I was awestruck when I read this 1915 article about my Great Grandmother Emily Hoppin (the inspiration for Eliza in “The Desk”) after she was elected President of the California Federation of Women’s Clubs.
“Mrs. Hoppin is an optimist . . . even in the face of the greatest war of all ages (WWI), she still hopes that work for peace, which she feels must be largely woman’s work, will not – cannot – be in vain. She anticipates that the condition we pray for, the prevalence of an effective sentiment for universal peace, may come about suddenly and unexpectedly, likening it to the movement for the abolition of slavery, which seemed a far, Eutopian vision in the minds of its supporters. Practically all they dared hope for was the restriction and limiting of the traffic – and then, of a sudden, Emancipation! – more glorious than their fondest dreams! And so she prays it may be with the peace sentiment.” (The Overland Monthly, 1915 – “The New Executive in Feminine Clubdom”)
Though I also consider myself an optimist, I get easily discouraged by what feels like a tsunami of greed and self-interest. I lose hope. Think of today’s big issues: gun control, the Afghanistan war, reproductive choices, the right to marry, genetically-modified foods, etc. (obviously reflects my liberal perspective). Sure, I sign internet petitions, donate to causes, make an occasional call to elected representatives, but I recognize a little voice that says, “I’ll do what I can, but it’s probably hopeless – too much money and corporate interest backing it.”
And then I read my Great-Grandmother’s words and come face to face with the paucity of my vision. Remember Ken Keyes’ book, The Hundredth Monkey? He wrote: “When only a limited number of people know of a new way, it may remain the conscious property of these people. But there is a point at which if only one more person tunes-in to a new awareness, a field is strengthened so that this awareness reaches almost everyone!”
I return to Great Grandma’s vision that “universal peace may come about suddenly and unexpectedly, likening it to the movement for the abolition of slavery, which seemed a far, Eutopian vision in the minds of its supporters. . . then, of a sudden, Emancipation! – more glorious than their fondest dreams!”
I realize now my work is to join with others to hold a strong, clear image of the world I want. A world where guns are registered like cars, and users are tested for skills and safety. Where any committed couple can marry. Where the earth has a sustainable population because women can control conception. Where we learn to live with less energy … and so on. I encourage you to think about the images you hold – and how they can add to the tipping point.
It’s such a common sight near power lines, but every time I see this, my heart aches for the beheaded tree.
It was growing there long before man ran his electricity in straight lines and chopped off anything that got in his way.
Driving across the Sacramento Valley to Woodland where my ancestors settled during the Gold Rush, I took lots of photos.
Most were scenes of vibrant mustard flowers carpeting the ground of cloudy pink fruit orchards. But some orchards were bereft of any ground vegetation. I thought the fields of dark earth all furrowed and ready for planting were stunning at first, until I noticed the absolute absence of weeds. Hmmmm.
Man’s need supersedes that of nature most times. I’ve learned recently that oil companies are hovering like bees a bit south in the central valley in one of the richest deposits of oil in the United States called the Monterey Shale. Get ready for the next Gold Rush made possible by hydraulic fracking.
Fracking creates fractures in rocks thousands of feet below the surface by injecting them with water laced with chemicals and sand, allowing oil or gas to flow out. Fracking received a specific exception from the Clean Water Act in the 2005 Energy Bill, so oil companies don’t have to reveal what chemicals they use.
Again, with no regard to Mother Earth, some 30 chemicals including hydrochloric acid, are injected into her body to extract oil. Fracking and disposal of fracking waste has been linked to groundwater pollution, drinking water contamination and earthquakes.
How long until Earth fights back, like an abused woman who’s finally had enough? In the meantime, as Dick always says, Go Gently.
I love reading people’s stories of how used books magically found them.
Got one yourself? Send it and I’ll add it to the collection!
First, one from Rochelle Bell.
“One of my favorite authors is Sylvia Boorstein, a Buddhist teacher and a faithful Jew. One day I decided to get the rest of the books she has written. I realized she was aging and probably would not be writing very much longer. I went to Amazon.com and began looking for her work. There were several, and I quickly hit the “buy” button and was done with it.
