Of Crows & Copper Mines

Dithering around today, trying to find the right way to begin this post. Which, not unrelated, is one of my greatest writing challenges. Cutting through the backstory, pruning the exposition, digging through the compost to find the story’s true beginning.

 

The beginning may be May 2002, when I traveled to Ireland for the first time and hiked the Beara Peninsula, losing my heart to boggy mountains and wind-shrieked coastlines. It may be October 2010, when I took my first writing class—a workshop on travel writing at the Richard Hugo House in Seattle—thinking I should find a way to meld my love for exploration with the growing desire to release words onto a page. It may be June 2011 and the publication of my first short story, when I realized that if I wrote one perhaps I could another, and I owed it to myself to try. Perhaps July 2012, when the ending of life inside my body brought me to create a different kind of life on the page.

 

Or it may be July 2013, when I walked away from paycheck and health insurance, a series of panic attacks in my wake, hope gilding the clouds of uncertainty ahead, into a full-time writing life.

 

But many of these stories I have already shared with you here. That backstory, that exposition, all running counter to the technique of in media res: beginning in the middle of the action.

 

In January 2014, as I set a first novel aside to rest, both of us exhausted by the effort to cull and corral 170,000 words into a 99,000 word manuscript, I created the story of a recovering alcoholic who has a marriage to repair and a career to salvage. And an artist who cannot forgive himself for the tragedy he caused. I brought them together on a lean claw of land on Ireland’s southwest coast: the Beara peninsula, where the endangered Red-billed chough-—a member of the Corvidae family with the scientific name made for a poem: Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax—congregate on land that could yield a fortune in copper.

 

That story became the novel The Crows of Beara. That novel was named a finalist in the 2014 Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature, judged by PEN/Faulkner author and Man Booker prize nominee Karen Joy Fowler.

 

And as of this week, my Crows has found an amazing nest: Ashland Creek Press. Ashland Creek Press, a publisher based in Oregon, is dedicated to publishing literature—fiction, memoir, creative non-fiction—focused on environmental, conservation, ecology, and wildlife themes. My crows and my words could not have found a more welcoming, nurturing home. The Crows of Beara is set to take flight September 2017.

 

There. That’s a beginning.

 

Ballycrovane Ogham Stone, Beara Peninsula: tallest Ogham stone in Europe. (Neolithic, Bronze Age)
Ballycrovane Ogham Stone, Beara Peninsula: tallest Ogham stone in Europe. (Neolithic, Bronze Age)

Always Be a Beginner

Black ants crawl up my arch and march over the top of my foot like Roman legions hellbent for the Holy Lands. Sweat meanders between my shoulder blades; what doesn’t soak into my bra trickles down my spine into the waistband of my skirt. Inside the classroom, hot, moist air creates an atmospheric event in which tropical plants could grow into monstrosities and tornadoes could collide in green-black funnels of fury. Outside the classroom door, fifty boys and girls in white shirts, black pants or skirts, and flip-flops queue in two jostling, giggling, good-natured lines. A tall boy, the designated classroom leader, claps once and everyone falls into line. They enter the room, stealing sideways glances where I stand on a low platform at the front, a broken blackboard behind me. They have no textbooks, just identical blank copy books with a silhouette of the African continent set against an orange background on the cover. I have no teacher’s manual, just a handful of lessons I practiced in front of my fellow Volunteers, and hope.

 

Whatever difference teaching English to middle-school students in Chad may have made was lost to a teacher’s strike, a civil war, our decision to leave before our program was discontinued. A story for some future time. But mitigating the heartbreaks was discovery I made as I stood there that first day, twenty-two years ago, ants clinging to my toes, sweat running like tiny fingers down my legs: I loved teaching.

 

That isn’t what I went on to do, however. I’d married a teacher, of course, and worked in higher education for many years, sending American students abroad to experience the same magical, lonely, stumbling, rare freedom I’d dipped into as a university student in France—a career that put me in front of a classroom to deliver workshops to colleagues or pre-departure orientations to students. This introvert who suffered through years of weekly staff meetings and networking events came into her confident, joyful own when the setting was a conversation between mentor-guide-teacher and learner.

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A propos of nothing. Just felt like a medieval castle today.

There are so many ways the writing life can bring you down and the sense of isolation—even for hardcore introverts like me—can be acute. If I go for too long without talking to, learning from, working with other writers, I look into the well and I can see bottom. We need one another, to be challenged by others’ voices, to experience our words in different ways, to see the business of writing for what it is, what it can be, to be advocates for one another, to celebrate, to commiserate.

