The Brothers K by David James Duncan


I was intimidated by David James Duncan’s novel The Brothers K.  It sat on my bookshelves for years, always on the “I’m going to read it someday” list.  My copy is a thick paperback, almost 1 ½ inches wide, and I knew that with that width came lots and lots of pages (645, to be precise).  Experience has taught me that I can’t read a book of that length in the short reading slots I have available in my regular life.  And the title, The Brothers K, seemed to mean that in order to appreciate all the nuanced layers and allusions, I really must read Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov first. But Russian novelists also intimidate me, so it was a double whammy of dread and regret every time I scanned the shelves for something to read, putting my finger lightly on that thick spine with the large blue K.  Someday, I told myself, I’ll read this one.

That “someday” came just last month.  First, thanks to BBC radio, I listened to The Brothers Karamazov in five one-hour programs.  Secondly, my husband wanted to go swimming.



He especially wanted to go swimming at Bottomless Lakes State Park, a three hour drive from our home in Lubbock.  We were going to make a quick trip, spending the night in Roswell.  We’d been to Bottomless Lakes many times before, well worth the drive for a wonderful day of swimming in cold clear water.  My husband can swim all the way across, while I go out a little way and then float on my back, wearing my sunglasses so I can look up at the bright blue sky.  I envisioned a day of swimming and floating, interspersed with some serious lounging with a good book and some picnic food—bread, cheese and olives.

The lakes are sinkholes, formed when the roof over a subterranean river collapsed, so the water is always fresh, cold, and somewhat salty.  There is a bathhouse and pavilion built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, one of those sturdy stone buildings that I so admire.  The lakes are called “bottomless” because years ago cowboys tried to measure the depth with ropes dropped over the side of a boat, but the current kept the rope from ever reaching the bottom, amazing and confounding them.

??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????The day before we left, I started in reading The Brothers K.  I was hooked.  Then, while at the lake, I had hours of reading time.  I passed page 300, passed page 400.  I swam, I got sunburned, I swept little striped bugs off my arms and legs when they distracted me from the world of the novel.  I was still reading when we returned to Lubbock, and though I had to put the book down once because I couldn’t bear to read any more, I was so distraught over the characters’ plights and terrified for their safety, and then again the next night because I just couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer, I finished the book.  I loved it.

I’m not going to describe The Brothers K in any great detail.  I’m afraid I’ll say too much and perhaps spoil something for future readers.  Read it yourself.  Don’t be intimidated.  You don’t even have to read The Brothers Karamazov first.DJC_Award

A bit about The Brothers K:  This novel describes three decades of the life of the family Chance, beginning in the family living room in Camas, Washington, and coming to a close with the aftermath of the Vietnam War.  There are brothers, four of them, and their young twin sisters.  Their father supports his large family by working in the paper mill, their mother runs the household, but takes her strength from her Seventh-day Adventist church.  Baseball, religion, family, set in the Pacific Northwest.  My kind of book indeed.

Duncan says of the title: “In statistician’s lingo, a K is a strikeout–a personal failure.  And the struggle to come to terms with personal and national failure is a huge part of the novel.”  An Interview with David James Duncan, by Clark Munsell.  The World & I, Oct. 1992.

Images:  Book cover; Lea Lake, New Mexico; “Notes taken interviewing a drunk & stoned Vietnam vet for the VN scenes in BK” from Box 4, folder 19 of DJD Papers; Casey Award nomination for best book about baseball, from DJD Papers.

David James Duncan Papers at the Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library, Texas Tech University:


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Robert Michael Pyle’s Writings from Wallowa-Whitman National Forest

During the Sowell Collection Conference held in April 2013, our book signing events brought us all some unexpected joy and gratitude.  When Robert Michael Pyle prepared to come to Lubbock as a featured speaker for the Conference, he packed his suitcase with copies of his chapbook, Letting the Flies Out, and each evening he presented them, with thoughtful and kind inscriptions, to other conference participants, including a host of TTU undergraduates. In addition to sharing his chapbook with us, Pyle also presented a talk with slides on his Mariposa Road year, played the harmonica to accompany David Taylor’s talk on and singing of the Texas River Song, sat attentively listening to the other presentations.  He joked and laughed and talked to everyone.

Work_SowellConference_Snow_etc 234

When I read this book, perhaps more than any other he has written, it’s like having him right in the room again.

