Wednesday, June 20, 2007

JK: River Teeth

Last week while doing research at an old farmstead here in Oregon my husband drew my attention to a massive maple tree. It would have taken six people to reach around it I’m sure and it is at least 150 years old. Suddenly, I was back in Wisconsin.

We had six huge sugar maple trees in our front yard too that provided wonderful shade in the hot summer months of Wisconsin. After dinner (the noon meal) my dad would lie for a time in the shade of those trees before heading back to the fields. One of my favorite photos is of me crawling on my dad’s stomach beneath those trees and a later one of my brother doing the same. My mom was the photographer. She was also the keeper of the trees. Every year the power company came by and announced they were cutting the trees down because the branches affected the power lines. Every year, my mom stood her ground. When they sold the farm in 1976, the first thing the power company did was come out and cut them down before anyone could stop them. I hadn’t thought of my mother as a green crusader but she was.

What’s this got to do with writing? Well, David James Duncan, author of such notable books as The River Why also wrote a book called River Teeth. In it, he writes of big trees falling into streams and being rubbed and changed by the current and debris that catches on them or the branches torn from them. Over time, only the branch forks might be left on the trunks and some of those lurk beneath the water. He calls those sections left behind “river teeth” that catch us unawares. They’re the remainder of another time, another story of a majestic tree. He suggests that when an errant thought from out past comes into our heads, we ought to write about it.

I think our writing grows richer when we step into our pasts. Detail gives our story depth, but discovery of the meaning of the detail allows others to experience a depth of their own. I think about my mom, the crusader. She’ll help inform my character, an ordinary woman wanting to make a difference in the life of her family and community. She just might have a green streak in her future.

Jane Kirkpatrick

Join Jane on her new blog or at her website’s monthly memos Her latest book is out now, A Tendering in the Storm.


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