A few days later the books came and I realized I’d been too quick on the button. One of the books was written by another author and only the forward was written by Sylvia.
My partner, Rod grabbed that book titled “How to be Sick” – A Buddhist-inspired guide for the chronically ill and their caregivers. Rod has been caring for his brother as of late, and he loves the book and the wisdom it imparts.
So, what seemed like a mistake for me turned into a gift for Rod.”
* * *
And now from her partner, Rod Bondurant.
An old National Geographic started it.
“I don’t recall the name….do you, Mabel?” Mabel shook her head and the Delhi librarian turned her steely gaze on me. I just wanted a book, and I was being interrogated in the silent old library in upstate New York where old school New England culture was still present.
I really didn’t want to go into it all but I half-heartedly launched into the story of my parents living there, and now my reclusive brother living in their house.
No stranger was just going to walk in and get a book here. I decided to get to the point. “I’m looking for a copy of Charles Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle. Two pair of eyes were suddenly wide and fixed on me. Their thrill showed: This man wants a real book! He knows who Darwin is! A flurry of eager activity located the book 200 miles away. I had to explain more about how I didn’t expect to be around long enough to receive the copy. I had returned to Delhi to help my brother deal with serious cancer and I was hoping to go home soon.
To salvage my library visit and honor the staff’s enthusiasm, I requested direction to the Travel section. I took in the bleak half-filled shelf……A few old Fodor’s, a picture book or two, a few musty local history anthologies, and a shabby gray copy of The Peninsula by Louise Dickinson Rich. A vaguely familiar name.
She was one of my mother’s favorite authors. Mother always had dreams of “going back to the land”. She would have been a good hippie. We actually did vagabond around in a converted VW bus during my high school summers.
Louise Rich had chronicled her own depression-era adventure in the Maine woods where she and her husband operated a fishing lodge. The difficulties and making do involved in eking out an existence in the 1930’s was well described in We Took To The Woods. Louise was also something of a cultural anthropologist and studied and delightfully recorded the values and workings of small town life. The memory of that book reminded me that my previous interrogation was a precious remnant of the peculiar intimacy of small towns.
I grabbed The Peninsula. It had slumbered on the shelf. The old fashioned card with checkout dates showed it had been checked out only about once a year since 1963. I suspect one of the entries was my mother’s. The Peninsula kept me spellbound. Louise was now leading a different and solitary life in the early ‘50’s on the Maine coast. She saw that “progress” was coming; the world she was surrounded with was going to disappear and she wanted to chronicle it. She also shared her personal opening to the special natural beauty and heartwarming culture she found.
I haven’t yet read Darwin’s account about a now lost South American tribe, but the search had brought me the gift of another story closer to home.”
There’s been a seismic shift in access to information since I first did serious research on my Great Grandmother, Emily Hoppin, almost 25 years ago. Back then (before Internet, mind you) I had to travel to Woodland to do on-site research in the Yolo County Archives – a small building in an industrial section of town. When I found a newspaper article I wanted to copy of my gold-rush era ancestor, the kindly woman held a column-wide copier over the paper, and reproduced the article in that filmy fax-type paper (print is faded and useless today)
I’ve also relied on my Great-Grandmother’s scrapbook (patented in 1873 by Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain) that contains her pasted newspaper clippings of family deaths, her speeches, and the hot political contest for President of Federation of Women’s Clubs of California (which she won -1915). Someday, I’ll make it part of Woodland’s historical archives.
I’ve found Ancestry.com helpful for locating records of births, deaths and census reports. Interesting to see who else was living on the farm.
But recently Stephanie Korney, a friend and a founder of the Camptonville Historical Society, emailed me an article about my Great Grandmother from the 1915 Overland Journal. (Stephanie said after seeing my blog, she just couldn’t help digging around herself!) I thought I’d seen most things printed on my ancestors, but here was an article filled with delicious details about this woman. Wow! Made Facebook look pale!