 

What grace to live in a community that embraces artists, where there is a world-renowned poetry press, Copper Canyon Press; an annual writer’s conference at Centrum that brings some of the finest prose and poetry artists to our village each July; and a bookstore, The Writers’ Workshoppe and Imprint Books, where the book displays in the glowing front window invite in readers, and the posters that fill one glass panel announce upcoming classes, workshops, readings—so many opportunities for writers to learn and hone their art and craft, through workshops and classes. And as of this summer, offering this writer a chance to teach.

 

When I made the choice to pursue writing as a career, I saw three paths that would run parallel, so closely they are hardly discernible, one from the other: writing, learning, and outreach to my writing communities, which includes giving back and sharing what I learn along the way. Where I feel most at home, where it all the loose bones snap into place, is in that conversation between learners—for I feel that even if I am the one standing at the front of the room, leading the conversation, the class or workshop is a collaboration, and I have as much to learn as anyone.

 

“’In the mind of the beginner there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.’ Always be a beginner.” Sherman Alexie, quoting Zen master Shunryo Suzuki, Opening Plenary, Chuckanut Writers Conference, June 2012.

The Way In

“What is a poem?” poet Leanne O’Sullivan asks, her soft voice straining to be heard over the rain pelting the conservatory roof. “How do prose and poetry differ?”

“There is more room for the reader in a poem,” I reply. “More room for interpretation and emotion.” I think of Colm Tóibín, one of my prose idols, who states that he writes the silences. I think poetry must be this, an honoring of the silence between the words, between our thoughts.

 

dot dot dot. question mark. Sitting with a blank notebook, uncertain in my ignorance, rattled by my fears, what the hell do I know?

 

Before arriving at this poetry workshop in southwest Ireland, I give myself permission not to write a poem. I’m not a poet and have read poetry in a haphazard way, picking up recommendations here and there, from names dropped in books or by friends, looking through slim volumes in a bookstore, from an obituary—for when does the world talk about poets, except when they die? As a writer of prose and essay, I know the value of rhythm and form, of the carefully chosen word, the breath taken, the meaning conferred in a phrase or in the spaces between. These are essential to developing my storytelling and writing art and craft. But to actually write my own poems?

 

All that I have to learn about poetry, all the poems I have yet to read, poets yet to discover . . . it makes me panicky, really. Yes. I would be the one to panic about poetry.

 

A creature of process, the kid forever tugging on a sleeve asking, “Why, mommy? WHY?” I pore over The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms, Eavan Boland and Mark Strand’s lovely, lucid guide to poetry; I’ve got Edward Hirsch’s A Poet’s Glossary on my equivalent of speed-dial (sitting on the end table next to the sofa); I sift through the teaching resources on poets.org

 

I am searching for a way in.

 

Yet on this workshop first day, as the storm blows off Slieve Miskish and hurtles toward Coulagh Bay, peace descends. My notes capture Leanne’s sure hand, leading me past my doubts: Poetry is permission to write; it is the places where language cannot go; it is the recognition that there is no language; it is the waiting, the revising; ‘The talent is knowing what’s called for,’ she quotes Seamus Heaney. Poetry is awareness. Awareness of what you are writing. Deliberate. Purposeful. Considered. Waited for. Poetry reveals or tells a truth, not fact. 

 

“What is your way into your poem?” This question Leanne poses to our workshop group is the essential question. It is the one I should be seeking the answer to. For finding my way in will take care of all the rest.

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Kilcatherine Church and Graveyard, 7th century AD ©2015 Julie Christine Johnson

 

“What is your way into your poem?”

 

Something vital and tangible. Something real and describable. Leanne tells us, “The real things of the world are the entry point to the imagination. Keep your feet on the ground. Keep your writing grounded by writing from a real place…”

 

I find my way in on a small road overlooking Coulagh Bay, sitting in the rain, remembering. I find my way in through the memory of a little girl with her arms wrapped around a stereo speaker, trying to draw the music into her body because her ears fail to hear it. I find my way into my first poem.

 

The moment is so natural and unbidden. I hear Leanne’s voice saying, “Maintain a sense of awe in the initial inspiration. A waiting has to happen for the poem to come.”

 

What is a poem? is, in its essence, a question that needs no answer. No immediate answer. No complete answer. For an answer excludes the entire process of discovery. Learning what a poem is comes from studying the poetry that has come before, the poetry that is happening now. Experiencing what a poem is happens when awe and meaning embrace, when experience takes over from expression.

