Scourges Upon the Earth

From This Changes Everything, the fantastic-as-ever latest book from one of my heroes, Naomi Klein:

This-Changes-EverythingOne of the most interesting findings of the many recent studies on climate perceptions is the clear connection between a refusal to accept the science of climate change and social and economic privilege. Overwhelmingly, climate change deniers are not only conservative but also white and male, a group with higher than average incomes. And they are more likely than other adults to be highly confident in their views, no matter how demonstrably false. A much discussed paper on this topic by sociologists Aaron McCright and Riley Dunlap (memorably titled “Cool Dudes”) found that as a group, conservative white men who expressed strong confidence in their understanding of global warming were almost six times as likely to believe climate change “will never happen” as the rest of the adults surveyed.

I saw Klein speak in Chicago back in 2008 and it was fantastic. She signed my little Moleskin book “Stay Brave.” That strikes right to the heart of things, doesn’t it? Bravery and kindness, that’s what we need more of.


Friday Reads — Country Hardball by Steve Weddle

frkcover_smallI owe a debt of gratitude to Steve Weddle. When I first got online and started seeking other writers, I fell into a community of people who were all fired up with the work, getting agents, and promoting each other’s efforts (quite a list of writers from those days have gone on to publish multiple books; folks like Hilary Davidson, Chris F. Holm, John Hornor Jacobs, Dan O’Shea, and Joelle Charbonneau, just to name a few). I submitted a story to a project called  “The Steve Weddle Memorial Flash Fiction Challenge.” Of course Weddle wasn’t dead at the time, nor is he yet. But my 1000 word piece about a mysterious guy named Kirby was well-received, and folks who remember still ask about him from time to time.

Another year or two down the road, I submitted a story to Needle: A Magazine of Noir, which Weddle served as editor (and founder, with Jacobs) of. Honestly, I wasn’t that thrilled with the story, but I thought I’d written the kind of thing that they — the readers, the “scene” — would want. Turns out Steve liked all of it up to the end, and sent it back. That was an important moment for me, because in the re-working of it I realized I’d made compromises to try and tell a blood-soaked tale like I thought the genre expected, rather than tell a story that was more meaningful to me. Hell, I liked it up until the end too. So I went back to the drawing board. The re-write led to me getting the story, “A Dog Named Buddy,” published in Needle.

Moving forward, I kept with the theme I was trying to pursue, and did pretty well with it, winning back-to-back contests with, essentially, the next two stories I wrote. What I was after was a kind of rural noir of my own, about people I knew, or could have known, dealing with their own demons. The “Rural Noir” genre (for lack of a better name) really took off (in my perception, anyway) in the wake of the success of the movie adaptation of Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone. But what bothered me about the stories so many writers were telling is that they seemed like an exploitation of those folks, as if every community was nothing but a den of meth-fueled drug running murderers and their strung out victims. That irked, and disappointed, me.

Which brings me to Weddle’s debut, Country Hardball. This is the shit I’m talking about. Not that exploitative-vibing shit, the good shit. A novel in short stories, it is set in a dying community in Arkansas. Still different from my own northern community folks, it nonetheless captures the lives and heartaches and breaks of people in a way that I haven’t seen a lot of writers do outside of the late Joe Bageant‘s nonfiction. There is some violence here, and people doing terrible things to each other while making awful choices, but Weddle doesn’t make the mistake of putting something disgustingly awful in every one of the twenty stories. I’ve known some of these people. They ain’t all bad. Some of them just need a break, and there’s only so much luck to go around.

I don’t feel much like part of any writing “community” like I did back a few years ago, pretty much by choice, for reasons of my own. I never wanted to be in a position where I felt obligated to say good things about someone’s work, mainly because I never wanted people to feel obligated to say nice things about mine if they didn’t really mean them. So believe me when I say I wouldn’t be rambling like this if this friggin’ guy doesn’t deserve it. Steve Weddle has given us an outstanding book. I hope people give it a shot. It’s better than most of the stuff out there.


Friday Reads — Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods by Christine Byl

dirty_workA couple weeks ago I was fortunate to have had an opportunity to publish an interview in the Independent with author Christine Byl in support of the reading she was doing in town that week. I met Christine briefly at the Montana Festival of the Book, and then we corresponded a bit during the time she was doing a book tour behind Dirt Work around the Pacific Northwest prior to her return to Missoula. I was happy with the interview, but as is typical, the total number of words we produced about doubled-up the amount of space the paper had room for. That means a fair amount ended up on the cutting room floor. Now that a couple weeks have passed, I figured some folks might be interested in reading the entire, unedited thing. It isn’t all that long, really, and I think Christine is an interesting person. So here it is. . . .