In the last 25 years, the Internet has democratized access to information. Google Books, a service from Google Inc. scans the full text of books and old magazines, converts text using optical character recognition, and stores it in its digital database. There’s been a lot of controversy over copyright issues and fair use. That aside, I’m delighted to be able to search for Emily Hoppin, Yolo, California and find 30 sources of information on her. I’ll put some on my website, and some of it will be incorporated into The Desk as a backdrop for Eliza, the fictionalized woman inspired by my Great-Grandmother’s life work for California, Women’s Suffrage, Temperance, Water, Farming and hopes for Universal Peace.
“In used book stores it truly is Ask and you shall receive. Even if you don’t ask, the old books know, not just the words within, but so many of the thoughts of those who have read before you.” (Robert Mumm)
Thanks to those who’ve sent me their own tales of being called by used books. I’m starting with stories by Mark Jokerst and Robert Mumm. Hope to hear more stories from the rest of you!
“My favorite book finding me story came from reading a Wendell Berry piece where he mentioned Sir Albert Howard as one of the sources of today’s organic gardening. Soon after, poking around at Bay Books in Concord, an old but crisp edition of “An Agricultural Testament” caught my eye. Thanks. It never dawned on me the book was reaching out for me; I thought I had found the book!” . . . Mark Jokerst
And from Robert Mumm . . .
“In a used book store in Maryland, a book was waiting for me. I didn’t know it, but it was and it took but a very short time for it to catch my attention. It wasn’t a bright new book in great condition; rather it seemed a bit tired and dowdy. It was a well-used old book and the only book I really looked at. My son and daughter-in-law had wanted to show me their favorite book store, and there was just time for a brief stop on our way to the airport for my return flight back to California.
I have been working to put together some family background for my kids and found there is really a lot I don’t know about my father and almost nothing about the family before that. My father came to this country from the district of Schleswig in Northern Germany on his own when he was fifteen, so in a way the chain back beyond was broken. He did tell many fascinating stories about his childhood, but there was just too much detail for me to understand then, because it was so beyond my own experience. Later on there never seemed to be time to go back over some of those old things, and they faded and became confused.
Pieter and Katie never knew their paternal Grandfather at all, so I wished to get inside and reconstruct the person he was so that they can know him a little. I soon realized that religion played a big part in his life, although when I knew him he had no religious affiliation at all. To understand him I needed information on that part of his childhood.
So I had begun to work on this facet of his life when I walked into that used book store and reached for the first book that caught my eye. This book was between others, so I couldn’t read its title, but when I pulled it out and saw what it was, I knew why I had come there. It was The History of the Reformation in Germany and Switzerland, published in 1847 and written by J.H. Merle D’ Aubigne. I subsequently looked him up and found that he is a very well regarded source in religious history and fun to read because of the writing style of the time. This book has become a source that not only illuminated religion, but also many attitudes pertaining to the raising of children at that time.
I’ve also been able to learn something of the physical setting, for instance, the Elbe River where he played is about five miles across. Far different than the river I envisioned as a child, for all the river I knew was our little Middle Fork of the Yuba. Dad had an extensive knowledge of the rigging of sailing ships, those old Windjammers of an age when the bulk of cargo still moved under sail. He made a wonderful model ship for each of his sons, with all the stays and rigging of those great old Windjammers, and his love of tall ships has come to me as a sort of nostalgic undercurrent.
In my father’s telling of his early life there came to me a subliminal dread of the North Sea. From what I have researched so far, I now know why, for my father was close to it – very close. My grandfather was a Pilot Boat Captain and many times must have gone out to meet ships when he was not at all sure of coming back. Even today the transfer of a Pilot and Helmsman from pilot boat to an incoming ship in the turbulent mix of river flow and storm driven waves where the Elbe meets the North Sea is a hazardous undertaking.
In used book stores it truly is ask and you shall receive. Even if you don’t ask, the old books know, not just the words within but so many of the thoughts of those who have read before you.”
