I spent a week in July at a writing workshop taught by Craig Childs on the Zumwalt Prairie. Here’s what I learned:
What I saw on the Zumwalt Prairie:
- The full moon rise over a herd of grazing cattle.
- Some of my favorite prairie flowers: grindelia with its delicious scent of turpentine, clarkia, lots of lupine, mullein, yarrow, senecio (aka groundsel, ragwort, butterweed), purple penstemon, fuzzy phacelia, horsemint, Oregon sunshine.
- Grasses: fescue, timothy, bunchgrass, reed canary grass, cheat grass which bored into my socks and jacket.
- Dragonflies and water striders in Camp Creek. An insect that looked like it had checkered wings dipped into the water and out again.
- A golden eagle that was sitting on a fence post as we drove out of the camp and took off across the road to soar to a nest on a nearby rock formation. This bird is so huge it’s amazing it can fly
- A mustard-yellow hummingbird that flitted through the group making an angry buzzing sound
- Nothing but blue sky, yellow-brown and green grass rippling in the wind
- Swallows squeaking and streaking, swooping and swerving
- Fledgling swallows trying to get back into their nests
- Swallow fledglings lined up on the wire, flutter, flutter, flutter. They look like little kids learning to swim, while their parents float and glide.
- Four deer descending the ridge, spronging: hop-spring, hop spring. White tails. Mule deer? Someone said they are driving out the native deer because they are more aggressive. I later learned this particular gait is called stotting or pronking.
- Only a few Belding ground squirrels. It seemed most of them were estivating. Estivating is the summer equivalent of hibernating. They stuff themselves with food and then go to sleep in their underground tunnels. I saw only three. One streaking down the path and diving into a hole. One dead on the path up the mountain. Another standing as a sentry outside the barn.
- In the owl’s rubbish pile out in back of the barn, I found two jaw bones: one from a vole and another from a mouse?
What I didn’t see on the Zumwalt Prairie:
- The sunrise
- These birds that other people saw: vesper sparrow, grasshopper sparrow, savannah sparrow, house wren, red0winged blackbird, western meadowlark, horned lark, red-tailed hawk, ferrugineous hawk, the great horned owl that lives in the barn.
- A grasshopper sparrow nest
- The swallows all taking to the air in one fantastic, swirling troop and then departing (for Argentina?) on July 14. I didn’t see this because I was doing dishes in the farmhouse.
Other things I learned on the Zumwalt Prairie:
- The composition of swallow shit which I tried to clean off my hat (a white sac containing black bits of soot—indigestible remains of insects?)
- The difference between a cliff swallow nest (shaped like a gourd) and a barn swallow nest (looks like a clump of dirt clods pasted together into a bowl).
- The geological origins of this prairie which is a bed of basalt that lowly leaked out of a molten core and has been eroding ever since.
- You go to the wild for time that is not filled up with things to do.
Definitions of wild:
- An event or place where human rules don’t apply
- A place you’re entering that has its own language that you don’t speak
- Craig: “I find wild by putting myself in situations where I don’t belong”
- Often accompanied by a feeling of timelessness, boundaries dissolving, loss of control
- Going into a place that is really complicated and trying to figure a way out of it [sounds like writing a novel or teaching a class, to me]
What I learned about Craig Childs:
- He uses Scrivener.
- He keeps notes in small journals easily card in a pocket and transcribes them when he gets home.
- He gathers and then writes. He figures he spends almost 80% of his time in front of a keyboard although most of his writing is about his adventures in the wild.
- He throws away much more than he writes. When his son asked him to do a word count on the out-takes from his most recent manuscript, it was one million words. The manuscript was about 80,000.
- He plays the flute.
- He does not consider himself a “nature writer.”
- He reads a lot of scientific journals. And poetry.
- He applies what he learns from his experience in wilderness to writing, looking for the direction, grasping the contours of the landscape, taking risks, following his intuition, honoring the elements, bringing everything to the page.
- He contributes to a blog called Last Word on Nothing. He spends two hours twice a month writing blog posts and doesn’t get paid for it. He and his fellow writers have been offered money to make this a regular column for various big online sites like the Atlantic and Science but decided they prefer the freedom to write whatever they want.