Letting the Flies Out includes two short stories, two essays and fifteen poems.  One story, “Runaway Truck Ramp,” was runner-up for the High Desert Journal‘s Obsidian Prize in Fiction in 2011.  Gretel Ehrlich served as judge.   In it, Jude Murray, a woman who drives big trucks for a living, has had a long fascination with the sandy upgrades of runaway truck ramps that appear with regularity on the West’s dangerously steep mountain roads.  The runaway ramps embody, she says, “that irreversible choice–you can’t take it back.”

As for the poems, this one I think just might be my favorite:

Pyle_Letting (2)The Watermelon

Too ripe! Leaking in the bottom
of the fridge. Take it out, put it
on a stump.  Cleave it four ways
with a very serious knife. Cut
out the center.  Eat it in cubes,
four days and nights.  Delicious!
Put the rest out in the sun.
Someone will eat it: the calliope
humming bird, butterflies, beetles.
Or bees.  One morning, all gone.

And to think I was just going to toss it!

Many of the pieces were written during Pyle’s Werner Writing Residency at Fishtrap in Billy Meadows, Wallowa-Whitman National Forest in the northeast corner of Oregon.  His descriptions of the animals he encountered and observed are carefully unsentimental, while showing the naturalist’s appreciation for each species and its connection to all others in the meadow.  For example, these stanzas from “The Elk Come to Billy Meadows”:

We listen for an hour or more, afraid to wreck
the peaceable kingdom of bugle, huff, and chew.
Small owl slides by, back and forth, as I make out
antlers, dark mantles, all those big white butts.

Cold and sleepy, we take to the cabin. Wapiti pay
no mind at all. Early morning, rise and go. I walk
down to see what all that grinding’s wrought: pellets
everywhere, blue butterflies coming to sip.

Billy Meadows residence - Wallowa-Whitman NF Oregon

Letting the Flies Out, by Robert Michael Pyle.  Enterprise, OR: Fishtrap Inc., 2011 (first printing), Gray’s River, WA: The New Riverside Press, 2012 (second printing).

Photo of residence at the Billy Meadows guard station by Ian Poellet from Wikimedia Commons.

“The Watermelon” used with the author’s permission.

  Continue reading

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Rick Bass: the challenges and inspirations from the Yaak Valley

Rick Bass reading "The Thinness of the Soil" at the second Sowell Collection Conference, April 2013.

Rick Bass reading “The Thinness of the Soil” at the second Sowell Collection Conference, April 2013.

The Yaak Valley is a stretch of forest in Northwest Montana. The area surrounding the Yaak Valley is under constant threat from logging companies that want to harvest the timber for economic gain. Logging destroys environments and alters ecosystems. Rick Bass is an environmental writer who calls the Yaak Valley home. Through his writing and influence Rick Bass fights for the conservation and environmentally sustainable treatment of the land throughout Northwest Montana.

Rick Bass is a member of the Yaak Valley Forest Council. The Yaak Valley Forest Council formed in 1997 and concerns themselves with “the health and management of the forest lands that they call home” (Yaak Valley Forest Council). In their fight to maintain the integrity of the Yaak Valley the council is increasingly aware of how threats to the environment threaten species that are unique to their area. In defending their position to keep the remaining road-less cores as uninhabited as possible the Yaak Valley Forest Council cited a study that looked into the relationship between unaffected road-less cores and the animals and wildlife found in those areas.

“Up in the northeast corner of the Yaak – “The Upper Yaak” – there remains one last uncut, road-less basin, beneath the damp north-facing shadow of Mt. Henry. In this basin, not coincidentally, lives the only remaining pure population of inland red band rainbow trout in all of Northwest Montana.”

This study is just one example of the research and time that goes into their fight for sustainable forestry. The Yaak Valley Forest Council has put years of heart and dedication into protecting the forest in which they reside. Since the council is made up of Yaak Valley residents, they share a unique perspective that cannot be duplicated by outside sources. The Yaak Valley Forest Council is a strong influence in Rick Bass’s life and his literature.

While pouring through Rick Bass’s papers in the Sowell Collection I was particularly drawn to the letters he drafted to Congress and various commercial logging companies imploring them to cease the destruction of the Yaak Valley. Reading these letters was captivating. It was evidence of how someone with strength in writing and a passion for the environment was able to fight for a change on a federal level to protect the world around them. I was inspired. The integration of writing and working to leave a positive mark on the natural world was exactly what I want my future career in environmental law to focus on. These letters in the Sowell Collection helped me realize how the work I am doing in undergrad can have a profound influence on the career I aim to pursue.