 

“…there’s part of poetry that’s always about what cannot be said.” W.S. Merwin

Here. Not Here.

I don’t much feel like talking. I’m home, present and accounted for. Bags unpacked, laundry done, hiking shoes still sporting small clumps of Beara bog. Photos loaded on smugmug, receipts piled in a stack on my desk, a bottle of Connemara 12-year-old Peated Single Malt awaiting whiskey weather.

 

Yes, sure, and I’m here. But not here, so.

 

Where I am is there, in that land of soft rain and impossible greens, of peaches and cream sunrises and salmon-flesh sunsets, of wind and wind and wind.

The Cows of Beara
The Cows of Beara

Where I am is in the land of poetry and legends, of An Cailleach, Clan Ó Súilleabháin, St. Caitighearn; the land of sky and water where battles were fought on gorse-cloaked mountains and warriors marked their Ogham runes on tall pillars. I am where the ruined shadows of a British Coast Guard station destroyed by the IRA in 1920 pale against the shadows of history cast by circles of ancient altars—these slabs of stone sculpted by Bronze Age hands now scratching posts for the russet and inky-black flanks of Angus and Friesian.

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Ardgroom Stone Circle 3000 B.C.

I am walking through Eyeries village where rows of houses line up like Crayons and lace curtains flutter in open windows; in MacCarthy’s Bar, Castletown-Bearhaven, enjoying the craic with new friends, laughter stealing my breath.

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Eyeries, Beara Peninsula, Co. Cork

I’m in a blue room, one wall lined in shelves bursting with novels. Tucked in bed, I watch the sun sink behind the Kerry peninsula; it is approaching 11:00 p.m. and I think I will lie awake as long as there is sunset, until suddenly it is morning again.

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Sunset from my window

Where I am is high on a hillside peering into the green and blue infinity, sheep scattering in my wake, boots soaked through with bog, fingers wrapped around a trekking pole, pack cinched around my waist like a lover’s arms, and I am so happy I could explode from the very fullness of my heart.

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The Beara Coast

I am inside a poem. Inside Eavan Boland’s Quarantine Inside W.S. Merwin’s Thanks Inside Seamus Heaney’s When All The Others Were Away At Mass Inside Sharon Olds’ The Race Inside W.B Yeats’s The Lake Isle of Innisfree I am inside the voice of poet Leanne O’Sullivan as she reads William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments.

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Mass Rock, Allihies Road

I am inside my own head, hearing my own poetry. I am the pen scribbling on the page. I am the tears that flow.

All the cool kids are wearing blue.
All the cool kids are wearing blue.

Something happened to me out there, on the Beara, in the chorus of wind and waves, of birdsong and poemsong. As a writer, as a woman, I am changed. But I’m not ready to talk about it. I’m not ready to come back.

Ag dul síar ar m’aistear
Le solas mo chroí
Fann agus tuirseach
Go deireadh mo shlí

Going west on my journey
By the light of my heart.
Weary and tired
To the end of my road

Excerpted from Mise Raifteirí an File by Antoine Ó Raifteirí

 

New friend, native Corkonian and poet, Michael Pattwell, writes a weekly column for Cork’s The Evening Echo. Enjoy his lovely poetry and reflections on our workshop at Anam Cara with Leanne O’Sullivan: Finding My Poetry in the Wild West

In Retreat

Friday, early evening. I’m warm and sleepy, face burnt by wind and sun, limbs thick and loose with fatigue.

 

I hiked the Beara Way from Eyeries to Allihies today. Not so far really-11 kms, just over 6 miles. But the way was challenging: across the Slieve Miskish range, skirting the boggy and desolate peaks of Miskish and Knockgour,  whistling through lonely valleys. Not a soul, even now, in the height of trekking season in Ireland. Just the wind, the sheep, kestrals, and my thoughts to keep me company.

 

Early in my novel, The Crows of Beara, three characters go on a hike along the Beara Way: Daniel, an Irish guide, Annie, an American, and one of Annie’s Irish colleagues. Daniel drives them from Castletownbere until they reach a service road. He parks at a crossroads, then the three clamber over a turnstile into a farmer’s field and begin their ascent up a boggy mountain. It’s overcast, windy, and the bays below are hidden by a layer of fog.

 

I wrote the scene not from any specific memory of my time hiking the Beara in 2002, but from a composite of images I’d captured and held onto.

