MY FATHER DIED at high noon on the spring equinox of 1997. The equinox is supposed to be a time of early balance, yet my world was thrust into a spiraling free fall. Three months later, still dizzy with grief, I found myself on a writing assignment in the depths of the Grand Canyon. I had been asked to contribute an essay for the book Writing Down the River, and for the next two weeks would travel with 27 strangers down the Colorado River. "The river will be a good place to grieve," my sister told me. "You will hear the voices of our ancestors."
I ran my fingers over the sandstone where the Great Unconformity--a gap of millions of years in the geologic record--is visible, and I thought of how I had smoothed the lines of anguish from my father's face. I could discern no difference between my emotional landscape and the landscape of the canyon. Nature articulated what I dare not.
I had experienced this same profound connection on the small ranch in Wyoming where I lived with my husband and children. The stories in my memoir In Search of Kinship, about aborted foals and orphaned calves, about coyotes gliding across the ridges and red foxes denning in the draws, are all attempts to get at the heart of the human experience through the eyes of the natural world.
Grand landscapes humble us with their immensity. They inspire us because they remind us that our own stories belong to a much larger narrative. The river down which we rafted in 1997 has flowed through that ancient canyon for millions of years. Humans have been gathering at rivers for thousands of years--to fill our water jugs, bathe our children, wash our clothes, clean our food, trade with foreigners, and fight off enemies. "I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins," Langston Hughes wrote.
Halfway across the country from where Hughes grew up, Peggy Simson Curry, Wyoming's first poet laureate, wrote, "To be a writer is like being a river. It is to carry the life force within you. ... Where and what are your rivers? Look back, look long, look deep."
I grew up playing along the banks of the South Platte River in Colorado, yet our family always headed north to the Madison River near Ennis, Mont., on fishing vacations. In 1964, my parents called a family meeting and asked my sister and me, "How would you girls like to go to Europe this summer instead?" We were stunned. Dad earned a comfortable salary, but we were always pinching pennies. That evening, we spread a world map on the carpet to decide where in Europe we would go. An impossible choice! The entire world beckoned, and a brief summer vacation was not nearly enough time.
Instead, that fall, Dad quit his job, cashed in our modest stock portfolio, leased our home, and drove us to New York. Then we drove north to Montreal, sold the car, boarded a steamship with suitcases in hand, and sailed down the St. Lawrence Seaway. We were gone a full year, stepping onto the foreign soil of 27 countries. We stood on the shores of the Thames, the Danube, the Tigris, the Neva, the Jordan, even the Tonegawa in Japan.
We returned in June of 1965, sailing under San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. A few days later, en route back to Colorado, we heard on the radio that a catastrophic flood had struck Denver. A 50-foot-high wall of water was scouring everything in its path, including our home. We returned jobless, homeless and moneyless. We unpacked our suitcases in the unfinished basement of an aunt's home, and began anew.
Rivers transform us. They transform the landscape, our lives, our communities, and even our artistic visions. They thrill us with their boiling, frothy rapids and seduce us with their curvaceous banks and softly sloping shores.
Thirty-two years after the flood, when I returned from my first trip down the Grand Canyon, I unpacked a water-logged journal and faced a looming writing deadline, but I also returned with a dream--a profound desire to return to the river, and a determination to bring other women with me. That fall, I walked into the offices of Sheri Griffith Expeditions in Moab, Utah, and--like I'd seen my father do with strangers on our trip around the world--introduced myself, and my dream, to Sheri. The following summer, we launched the first "River Writing Journey for Women" retreat.
The fluid nature of the river invites us to unleash our creativity. We play. We swim. We write. We share. We get wonderfully silly. We get profoundly serious. We're in and out of the water, up and down the canyon walls, in and out of each other's stories, from sun to shade, dark to light--in every metaphorical way you can imagine. We explore the unfolding of theme and its connection to landscape. We discuss the pulse, shape and rhythm of writing.
Nature is a forgiving teacher. She invites us to be chaotic, to let go of expectations, let go of sadness and embrace our passions. With each trip, nature works the same miracle. I see us fall back in love with life, with ourselves, and with our work.
A few years ago, an underwater photographer for National Geographic, whose job took her to the depths of the ocean, joined one of my river-writing trips. She felt far more at home with a camera, though, than a pen. Sitting in our camp circle one evening, she shakily began, "I was diving off the coast of Florida, and came nose to nose with a shark." Slowly, the story of her brother's untimely death months earlier wound its way out of her river journaling.
Grief, like nature, has many faces. Several years after the first river trip, I retreated for a month to a remote cabin in the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming to grieve for my dying marriage. The cabin, nestled in a canyon at the base of two mountains, had no running water, no electricity, no phone, no cell service, not even a vehicle in case of emergency.
I pawed through field guides, wrote 400 pages in my journals, and penned 23 new poems. I carried on silent conversations at night as I read by flashlight the works of my favorite authors. Each day, I hiked out of the canyon, following the same trails as the elk and deer. As this passage from my work-in-progress shows, I relished this time of reflection:
As I hike, I am so turned inward with
thought that when I lift my eyes and see
the mountains rise before me, or hear the
breeze rattling the leaves, or feel the eyes of
the forest upon me, I am shocked, as if I
have forgotten that I am here. My senses
reclaim the moment and pull me away
from the dark labyrinth of thought and
suddenly I am back in the woods, a sensate
creature in a sensuous world. Yet in that
moment, I glimpse a richly textured and
mysterious realm--the thinly veiled crossroads
where the worlds of inner and outer
meet. Here, I begin to realize, lies the
door-way to Becoming, in the silent spaces
be-tween these two dimensions.
This is the gift nature bequeaths us--the chance to leave our human experience and dwell for a time in the primal world. It's the place I try to inhabit while writing. It's where our stories live, waiting to bridge the distance between what we know, and what we seek to know.
Writing coach Page Lambert, recipient of the 2009 Orlando Nonfiction Prize, leads outdoor writing adventures and retreats. O, The Oprah Magazine called her River Writing Journeys "one of the top six great all-girl getaways" of 2006. Web: www. pagelambert.com.
Lambert, Page. "Where inner and outer meet: for this writer, the natural world acts as a guide deep into the heart of human experience." The Writer Nov. 2009: 15. Academic OneFile. Web. 28 Oct. 2009.
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