Rick Bass is obviously not a lawyer; he is a writer who has invested wholeheartedly in environmental activism; however, his passion and drive to fight for his adopted home has enabled him to be effective as a defender of the woods. I respect the effort that he has put into protecting his home. He has faced strong opposition and ignorance from the Forest Service but has stayed committed to his cause. Although there are plenty of times when he could have conceded the forest to the logging industry he recognized the need to preserve what he considers the last “wilderness” areas of Northwest Montana. I hope to be able to fight for the environment with the same passion and vigor in my legal career.


“Yaak Valley Forest Council in Northwest Montana.” Yaak Valley Forest Council in Northwest Montana. Yaak Valley Forest Council, n.d. Web. 1 Apr. 2014. <;

“Rick Bass: An Inventory of His Papers, 1958-2001 and Undated, at the Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library.” Rick Bass: An Inventory of His Papers, 1958-2001 and Undated, at the Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library. Texas Tech University. Web. 10 May 2012. <;

This blog entry was written by guest contributor Michael Austin.

Photo courtesy of Amy Pajewski, West Texas A&M.

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An Experience at Tule Canyon: Max Crawford and the Comanche

Max Crawford, author of Lords of the Plain

Max Crawford, author of Lords of the Plain

The Llano Estacado is a sea of grass that ebbs and flows for hundreds of miles across the Texas Panhandle.  The Comanche were the lords of the Texas plains and controlled the area from the late 18th to the latter half of the 19th century.  They were fearsome warriors and skilled riders, expert hunters and master horseman.  Their mastery of the horse enabled them to control vast expanses with ease.  During the time that the Comanche occupied the Llano Estacado millions of bison roamed the land.  The bison were a great commodity for the Comanche people.  Each animal was used to the greatest extent possible and provided food, clothing, and shelter.  The Comanche prospered in this region.  Their prosperity and way of life was threatened by American Westward expansion and the introduction of Native American Reservations.  Max Crawford’s novel Lords of the Plain is a historical novel concerned with the United States 2nd Calvary and their efforts to rid the Llano and greater plains area of the Comanche people.

Lords of the Plain doesn’t implore the reader to casually breeze through its pages and pass off the story as a casual tale of a war between two very different nations; rather, this novel is dense and pedantic and Crawford pays extreme attention to detail while painting this portrait of struggle and strife.  The tone of this novel is cut and dry and void of any lyricism or linguistic beauty.  While reading I was not certain if Crawford had intentionally written in this style to mimic the landscape that the story takes place in or if he was unenthused about the adventures of the second cavalry and the men who fight in it.  Regardless of the intention behind the prose I didn’t appreciate the story and the historically crucial tale it told.  The book just was not what I enjoy reading.  I passed the book off as just another class reading assignment and moved on from it.

While on a trip with Barry Lopez, Kurt Caswell, and Nita Pahdopony, the great-great-granddaughter of Quanah Parker, and her husband Harry Mithlo, a member of the Apache, the story of the Comanche people and their war with the 2nd Calvary was once again the focus of study.  We were fortunate enough to visit Adobe Walls and Tule Canyon.  Each location was the stage for a pivotal event in the course of the battle for the plains.  Billy Dixon made his infamous mile long rifle shot at Adobe Walls.  I stood in the spot that he was believed to have pulled the trigger.  This nearly mile-long rifle shot was instrumental in stopping the Comanche efforts to lay siege to the North Texas trade outpost.

Tule Canyon was the site of a mass execution of Comanche horses that crippled the Comanche’s ability to fight and all but ensured an American victory.  Over 600 horses were slaughtered in an attempt to debilitate the Comanche.  I was standing where the blood had spilled alongside the great granddaughter of the Comanche chief who, with his people, used these horses in their everyday lives.  The horses were indescribably valuable to the Comanche.  I stood alongside a woman whose heritage was deeply rooted in the livelihood of these horses.  I stood alongside her as she remembered the spirits of the horses and the Comanche that came before.  I was witnessing history.  It may not be a well reported history, or an event that school children will learn about, but it was history nonetheless and I was deep in the trenches experiencing a moment that could never, and would never, be replicated.  As we walked across the canyon and surrounding hills Nita’s husband, Harry, told us that a song had come to him during the drive to the canyon.  Harry wanted to sing this song to bless the horses and calm the restless spirit that was so evident throughout this area.  Harry pulled out his ceremonial drum and began to perform his horse song.  This song had never been sung before, no one had heard it, it was unique to this moment and I was immersed in it.

As Harry performed his song my mind drifted away from the story of the horses slaughtered here and back to the tale that Crawford told about the American Calvary’s experience acting as the executioner.  Shot by rifle shot they executed the lifeblood of a nation, of people.  I was standing in the chapters that came too late for Crawford to pen.