- His first book was a coffee table photography book published by Arizona Highways. His next two books were published by Sasquatch Books.
What I learned about writing from Craig Childs:
- Be bold. Take risks. You can throw it away later if you want.
- Write a lot.
- Tell stories. Stories make information come alive.
- You can tell the same story more than once. I’m rereading The Way Out and recognized one of the stories he told us. at night. It’s the same but different. It’s also clear that the telling of a story changes it.
- Cut the last sentence from every paragraph you write.
- Read your work out loud.
- Write about a particular moment in time and place.
- Look for moments of alignment, when you recognize your connection with something greater.
- Put yourself in the story. Who is the narrator? Why are they here? What do they bring to this moment?
- Writing is an adventure.
- “The reader wants everything.”
- Ask what’s underneath.
- Use a synonym finder (he had a huge Roget’s thesaurus) to find a random word. Flip it to any page and pick the first word you see. Use this word to inspire a piece. Some great words that appeared during the week: somersaulting, blaze, crispy. Words I got: tumble, pack
- Use a randomly chosen word to find a slant for a story you want to tell or to bring depth into a piece you are revising. He called this perceptual linking; someone else called it a conceptual blend, someone else called it a randomizing factor. On one day, four people, including Craig, wrote about the finding of a grasshopper swallow nest. Their words were all different—I only remember three: powerless, facsimile, nab—and each piece was completely different and original.
- Use a synonym finder to look up a word that is not quite right for the sentence you are working on, find a synonym, explore that word: its associations, its etymology. Choose words based on sound.
- There are lots of ways to publish. Consider typing up your work and putting it under a windshield wiper on a random car. Or posting it on a supermarket bulletin board. Or posting it on a blog.
- “Stories look for tellers and sometimes they find the person to tell them.”
Stories Craig Childs told us:
- I can’t tell you all of them although he did not swear us to secrecy.
- About back-packing with his kids through Brooklyn.
- About losing his way while camping with his kids on the south rim of the Grand Canyon.
- About drinking with a cow skull from puddle left in a cow track. (Moral of the story: Don’t do this!)
- About exploring an active lava flow in Hawaii
- About sneaking behind the fire line of an active fire
- About canoeing down a flash flood in Arizona on the day after his father died
- About setting the swimming pool in his father’s backyard on fire the next day
- About exploring a canyon east of Tucson where there was no water during the day because the trees were drinking it but during the night, small streams and pools appeared, riparian plants and fireflies
- About following fireflies at night into the Ramble in Central Park
- His mantra: There’s always a way out.
What I learned about teaching from Craig Childs:
- See above.
- Tell stories.
- Reveal yourself.
- Ask “Does this sound clear?” after giving instructions.
- Pay attention. On our last day together, Craig gave us each a prompt that he had created specifically for us based on what we had learned about us, and each designed to push us forward into rich and risky material. (Mine was “when the city becomes nature.”)
What I learned about myself:
- I hate feeling trapped.
- I need a lot of time alone.
- If I ask for what I need, I will get it.
- Something bit me on the back of my neck while I was setting up my tent. It swelled into a hive almost as big as my hand and triggered a headache that lasted for 24 hours. Tonia made a mixture of frankincense, peppermint and lavender essential oils and showed me where to apply it (to my temples, the sides of my jaws, the back of my neck). Andie gave me a Benadryl. And Kelly gave me some anti-itching cream. Jenner told me a story about how he got viral encephalitis from a mosquito bite. Oddly enough, this also helped.
- I don’t have to do everything myself. My pack will take care of me.
- On the day everyone else went to the Hell’s Canyon, I went for a solitary walk up Camp Creek and settled under a ponderosa pine. I felt certain there was something watching me from the thicket farther up the hill. I thought at first it was a bear (Tonia saw a bear in this vicinity last year), then a badger (Tonia was hissed at by an angry badger on her way to her tent the previous night), then a cougar (heard Janie talking about recent cougar sightings near town). It was probably a chipmunk.
- Ativan does not prevent me from being anxious about a cougar jumping on be from behind and breaking my neck with a single crunch of its powerful jaws.
The stunning photos were taken by Gerry Morrison, one of the Outpost participants. You can learn more about Craig Childs at this web site. You can learn more about the Outpost program at Fishtrap here.