Doing the Dirty Work

When author Christine Byl took a seasonal job building trails in Glacier National Park in 1996, she assumed it would be something she would do a season or two before moving on to a more “real” job. Nearly twenty years later, she’s still building trails — from her home in Alaska — and has written a book, Dirt Work, published in April of 2013. The book is a story of the pleasures of hard work, Byl’s personal experiences with the wild, and what it is like to be a woman in a “man’s world.” Byl took time from her book tour of the Pacific Northwest to answer a few questions for the Indy.

Indy:  You have ties to Missoula, correct?

Christine Byl:  I moved to Missoula in 1995 after finishing college, ostensibly for a “break” before going to grad school. (All moving to Missoula stories start this way right?) I started on my first trails job in Glacier in 1996 and spent winters in town from ’96-’02. I love Missoula. If it weren’t for Alaska, I would definitely live here.

I:  Through the book, we get a pretty good idea of how friggin’ hard the work was. When did you find time and energy to write? How much of this book was written while things were happening versus what had already happened? I mean, were you writing in the early years, or did you realize at some point however many years in that what you were doing and experiencing, particularly from a woman’s perspective, was a story worth telling?

CB:  I was already writing when I moved to Missoula–actually, I moved here in part because I was drawn to a town with a reading and writing culture. I wrote in the winters, and actually published my first short story while I lived here.

As long as I’ve done trail work, I’ve written very little during the field season. I am constantly thinking and mulling over things while I work, but all my writing on the page happens in the off-season. The book was written intermittently over a span, about 2002-2009. All of the Glacier stuff was written way after the fact, and I think it started because of how much I missed Montana. I had never written about it when I lived there, but once in Alaska, I thought about it a lot. The book itself began with the stuff about tools, particularly the axe. I never meant to write a non-fiction book, let alone a memoir, but once I started on the tools, it drew me into the larger story of the subculture–which I think is fascinating, and not well enough known–and then my own story became the lens through which to explore that world.

I:  The book is divided into sections based on the primary tools you used in the work. But there are also breaks between sections — short musings on nature, or one in particular about lynx — I’m curious how this kind of storytelling came about. Was it something premeditated, or did it just happen along the way?

CB:  I wrote the way I think, which is in layers, sometimes driven by ideas, sometimes characters, sometimes images, always with language central. I try not to over-think things in the early stages, just trust my instincts to get things on the page. I also write poems, so occasionally material–the lynx, the sea gulls, some of the packers’ dialogue–would come as a poem. When I was done with a decent draft, I went back to it and wondered if it needed a more typical structure, but I realized that the way the book had unfolded, in pieces and layers, really mimics the way a sense of place accrues. It’s not a linear process. So I decided to let it be.

I:  Have you encountered any issues with gender as it relates to the type of book Dirt Work is? I guess what I mean here is that if one looks at your negative reviews in various places where one can find them, a common theme is that readers felt like you didn’t reveal that much about Christine in the narrative. I don’t necessarily agree, but this isn’t some tell-all memoir either. I guess what I wonder is if there is some bias that seems to think any woman who writes an “outdoor” book needs to be some deeply emotional “finding herself” type story, particularly given the success Cheryl Strayed has had with Wild, which is a totally different book from yours. Do you think people come to your book expecting something like that because you are a woman?

CB:  For sure some people have an expectation for a more emotionally disclosing story, especially since Strayed’s book came out just a year before mine. And yes, I think there is definitely a bias, or perhaps an expectation, regarding women writing non-fiction, that we will be more personally confessional, more focused on the self than the larger world, more interested in “our own story.” There is, of course, much good writing like this. But if this isn’t what you write, it can be frustrating to be pigeon-holed, or critiqued for writing another way. I don’t think men get this personal pressure. I have not seen Barry Lopez or Michael Pollan critiqued by people who wish they felt more connected to them, who want to know how they met their spouse, etc. It’s also frustrating when reviewers or readers pass over the larger ideas in books by women (in my case, about work and gender and wilderness and apprenticeship) in order to focus on the more personal details. I would much rather talk about the subculture than about my personal life, let’s put it that way!

I:  In the early days of your career, working in and around GNP, you are one of a handful of women. When you move to Alaska, you are about the only one. Has that changed much in the near 20 years since you started? Are there more women doing this kind of work now than when you started?

CB:  I don’t know how the Glacier crew looks these days, but I think that was an unusual experience, working with four or five female crew leaders. I think there’s been a gradual increase in women in labor and trades overall, but certainly not exponential, and although there are women on crews, a small percentage of them stick with it for much more than a few years. There’s still a lot of cultural bias, and subtle institutional barriers, that prevent women from committing to a manual career.