The Sowell Collection’s involvement with prominent nature writers was the foundation that made this experience possible.  Without their involvement this invaluable experience may have never presented itself.  Witnessing the Comanche people bless the spirits of the horses they loved that were wrongly slaughtered was a once in a lifetime opportunity.  This event will never take place again.  Those moments will never be recreated.  I witnessed history.

This blog entry was written by guest contributor Michael Austin.

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Gretel Ehrlich and the Sowell Collection Conference

Photograph from the Gretel Ehrlich Collection, at the Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library

Photograph from the Gretel Ehrlich Collection, at the Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library

The Sowell Conference offers student nature writers the unique opportunity to interact and discuss their work with world-renowned environmental writers. It is a rare opportunity when an amateur in any craft has the chance to share their work with the masters of the field. Children do not usually get a chance to play their favorite sport with their childhood heroes and a brand new musician rarely plays along with a virtuoso. The Sowell Conference is a unique and invaluable educational experience.

Gretel Ehrlich, a Sowell Collection author, was sitting a few rows deep into the crowd while I read the paper I had written in response to her work This Cold Heaven.

In Gretel Ehrlich’s book, This Cold Heaven, she tells the tales of spending 7 seasons on Greenland, the largest island on the planet, after escaping the greedy fingers of death. The paper I presented with Ehrlich in the audience examines the idea of what constitutes an “island”, the effect that escaping death has on the mind, and how isolation on an “island” can change thoughts and desires.

Ehrlich and I share an appreciation for solitude in wild places. Her travels in Greenland influenced me to reflect on my own travels through wild environments. I was always hesitant to accept that Ehrlich really enjoyed her time in Greenland’s gripping cold. Constant darkness and below freezing temperatures are not appealing. I believe that Ehrlich was searching to test her limits and take full advantage of her life after she almost lost it to a lightning strike, but I could never understand why she chose Greenland. If Ehrlich was trying to push herself to her limits in order to truly experience what it meant to live surely there was a more enjoyable climate that was equally conducive to this journey.

There are plenty of remote and wild tropical islands, temperate mountain ranges and vast forests that could provide the same remoteness that she sought in Greenland. It must be the fact that the isle of Greenland is separated and exists alone in a quiet and distant space. The separation from the rest of the world, both spiritually and geographically, might have been necessary for Ehrlich to place herself in an environment that would allow her to expose herself to the wild and delve into introspection and thought.

For whatever reason Ehrlich chose to travel through that frozen exotic tundra, I am grateful that she completed her journey. Through reading her work on her experiences I was able to think back on my own experiences in the wild and reflect on how solitude in wild places breeds contemplation and introspective evaluation.

I may never have the chance to be the novice sharing their craft with the master again. While I was reading this paper Ehrlich sat and listened, and while she may not have agreed with everything I got out of her novel, she was patient and genuine in caring about my work.

The Sowell Conference was responsible for me being able to share this unique experience with Ehrlich. I was living the dream of the child who wanted to shoot hoops with Jordan. And although I never knew whom Gretel Ehrlich was as a child that can’t take away from the fact that I was able to read a paper about a nature writer that I look up to and appreciate that she was actively involved in my education.

This blog entry was written by guest contributor Michael Austin.

Michael Austin is a senior Environment and the Humanities major at Texas Tech University and has lived on the plains of West Texas for over 20 years. After graduation Michael plans to attend law school to focus on environmental law. Michael has been an active member of the university’s Honors College, worked with the Texas Tech Outdoor Pursuits center as a trip leader and climbing wall manager, and spent weeks in the outdoors for both recreation and education. His favorite flavor of ice cream is mint chocolate chip and he prefers all shades of blue to any shade of red. Michael cares about the state of the natural world and is thankful for the opportunities that the EVHM program offers that enable him take his education outdoors. Michael has had the privilege to present at the Sowell Collection Conference on Gretel Ehrlich’s novel This Cold Heaven and travel with Barry Lopez to the historic site of American cavalry and Comanche warrior battles.


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Movement 600 Miles Away

What does it mean to understand poetry? Are there right ways and wrong ways to understand? Every poet begins by scribbling sentences on a pad of paper or typing a draft in a word document that hopefully would later be reviewed and published. In that moment of scribbling or typing he or she had a very specific feeling and understanding that they pushed out from themselves and into words. There is one way to understand poetry and that way is what the poet felt when writing their piece. However, there is another way, and that is how the reader feels. Those two things alone determine what a poem is and how it should be understood.