What would your world be like if you lived in the year 2088? As my novel goes 75-100 years into the future, I’m imagining the details of my great-granddaughter’s existence and that of the planet. I was struck by a recent report in Nature magazine: Approaching a State-Shift in Earth’s Biosphere. An international team of scientists concludes that our planet’s ecosystems are careening towards an imminent, irreversible collapse much sooner and much worse than currently thought.
Lots of novels and films have depicted a dystopic, future world: Soylent Green, Day of the Triffids, Feed, Waterworld, 2012, The Day after Tomorrow, On the Beach, Logan’s Run, the Matrix, The World without Us, Wall-E, The Great Bay, Canticle for Leibowitz, Andromeda Strain, the Stand, and my favorite written in 1949, Earth Abides – to name a few. Causes vary from rogue viruses, aliens, asteroids, technology gone amuck to nuclear disaster.
Given both the positive and negative trends already underway, suppose mankind is unable to do enough to ward off an irreversible, planetary-scale tipping point. What’s the outlook for our great-grandchildren if the corporate bottom-line continues to lead us into the future, or GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) continue to alter the biology of our foods and bodies? How will man communicate or move around the planet when there’s little left to extract from the earth for energy or manufacturing? Extreme heat and rising sea levels will probably eliminate traditional ways to grow food or live. What if man himself has tipped the earth so far that it’s no longer hospitable to humans?
I’m looking for images, ideas, imaginings. Tell me how you think a person would get through their day 75-100 years from now. I’m curious about details. With your permission, it might make it into “The Desk.” Leave a comment here or email me at email@example.com. Thanks!
I was surrounded by a cacophony of swans and geese. Such a perfect word for the exuberant conversation of migratory Tundra Swans, Snow, Ross and White-Fronted Geese that arrive every winter to the flooded rice fields in the upper Sacramento Valley. I spent the afternoon with them recently, amazed as I imagine people have always been at this seasonal flyway.
Two hundred years ago, a Patwin woman – one of the valley tribes I write of in my book – might have looked up at the first honks of returning swans, knowing it was the time for gathering acorns and manzanita berries. Spanish, Mexican, then European settlers from the east probably saw the migration as the arrival of protein for their winter larder. But for me, it’s the anticipated arrival of wonder.
People migrate – some. Migrant workers follow the ripening of spring lettuce and winter squash. As a rural school nurse, I knew certain families would show up in the spring when the weather was warm enough to camp out at the river. They stayed until the first frost, then moved on. Now it’s the seasonal folks who arrive in fall with their trimming scissors to work the local cash crop. When the harvest’s done, they too move on.
I wonder how the long-term impact of climate change will affect the signals that trigger migration? 2012 was the hottest year on record– a recent report by NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). Earlier springs, longer, hotter summers, harsher wildfires, droughts, crop losses. Will my great grandchildren tell their children of the days when swans used to overwinter where farmers used to grow rice in the Sacramento Valley?
I like my present-time roots. I feel them deep in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, but I also feel them across the valley where my ancestors settled in 1849. I like making that trek. I feel the pull of my own winter migration when the returning swans call me to drop what I’m doing, and meet them in the valley.
Do you believe there’s magic in used books? I’ve had incredible experiences calling books to me over the years. Today was yet another. I’ll share some of my favorite book magic stories. If you have some of your own, send them and I’ll post them!
I’d always regretted giving away the Navajo Language book that Dick and I studied on the Reservation in Arizona in the 1970’s. We thought our hospital replacements would benefit from having it, but I realized too late I’d given away an irreplaceable treasure of Navajo phrases and vocabulary. Fast forward five years to the basement of Cody’s Bookstore on Telegraph Avenue, Berkeley. I was looking over a table of used children’s books when my eye was caught by a red book perched atop a stack of children’s picture books. As my hand reached for it, I knew what it was: Navajo Made Easier by Irvy Goossen.