 

Today, I came to a sign pointing me back the way I’d come—Eyeries to the north, or east to Castletownbere, or south, to my intended destination of Allihies.  

Crossroads, Beara Way

 

I crossed a service road, clambered over a turnstile, and tromped through a field, scattering sheep in my wake. I began to ascend a boggy trail as thick mist raced down the mountain, obscuring my view of the sea.

image

 

When my character Annie reaches the peak on the trail, she pauses to catch her breath. The wind shoves the fog and mist aside and the bays, fields,  and villages below reveal themselves. Something constricts and then expands inside of her, as if her very soul had stilled in wonder, before filling its lungs with hope and longing and inexplicable joy.

 

As I paused on Knockgour to catch my breath, the wind pushed past me, carrying the mist up and over the mountain and out to sea. 

 

And my very soul stilled in wonder, before filling with delight. I realized I had written this moment. I had found the very place where Annie begins her transformation from one self into the next.

 

I’m on retreat here at Anam Cara. I’m a bit in retreat as well. I arrived a week ago (already, oh!). Only one other writer in residence this week; tomorrow the poetry group arrives. By the time you read this, I’ll have left behind a routine to which I’ve so easily, quietly adapted: an early morning run along country roads, breakfast in a steamy kitchen, writing until noon, followed by a couple of hours proofing the ARC of In Another Life, lunch, a long hike, home again to write before dinner, then a few more hours of writing and reading before the sun finally sets, well after 10 p.m. I leave my curtains open and from bed, I watch the clouds change colors and shapes over Coulagh Bay, until suddenly it’s morning again. Exquisite solitude.

 

I’ve written a couple drafts of an essay that’s been agitating for months to be released on paper. I finished proofing my novel. I worked on a class I’m offering at the end of July. There’s been an awful lot of gazing out the window from the desk in my room and meditating during my hikes, churning around ideas for the next novel. Tomorrow I’ll start researching some of these ideas. Go for another hike. Be deliciously alone.

 

But a new week begins Sunday, as the poetry workshop convenes, and I must open my heart to learning, studying, and sharing. Poetry. I’m terrified. I can’t wait. We’ll be doing some exploring, as well, including other sites in The Crows of Beara I’ve yet to (re)visit.

 

It’s Saturday now. I hear the others arriving. If I sneak out the back, with my pack, camera, notebook and water bottle, I can remain in retreat a little while longer . . .

 

 

Full Circle

“My heart is quite calm now. I will go back.”
― James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

1640_1028955160263_9598_nThis photo was taken in May 2002. My first trip to Ireland. Alone, I joined a small group of strangers to hike the Beara Peninsula, West Cork. And I fell truly, madly, deeply in love. On the flight home two weeks later, I turned my face toward the window and sobbed. I felt torn from a lover whom I was never meant to see again. Ireland had changed me. I had felt on the Beara a sense of peace and wholeness I had never experienced before.

 

I’ve returned to Ireland several times since then, each time to hike. My husband and I have traveled together, he under her spell as much as I. But that first time—and the Beara—remains a dream crystallized in photographs and memories.

 

A year ago January, I began thinking about my second novel, knowing only that it would be set in Ireland. Then I let go of wondering about the where and the why and concentrated on the who. As my characters began to take shape, I knew the threads connecting them to the setting would be found in a legend or a poem that expressed Ireland’s power over the imagination and the soul. When I discovered An Cailleach Bheara, the legend of the Hag of Beara, the mother of Ireland, I knew I would return to the Beara Peninsula, if not in reality, then in the pages of my story.

 

Researching the legend of the Hag of Beara led me the poetry of Leanne O’Sullivan, a native of West Cork who published her first volume of poetry at the age of twenty-one. I wrote about her beautiful collection An Cailleach Bheara in this post: An Cailleach Bheara: The Hag and her sunrise

 

The Beara Peninsula was once a site of the copper mining industry, before those reserves were exhausted in the late 19th century. The skeletons and scars of those mines are visible today. In my novel, I brought the possibility of copper mining back to modern Beara, a place in need of an economic lifeline after recession felled the Celtic Tiger in the late 2000s. And Leanne O’Sullivan’s poetry answered me yet again, in her collection The Mining Road.

 

The wild, scabrous beauty of the Beara belies its fragility. In a cove, on a cliff overlooking the Atlantic, a population of Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax chatters and clings, nesting in the shadow of industry and development. These birds, the Red-billed chough-a member of the crow family—became a sort of character in their own right and their plight, one of my novel’s central themes. The Crows of Beara was a finalist in the 2014 Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Fiction and is now on submission, looking for its publishing home.