I:  Toward the end of the book, you make a point that “being a woman in a ‘man’s world’ is an activism, a standing up to assumptions and limits and proclaiming with our bodies, our whole selves, I can be however suits me.” Has anyone challenged you on a statement like this, or how you have chosen to exercise that activism? One of the themes running through the book is the crude nature of the humor among the workers, for example, and the foul language, etc. Behavior that isn’t considered particularly “female” by the culture at large. Some might say you are “betraying the cause” or something by not attempting to change that kind of behavior. Have you been challenged along those lines?

CB:  I strongly disagree with the notion that women exist in order to attempt to change anything about men, about male culture, whatever. We can certainly try if we want to, but women exist for the same reason men do–to be our fullest selves. I think I’d be betraying the cause of feminism far more by prescribing certain behavior as appropriate for women than I would by cussing. In general, those criticisms come from men who want women to be a certain way, not from women, who just want to be whoever they are already, whether it’s culturally appealing or not. And I’ve got news for those who think that women are generally not inclined to swearing or dirty jokes or voracious appetites. I’ve worked with bawdy women and prudish men, and everything in between. As with any quirk of personality that is often ascribed to gender, I have found there is actually far more variety within the genders than there is between them.


Friday Reads — Notes from the Journey Westward by Joe Wilkins

notes-from-the-journey-westward-finalI met Joe Wilkins briefly at the 2012 edition of the Montana Festival of the Book, where he was promoting his excellent memoir, The Mountain and the Fathers: Growing Up on The Big Dry. I had hoped to speak with him again this year, when he was once again a guest of the festival, but my schedule was such that I didn’t make it downtown until  Saturday afternoon. I saw Joe from across the room hustling somewhere, but I didn’t get a chance to wrangle him into conversation. So I bought his book of poetry instead, and I haven’t regretted it.

Here’s a poem from the excellent (and award winning!) collection of poetry called Notes from the Journey Westward by Joe Wilkins:

A cowbird pecks at the frozen edge
of a reservoir. The thin ice cracks.

A man throws the last flakes of hay
from the back of a flat-bed Ford.

The chewing cattle steam with heat.
The day is bright as dried bone.

Cottonwoods let go their breath
of wind, and a scrim of snow leaps

across the prairie. The cowbird
caws. In the cab the man wipes

frost from his beard, pours coffee
from a thermos, then reaches

into a brown paper bag and lifts out
two golden biscuits. The cowbird

wings its way to sky. The man says
a prayer for empty gizzards and eats.

I’ve said before that I struggle with poetry, and while a few of these make me scratch my head a little to try and comprehend, there are more than several that hit me right in the gut. Anyone with an interest in the form should check this guy out.


Friday Reads — Caught Inside: A Surfer’s Year on the California Coast by Daniel Duane

1843That I even know about this excellent book is a triumph of social media. I’ve talked here before about books on surfing, my landlubber’s interest in the sport and lifestyle, and even reviewed other books on or by surfers via Amazon and Goodreads (back when I had a Goodreads account anyway). Most recently was my commentary on the “Surf Noir” collection written by my friend Jeff McElroy called Californios. Anyway, this got me to chatting with another writer friend on the opposite coast, who also surfs (and sails and cooks and who knows what else’s), named Kieran Shea (his debut novel, Koko Takes a Holiday, looms soon on Titan Books). Out of the blue he asked for my mailing address so that he could generously send me a book; that book was Caught Inside: A Surfer’s Year on the California Coast, by Daniel Duane. When I posted a picture of it on Instagram upon its arrival, McElroy also weighed in on its excellence, and suggested another Duane book to look for.

I wrapped up what I was reading and leapfrogged it to the top of the TBR pile, and I’m glad I did.

Nonfiction, Caught Inside is almost a collection of essays; it just isn’t broken out as such, which works just fine. By far my favorite aspects of the book are Duane’s musings on and descriptions of the ecology of the Northern California coast. The crabs and starfish, the otter who makes his home around Duane’s favorite surf spot, seals and dolphins, and even terrifying discussions of sharks. The people he shares the community he lives in, and his fellow surfers and how their lives are dominated by the ocean, are fascinating. The physics of waves, and descriptions of being inside them, are also compelling. He’s no champion surfer, which makes it more accessible as well. Literary without pretension, the writing is inspiring.  Duane also underscores that “surf culture,” such as it is, is comprised by a lot of people who are basically jerks; not by pointing it out necessarily, he just leaves us to reach our own conclusions. That should come as no surprise to anyone who has read anything on the sport, or watched any of the excellent documentaries available. It makes me wonder what the attitudes are like out on our growing river surfing waves right in downtown Missoula. Hopefully I’ll find out for myself here in the next summer or two. . . .

This was a great read. I’ve already secured a copy of Daniel Duane’s novel, Looking For Mo, and it won’t be long before I dig into it.