I spent the weekend in Gillette, Wyoming, a nearly five-hour drive east of Cody, over the Bighorn Mountains and out on the spring-green northern plains (plains photo above).
Gillette is the heart of Wyoming’s Powder River Basin with its gargantuan coal strip-mines. Coal didn’t call me to northeastern Wyoming; writing did. Gillette happened to be the site of this year’s Wyoming Writers conference.
I hadn’t intended to go this year–I’m too newly returned home and I’m feeling pretty overwhelmed with all I have to do in writing, book reviewing, and house/yard renovation. Not to mention that I’m leaving next Friday for ten days in Yellowstone and my annual “vacation” as a weed eradication volunteer.
But my friend Patricia Frolander, former poet laureate of Wyoming, a powerful writing voice, a rancher and mom who is newly widowed, asked if I was coming and offered to share her hotel room. Which seemed like an opportunity I’d regret missing.
So Friday mid-morning I headed east, stopping near the McCullough Peaks just outside town to ogle deep blue Nuttall’s delphiniums and starry white daisies blooming in the sagebrush country.
The snowy ramparts of Carter Mountain on the distant skyline; cobalt-blue clumps of Delphinium nuttallianum bloom in the foreground.
An hour and some later, I wound my way up Tensleep Canyon into the Bighorn Mountains, passed to the south of Cloud Peak Wilderness Area with its rounded peaks looking like snowy piles of clouds. Coming down the east side of the range, I had to stop again to admire the sunshine-gold swaths of arrowleaf balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) coloring the mountainsides, along with purple spires of silky lupine.
By the time I got to Gillette, I just had time to unload my stuff in the hotel room, and then head to the conference center to register.
After which the weekend was a whirlwind immersion in writing talks and workshops, informal talks with other writers, and thinking and breathing and even sleeping all things writing. (I even dreamed in typewriter letters last night!)
I’m still processing all I experienced and learned, but two things stand out: First, what a warm and supportive community Wyoming Writers is. Everyone I met was welcoming, and the workshop time was insightful and substantive, without degenerating into the kind of unhealthy competitiveness that marks some conferences.
Second, keynote speaker Nina McConighley, who grew up in Casper and is East Indian and Irish, talked about “growing up brown” and “the wrong kind of Indian” in Wyoming. In her workshops and her speech, she challenged us to go beyond the myths and stereotypes and look at The West and Wyoming through new eyes.
“Tell the unusual stories,” she said. (If you haven’t read her PEN-award-winning short story collection, Cowboys and East Indians, do. It’s funny, heart-wrenching, and deeply perceptive.)
I thought about McConighley’s words all the way home, driving west across the Northern Plains toward the shining peaks of the Bighorns, winding up and down over the range itself, and then zipping across the undulating surface of the Bighorn Basin toward the rugged ridges of the Absarokas, the mountains that call me home.
As writers, we have the ability to touch people’s hearts and open their minds, to help enlarge their perspective on the world. In this time of polarized and angry political discourse and yesterday, yet another attack where ordinary people were killed simply because they represent a group, culture, or nation the bombers hate, writing the unusual stories can help us learn to value diversity rather than fear it.
Diversity like this meadow in the Bighorn Mountains, a mosaic pattered by dozens of species of wildflowers (including that gorgeous magenta Dodecatheon or shooting star), grasses, sedges, and shrubs, and this afternoon at least, abuzz with native bees and flies of varying sizes and echoing with the songs of half a dozen kinds of birds.
If we write in a way that reveals the unusual, the stories of lives who do not conform to the norm, we can help “normalize” differences and calm our readers’ fears. If our work gives voice to the sometimes-hidden or overlooked diversity of our communities and cultures, we can help our readers understand or at least have sympathy for those whose lives and beliefs, whose skin color and choices are radically different from our own.
Writing the unusual, we can help break down barriers of hate and fear.
As a scientist, a plant-nerd, and an older woman, the perspective I bring to this conversation is a voice speaking on behalf of biodiversity. (One thing nature teaches us is that diversity is a healthy attribute for communities and ecosystems.)
The “unusual stories” I tell are those of our fellow species with whom we share the earth, those remarkable more-than-human lives who together weave this planet into numinous and shimmering life. Like the mariposa lily (Calochortus gunnisoni) in the photo above, offering its cup with nectar to pollinating insects.
I’ve been searching for my mission statement, a succinct way to describe my parallel passions in writing and ecological restoration. Perhaps it is simply this:
I work for biodiversity. To restore earth and humanity, word by word, plant by plant.
I write for the mariposa lilies blooming in ephemeral profusion before the moisture that fueled their unusually abundant spring emergence vanishes and the clay soil dries hard as brick. For the bumblebees and metallic green sweat bees who were pollinating those saucer-shaped blossoms today, the kingbird sitting on a nearby fence waiting to catch some of those pollinators to feed its growing nestlings, and the prairie dogs that savor the sun-fed sugars the mariposa lilies store in their underground bulbs. For the black-footed ferrets we saved from extinction to feed on the prairie dogs, and the big sagebrush, whose sweet turpentine scent perfumed my drive home. For the whole interrelated stew of existence, in all its glorious unusualness.
I work for biodiversity, to celebrate all life. Not just the lives like mine, not just the lives I prefer. All life. That our planet may thrive, and we along with it.