 

And I am packing for Ireland. The Beara Peninsula, specifically. In a month, I will be spending two weeks at the Anam Cara Retreat Center, one week in residency working on my own, one week in a workshop led by Leanne O’Sullivan: Lining Our Thoughts, A Poetry Writing Workshop. I’m terrified. I’ve never written a lick of poetry in my life. But I knew the minute I learned of this workshop—a chance search on the internet—I had to be there. The Universe is granting me the opportunity to come full circle. I’ll visit An Cailleach Bheara for the first time. I will thank Leanne O’Sullivan in person for the gift of her words. Perhaps find a few more of my own.

 

My heart is quite calm now. I am going back.

“The Beara Peninsula stretched away from the southwest coast of Ireland into the North Atlantic like the long foot of a lizard. At the tip of the foot was a gnarled knuckle of land: the Slieve Miskish mountains. The knuckle slid south to end in three claws—the westernmost tips of the country. Ballycaróg wasn’t at the very end of the earth—that distinction belonged to the edge of Dursey Island, ten miles south—but it was tucked into a cove that looked toward nothing but ocean, all the way to Canada’s Maritime Provinces.”

 

from The Crows of Beara, by Julie Christine Johnson

Clean Slate

Surrounded now by water, I’ve learned to watch the beach for clues of the shifting seasons. Winter throws flotsam from the sea like a child tossing toys from her playpen—careless, in joyful fury. In spring, the sand is riffled by winds shooting over the eastern and western mountains ranges. My peninsula stands sentry between the minor dueling gods of cold and warmth. Apollo rises earlier and stronger each day, calming the skirmish with his spreading heat.

 

A few weeks ago I brought my yoga mat to this beach to unfurl my limbs as the sun rose over the Cascade Mountains. I’d been here the afternoon before and the beach was its usual disheveled Spring self. But on this morning, velvety Summer appeared. 2015-05-02 07.25.36

Clean. Slate.

 

For those who have been around this blog for a while, you know we washed ashore here two years ago. The circumstances that set us adrift from Seattle I’ve only hinted at, in part because I needed to sift through my bewilderment and rage in a private space, in part because I know someday I will release that bewilderment and rage in a story.

 

We’ve had few reasons to return to Seattle, dipping in and out as quickly as possible when obligations beckon. But a few weeks ago a workshop returned me to my old neighborhood for the first time since we left.

 

This neighborhood perches high, holding its skirts above the glittering urbanity at its feet. There is water on all sides, like moats surrounding a castle. It is an unattainable dream of Victorian mansions and Arts and Crafts bungalows rubbing elbows with Architectural Digest aeries of glass and steel. The handful of business streets interrupt the residential idyll with a chock-a-block of cafés and famous-chef restaurants, galleries, a bookstore, yoga studios, dentists. We lived in an apartment we couldn’t afford in a renovated Art Deco walk-up. I wrote in my favorite cafés and in the rays of sun streaming through tall windows at the Carnegie library. I swam at the neighborhood YMCA and ran the long flights of stairs leading to the city below.

 

I arrived in my old neighborhood, cautious, anticipating pain. I belonged here, once; this had been my home, my neighborhood, my haunts, my gardens and dream homes and breathtaking views.

 

Yet, such changes. Where once had sat a sweet, locally owned market there is now a monstrosity of towering condos, anchored by a bank on one side and a chain grocery store on the other. I went inside this store, looking for something cold to drink. Aisles of prepackaged food. No connection to the neighborhood. The forced folksiness, false nutrition, self-satisfied trendiness made my skin crawl. I left, throat parched.

 

Outside, car after car inched along the main street, as though in the parking lot of a suburban mall. Everyone there, but no one here.

 

I escaped down a side street, entering the cool green residential rows. It was as I remembered. Rarified. Serene.

 

A woman half a block up stood beside a rock wall, tucked into the shelter of a drooping willow tree, perhaps admiring the clematis or camellias. As I neared, she pulled a wine bottle from a Walgreen’s shopping bag. I heard the snick of a screw-cap releasing. She lifted the bottle to her mouth and tilted it up. Her throat worked, up and down. She took no notice of me.

 

A few blocks later, we passed each other. She smiled and offered me a cheery hello, swinging the plastic Walgreen’s bag with its secret inside. I returned her greeting. And realized I couldn’t wait to go. Home.

 

Clean. Slate.