“Good stories,” writes psychologist Mary Pipher in The Shelter of Each Other, “can save us.” Perhaps one way they do is by giving us insight into who we are and how to live well with with we have. A thoughtful, well-written memoir shares its insights with readers, and that gift is part of why the genre continues to be so popular.
Here’s more from Steve Edwards, author of Breaking into the Backcountry, a brand-new memoir from University of Nebraska Press that chronicles the months Steve spent–mostly alone–at a wilderness homestead high above the remote Rogue River in southern Oregon after winning the PEN/Northwest Margery Davis Boyden Wilderness Writing Residency. Click here for the first part of the interview; here is my review of the book.
(The photo below is of the Rogue River downstream from the homestead that is the site of the residency; I couldn’t find a closer one.)
SJT: What is your favorite story/memory from your time at the homestead?
SE: I was walking home from a hike one day and saw a huge cloud that had settled up against a distant ridge. It was sunset. The low sunrays had turned the cloud pink, and the pink cloud turned the mountains pink, and the grasses in the meadow, the dirt logging road, my own skin. Everything was suddenly glowing. And I remember feeling sad for a second because I was all alone, because I had no one to share such a magical experience with. And I thought: “How many visions just as beautiful have you already seen and forgotten?” Then I heard a voice, and it came from. . .well, I don’t know. Inside my own head–though it wasn’t my head, and part of me thinks it came from the grasses in the meadow, or maybe the big cloud itself. This voice said, “The point isn’t to remember any of this. The point is to live a life as beautiful as this thing in front of you right now. If you do that, you share it with everyone.” Which for me was this tremendous revelation–that I could model my life after the beauty I encountered out here, that nothing ever goes to waste, that, in essence, I wasn’t ever alone.
SJT: What was the hardest thing about being there?
SE: The empty hours. Hours you might normally spend having coffee with a friend, or chatting on the phone, or watching TV, or blogging–any of those things that connect you to other people–weren’t an option at the homestead. All I had was the enormous, all-consuming silence of the river canyon. The bird-sounds, the river-sound, deer wading through the blackberry canes, bats scratching out from under the cabin’s cedar shakes–these noises only made the silence seem that much bigger. I would try to keep busy. I would write, read, garden, do chores, take hikes, fish, play my guitar, meditate, talk to myself, make up tall tales. But no matter how hard a tried I couldn’t escape the loneliness. There were times I felt trapped in my body. Caged in. And it was a struggle to sit with that feeling–like trying to tame a wild animal. But day by day, breathing in and breathing out, I cultivated a kind of intimacy with my loneliness. Pretty soon, that big silence wasn’t a cage–it was freedom. I don’t know how I’d ever lived before!
SJT: What are you writing now?
A: I’m working on a new nonfiction/memoir project about my grandfather. He appeared on the cover of LIFE Magazine in 1942, the subject of a story on the “strength, intelligence, and fiber of the raw young men” drafted to fight in World War II. In 1960, in honor of LIFE’s 25th Anniversary, the magazine flew him to the theatres of war in which he’d fought—Morocco, Sicily, and Northern France for a huge photo-spread. He was LIFE’s “most-typical” draftee, the face they put on the war effort. It’s so strange—there he is, my old granddad, on a return trip to the beaches at Normandy, walking among the wrecked German guns. Then turn a few pages and it’s Marilyn Monroe, Churchill, Gandhi. Luminaries of the 20th century.
Granddad’s experience with the magazine had always been a part of our family lore, but it wasn’t anything I’d considered writing about until a few years ago when Google introduced its LIFE photo archive. There I found hundreds of images of my grandfather that hadn’t made it into the magazines–those beautiful black-and-white shots so typical of LIFE. I saw pictures of my grandmother as a young woman, and pictures of my mother as a baby. And, shot after shot, I got a sense of how the photographers conscientiously crafted their photos for dramatic effect–so each one looked casual and off-the-cuff, like a snapshot, but still got the message across about what it meant to be a proud and patriotic American soldier. Around this same time I discovered the Google archive, Rebecca and I got pregnant with our son Wyatt. I started to think about what I wanted him to know about our family history, and about war and my stance as a pacifist. So the new book looks at my grandfather’s life as a way of better understanding my own…
SJT: Thanks, Steve!
Coming later this week, a report from the “Re-Storying the Landscape” project Richard and I are involved with at The Nature Conservancy’s Carpenter Ranch in northwestern Colorado. But for now, I’m going to head for bed. Good night all!