Then there’s the book from my childhood I wanted to read to my daughters, but couldn’t remember the title – only that it was of a young girl who collected butterflies in the woods. I’d given up, when one day, while checking out books at the Grass Valley Children’s Library, an elderly woman set a stack of old books on the counter to donate. Impulsively, I reached around her and turned the bindings to see the titles, and there it was: Girl of the Limberlost, by Gene Straton-Porter. I had to fight the librarian for it (she collected rare old books), but a donation to the library made it mine.
Some books have been nearly thrust into my hands. I’d just returned from my youngest sister’s memorial service in Canada and was headed toward a much-needed latte, when I made an unusual right turn and ended up in Tome’s Books and Sierra Roasters in Grass Valley. With mug in hand, I wandered the stacks until I found a chair in a dark corner. Mindlessly, I reached up and pulled out a paperback: Life on the Other Side by Sylvia Browne. It was as if my sister wanted me to know…..
So today I was again at Tomes (my favorite used book store). As I waited to see what books Eric would buy from me (for credit of course), my hand reached out for an orange workbook in the Reference Section. Book in a Month by Victoria Schmidt. Voila! Exactly what I needed to get my novel moving along. It’s one thing to have a story in your head and quite another to be organized enough to move through all the steps of crafting a compelling novel. I have thirty days to finish my first draft, starting February 1st. Be sure and ask me how it’s going!
“Is there a real desk?” I‘m often asked. After all, it’s one of the main characters in my novel.
The answer is yes, it sits by the window in my writing studio. And yes, it’s a family heirloom, but I don’t know how far back it goes. Like other family ancestors and future descendants, it’s an inspiration.
For your enjoyment, here’s an excerpt from The Desk, where it first appears in Christie’s life – the present time narrator whose nights have been haunted ever since inheriting the desk.
(Still a draft, so your comments are welcome!)
2010, Sierra Nevada Homestead
I shove the comforter onto my husband’s side and slide off the edge of the bed, angry and desperate in what is now my sixth sleepless night. Feeling my way down the dark hallway, I stop in the doorway of my studio. A sliver of moonlight hesitating behind the shadowed curtains catches my eye.
“What is it?” I ask the darkness.
In the corner is the dim form of a small oak desk huddled beneath the weathered windowsill. It seems frail, frightened even. I step closer.
“You’ve got something to do with this. I can feel it.”
As if summoned, I pull out my old needlepoint chair with the sagging center, and sit. I run my hands along the desktop. It’s a simple, straightforward little desk, hardly two by three feet on top. The three vertical slats down each side are spanned by a narrow shelf beneath, a foot above the ground. It was made without nails, held together by the clasped hands of tongue and grove construction.
My sister had recently offered this odd piece of family furniture to me, releasing it from years of exile in her basement.
“I’ll take it,” I said without hesitation. There’d be some place for it in my already crowded home. It wasn’t a notable piece but I didn’t want it to leave the family. I rub the musty top in slow, circular motions while I think.
Beneath the desktop, I find a small drawer that slides out reluctantly. Someone had covered the bottom of the drawer with ugly blue and white grid contact paper – a relic of the ‘60’s. A small edge is pulled back. Along the front, the narrow tray for pens is stained with black and blue splotches. A small heart had been carved in the front corner of the desktop, and a circular watermark marred the back left corner where a hot drink had been carelessly placed. Two of the legs have small, teeth-like gashes at the base. Although the oak grain may once have been polished into a deep gloss, along the way, dust had settled into the small grooves, leaving a feeling of tired brittleness.
“Did I forget to welcome you home?” I exhale and look around, aware that I’m now conversing with a desk.
“This is my studio. I write here.” I point across the room to the computer table against the south window. As my eyes adjust to the darkness, I describe the stacks of reference books, the watercolor sketches of ospreys, owls and lizards taped to the curtains, the photos of husband and grandchildren tucked around the printer, boxes of upright pens and watercolor pencils, and my thirty-year-old prayer plant.
“I’m working on an article about the up-slope migration of flora and fauna in the Sierra Nevada foothills. It’s due in two days and now the editor wants more facts to support climate change. I know he’s being pressured, but I’m about to tell him to shove it.”
