rather than distracts because it belongs in this environment.

We’re in the final stretch of our walk now and I’m at the place where my husband looks at the Immigration Officer and says, “What if she’s lying?” Audiences love that line and the one in my head is no exception.
“I look at him dumbfounded. Doesn’t he know these people don’t appreciate jokes?!” I complain. But it’s the character’s blatant honesty that they love. Don’t hide your past, is my husband’s mantra; that way people can’t hurt you with it later. I enjoyed writing this piece because it demonstrates that even someone who looks like me can have been an illegal at one time.

Molly skitters into the brush after something – maybe a squirrel – and I pause my monologue to click in my cheek and bring her back. She emerges, tail high in the air, front shoulders kicked back, as if to say, “Perimeter’s secure now, Ma’am.” Ma’am like ham, not like farm. Hey, if I can have my internal dialogue, she can have hers.

We ride home in the car next to each other, our lungs flush with new oxygen.
“What do you think about when you’re on your walk,” my husband asks me as I take off my sneakers.
“Well today I performed a monologue for an audience in New York,” I tell him.
He laughs and says, “You’re such a little girl!”
I think about that for a moment. A little girl, or a consummate performer? I shrug; who cares? I’ll take it.

The author as a little girl

The author as a little girl