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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Sowell Collection Conference

Clicking on this link will display the Poster for the upcoming Sowell Collection Conference with Rick Bass, Robert Michael Pyle, Pattiann Rogers, Barry Lopez, and John Lane.

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Pattiann Rogers

“No one ever talks about the paternal aspect of being a writer, the sending of your children off into the world…” -Pattiann Rogers

Every once in a while I come across those lines of poetry that make me shudder. Their texture, exquisite, their sound, melodious, as if they are not only words but living particles of lead or ink, swimming about a page with perfect precision. These lines of poetry are like cadences composed within invisible staff lines. However, these lines are often cut, existing only in that unpublished, ethereal realm of “darlings” that had to be killed.

In the rare occurrence that I’ve written one of these lines myself, I find it nearly impossible to let it go. I am afraid, almost, that it will be lost forever, that it will somehow find its way into the world and be taken from me, stolen from a haphazard posting on a social media site or hacked into a poem where it doesn’t belong, or scribbled in a notebook on a shelf in a dark corner. I’m afraid that if I kill my darlings, they’ll stay dead, but maybe that’s how things are supposed to be.

Pattiann Rogers’ manuscript collection is filled with folders and folders of drafts of poems, and I find myself shuddering at least once a box. Perhaps this is mostly because of the coolness of the Reading Room, but the drafts I have read through contain the ghosts of genius, the penciled in, inked out, and all but forgotten lines of poetry: real, raw, word-music. How many are these drafts? I don’t know. What are their names? I couldn’t tell you for sure, and if I could I don’t know if I would. These lines are not meant for public consumption, but meant to be found.

I frequently laugh at the similarities I see between the way I edit my own writing and the drafts of Rogers’ works: the random mark-outs and comments that twirl around the edge of the page to keep a thought together rather than turning the page over, the sudden onset inspiration that starts with a beautiful phrase and expands into something like a mushroom cloud of words. The original poems are often entirely buried under the soft lead of revision, as if, right when Rogers had “finished,” she remembered that the poem should be something more—like the parent who sends their child off to school for the first time realizing too late that the child’s favorite toy was left in the living room.

More often than not writers are selfish with their “darlings.” We cultivate, coddle, keep these darlings from the world because we must protect them at all costs. At some point, though, writers must leave their lines to their own business, and whether these lines perish or flourish depends only on the writer’s willingness or unwillingness to change them.

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Nashville Chrome

Rick Bass will be a featured writer at our next Sowell Collection Conference (April 18-20, 2013), so in preparation for this visit, I’ve been reading more of his work. He’s such a prolific writer, I quickly fall behind and suddenly I have four new books on my reading list.

I started with Nashville Chrome, a novel published in 2010. Though this work deals with real people and events, centered on Maxine, Jim Ed, and Bonnie Brown, a family country music trio who began singing and recording in the 1950s; though the work mentions many historical figures– Elvis Presley, Chet Aktin, Jim Reeves, The Beatles; and though Bass worked with the family, met with the family, had, in a way, their blessing for this project, this is a novel, not biography. Part of the reading experience is meditating on the difference between art and reality, literature and history.

According to an Associated Press article that appeared shortly after the book’s release:

File0176Maxine Brown had an immediate and intense reaction when she read “Nashville Chrome,” Rick Bass’ fictionalized account of country music pioneers The Browns. “When I first got that damn book I screamed and cried and threw it across the room, threw it in the trash, wrote him a hot note,” Brown said. “And then I retrieved it and said, ‘I’ve got to read this with an open mind because it’s got to be something here, he’s such a great writer.’ So I read it again and again and again and I realize that it is absolutely great. He painted a beautiful picture.” (Bangor Daily News, Sept. 26, 2010.)

Yes, the book is beautifully written, the narrative weaves the past and the present, alternating between the years of promise and the years of deep regret. The Browns have fame, applause, family—and then Maxine finds she has only solitude, silence, oblivion.

“The days and nights pass through her like light through a pane of dark glass. Some of the ache in her is real and some of it is simply an unsatisfied heat. She falls into long reveries that are interrupted only by the teakettle’s whistle. She waits for the phone to ring. She lived too much, too high, fame blew through her like a hurricane” (24).

Maxine yearns for one more hit, one more appearance, applause and more applause. She lives alone in her little house in West Memphis, and one day at the grocery store she posts a note on the bulletin board, seeking a filmmaker for a project that will reawaken the world to her voice. The story of the unlikely filmmaker and his impressionistic style weaves another thread into the lyrical narrative of Nashville Chrome.

Nashville Chrome was well reviewed when it was first published, you can find reviews on the internet. I especially recommend Susan Salter Reynolds’ review in the Los Angeles Times, Sept. 11, 2010, Bryan Woolley’s in the Dallas Morning News, Sept. 25, 2010, and Dave Shiflett’s in the Washington Post, Sept. 18, 2010. You might also check out Maxine Brown’s webpage with links to videos of The Browns singing their best-known songs.

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So What if I Have a Thing for Birds?

It was recently pointed out to me, in a poetry workshop class, that I frequent the subject of birds. I find it hard to look at a bird and not see the subject of a poem—the careful lay of feathers to show a pattern or a color at its finest, the gift of flight, the gift of music, the perfectly purposeful twitch-like movements. I find it hard to look at anything really, and not see its “birddom.” While it is, of course, essential to have practice in writing of all subjects, I have found that the things you love make better poems than the things you don’t. In my research, I have found several poems about birds by Pattiann Rogers as well. I think we all write as much to be creative as to understand something new through language. By giving birds a new name, a new voice, through poetry, we can have some hope of understanding the flighty creatures in more ways than just through biology or ecology alone.

Perhaps, as in Pattiann Rogers’ poems, birds can even serve as a medium through which poetry expresses very human ideas: questions of divinity or eternity, representations of beauty. In Rogers’ “Suppose Your Father Was a Redbird,” the idea of the “father” hints at the notion of the divine, of God. In seeing the red of your father, the poem suggests, you are trained to spot the father in everything—“The breast of a single red bloom/ Five miles away across an open field” or “a red moth hanging on an oak branch.” Then, your faith might be so invested in the redbird that you would see the whole heavens as a bird: “the bones of the sky spread,/ The conceptualized wing.” Finally, you might create a notion of something holy and identify it with the redbird, and the redbird, or “What it is you recognize in the sun,” might then come to be your God. Through poetry, I’ve found a place for the avian enthusiast in me to dwell. So what if I have a thing for birds? Everyone has their way of understanding the world.

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