“And. . . I hardly need another desk,” I continue, feeling irritated and wishing I hadn’t been so quick to take it. “But family’s family.” I think about the photograph of my mother as a young wife in the 1940’s, sitting at this very desk with the mouthpiece of a heavy black telephone to her ear. She never talked about the desk or who had it before her, even though she knew I was passionate about our family’s history.
I reach over to the bookcase that the desk is now squeezed against, and gently tap the frayed binding of my great-grandmother’s scrapbook stuffed with tattered, yellowed news clippings of her speeches. My hand brushes over the tops of faded leather editions of Emerson, Cooper, Longfellow, and Thoreau, all inherited from my grandmother’s library. A thin hand-printed book of great-grandfather’s letters home from the Gold Rush is lying face down on the shelf. I tuck it back into place with a smile.
“You should feel right at home. You’re surrounded by family.”
Four chimes reverberate from Grandfather clock in the hallway and I sigh. Another lost night.
“If you don’t mind,” I say, “I really need to get some sleep. I’ve mountains of work before Tuesday’s deadline.” I push the chair back against the desk. “Try listening to the ticking in the hallway,” I say, thinking of the wind-up alarm clock we used to put in our puppy’s bed. I give the desk a pat, then head back to curl up next my husband’s warm body.
“I mean it,” I whisper. “I desperately need some deep sleep.”
The next morning I awaken at nine, exhausted. I toss my favorite purple shawl around my shoulders and start my morning routine with toast and coffee. I’m usually perked up by the anticipation of freshly ground French roast, but this morning even the coffee seems lifeless. I plod my way upstairs to my studio and place the plate of buttered sourdough toast and mug of black coffee on the little desk by the window. I’m glad my husband has already left for work. On days like this I’ve learned it’s just better to stay away from people.
I’m there in time to watch the first rays of light cascade through the west facing window, illuminating a path across the top of the desk. It’s my favorite time of day and today especially, I need the reprieve before facing the work ahead. As if on cue, Buddy sniffs me out and with tail thumping, positions himself at my side to catch the last bite of toast – a routine we’ve developed over the years that is both annoying and tender.
The morning sun moves imperceptibly across the dull brown striations of oak grain as I start my morning meditation. But today I am distracted by the drifting light – the turning of the earth – the turning of time, I remind myself. I struggle to focus on my breath – in and out, in and out. The hallway clock accompanies me with a steady tick, tock, tick tock, its pendulum sweeping each second into the past. Last night’s voices hover at the edge, demanding my attention.
Then, from that still space that has eluded me all week, I sense a voice of remarkable clarity.
The sun pauses at the edge. Dust motes are suspended in mid-air.
“Don’t do this to me,” I say. “I don’t have time.” But my hands are already reaching under the drawer to slide it open. My fingers feel along the bottom and lift out a forest green leather notebook. I watch my palms press the blank pages open against the oak desktop, then lift the black filigree pen from its tray. Though my hand trembles, the voices are calm.
Do we have the ability to influence our ancestors? Or our future descendants? On a restless night several years ago, I found these thoughts changing the course of my novel.
I started out inspired to write about my Great Grandmother Emily who settled during the 1849 Gold Rush in the Sacramento Valley. But I didn’t want to write yet another biography of a head-strong, determined western woman. The book shelf’s already full of those! So I stepped back to look at the larger landscape.
Of course…we’re all spirit, and if time transcends the here and now, we all have access to each other’s lives. What if I could slip back into my great-grandmother’s life and tell her what she’d need to know that might ward off future ecological devastation? Or hear my great-granddaughter imploring me to build now what she’d need to survive when she returns to our abandoned homestead in the far future?
And what if we’re all connected by the vision of an ancient woman of wisdom who saw it all? Shima’a found a portal that transcended time. From the heartwood of an oak tree (that as an acorn grew from her heart when she died), a small oak writing desk became her means of inspiring women to gather their power and create new ways of living together. The old, aggressive masculine constructs have run their course. If earth and humanity are to survive, the feminine has to ascend.