   During our 2013 Conference on the Sowell Family Collection in Literature, Community and the Natural World, Pattiann Rogers was one of our main guests and speakers to present at the conference until a series of road blocks including a large blizzard that hit Denver, CO caused her to have to cancel her trip. The students were visibly upset. It seemed Pattiann Rogers was more than a poet to the Texas Tech Students; she was an inspiration. In their classes, the students all carefully wrote and rewrote papers over Rogers’ poetry and metaphors hoping to present at the conference their interpretation of Rogers work. They found spiritual, sexual, musical and cosmological metaphors that they all related to their own lives and their very own personal writings. These students were prepared to bravely share what they felt about Rogers writing right in front of the poet herself. However, instead of presenting it to Rogers they presented it to a crowd of students, faculty, staff and visitors that may have known nothing about Rogers and her poetry. The students molded an image in this crowd’s mind of who Rogers was and what she represented through her carefully structured sentences, her vibrant word choices and her poetic voice. Everyone, I think, would agree that even while Rogers was six hundred miles away she still was very alive in that room purely through her poetry and the understanding of it through the students.

The Friday of the conference, the night when Pattiann Rogers was due to speak about “Earth and the Sound of Poetry,” the other plenary writers — Rick Bass, Barry Lopez, John Lane, and Robert Michael Pyle — decided to do a reading of her poems in her honor. The writers and students all picked out the poem most moving to them individually and read it aloud to a full room. A few new faces had shown up for the reading and a lot of old ones too, but everyone the same breathed in these poems and exhaled their own meaning. One reading in particular can attest to that. On that Friday night, one male college student who looked like he didn’t quite belong in the middle of a poetry reading stood up at the podium with a Pattiann Rogers book in hand and bravely said to the rest of the crowd that he didn’t know who Pattiann Rogers was before he attended this conference but hearing essays about her and listening to the movement of poetry she had created encouraged him to stand up and read something that moved in him. This is, I thought, what poetry is all about.

Pattiann Rogers had moved through students during a conference she wasn’t even able to attend and has a way to let her voice be heard through hundreds of miles of wood and prairie and sky. The students have found a light inside her poetry and have let that light shine a very individual path for themselves and their understanding of the poetic world.

Prairie Sky at Sunset II by Patty Baker

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The River Within: A Review of Moving Water in the Work of John Lane

If you have ever read a John Lane book, whether it be poetry or prose, you would notice a primitive respect and friendship between the author and water. You would notice that just like a river flows through a valley and hill, cutting a lasting indentation into the earth, a very similar metaphoric river is cut throughout John Lane’s stories and poetry.

In Death by Water, found in Waist Deep in Black Water, a collection of essays ranging from Wyoming to the Red River Gorge in Kentucky and onto the murky swamps of Florida, Lane gives us a tragic telling of his father’s death. Lane’s father makes several appearances throughout his writing career. Some of the most prominent appearances are in Lane’s series of poems called The Dead Father Poems. However in Death by Water the appearance of Lane’s father sheds more light on the impact of the traumatic death for Lane than any other piece Lane has written. It creates a catalyst for the motion of moving water that Lane writes about and lets the reader discover why it is that water is most appealing and prevalent in Lane’s work.

In Death by Water, Lane retells the first dream he remembers which happens when he is just five years old. Lane writes he is “running down a drainage ditch followed by a rising wall of water ready to overwhelm him.” Ironically, this dream coincides with his father’s death. The story doesn’t stop there. Years later when Lane witnesses a death of a fellow kayaker he has another dream of water flooding a river where he floats in his own kayak. He says that in his dream he knew the river he was paddling on was the river of Hades.

Lane admits that water helps him understand the world as a roaring and chaotic place which is a logical interpretation spawning from years and years of reconciling with his father’s death and other deaths that have coincided with moving water. However, by using water to understand the ‘roaring’ world perhaps it has also taught him to understand water as peaceful and changing – a world of redemption, rather than deterioration.

In Chattooga, another collection of prose by Lane that encompasses stories surrounding the famous Chattooga river known best from James Dickey’s novel, later turned into movie, Deliverance, Lane says in the first paragraph of his first essay in the collection, The Myth of the Chattooga, “There’s a reason that the flows of a river have been used as a metaphor for life and that out of all the landscapes – mountains, oceans, deserts- rivers are what poets and writers return to in literature when describing the way human history cuts across time.”

Lane’s work has transformed the currents and flows of moving water into home. He has used the river as a therapist for death and life and continues to view moving water as that weaving path of understanding the many ebbs and flows of the world around him.

by Sara Roberts

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