Three Books that Shaped “the Future” in Heart Wood

I’m often asked, “what influenced your creation of a dystopic future in Heart Wood ?” Although I’ve read speculative novels by amazing authors (think Margaret Atwood), my answer is always the same:

The three dystopic novels forever branded into my memory are:

Earth Abides,” “The Great Bay,” and “Feed

Each novel influenced how I wove the 2075 journey of great-granddaughter Amisha into my vision of the future. Coincidentally, two of the authors described a great pandemic that wiped out most of mankind – a premise that now gives me chills. That wasn’t the premise of Heart Wood, although I did mention “the flu” as something Amisha often endured as a child.  In Heart Wood though, there’s a sense of something else….

“EARTH ABIDES” by George Stewart. Written in 1949, Stewart details the earth’s transition and rebuilding after a virus wipes out most of civilization. Saved by the venom of a rattlesnake bite, the character Ish survives the virus and wanders through Northern California in what civilization has left behind. In vivid detail, Stewart describes the waves of transition the earth experiences, now freed from mankind’s influence. This book helped me let go of what I assumed is vital for the future. “Men go and come, but earth abides.” (Ecclesiastes, 1, 4)

“THE GREAT BAY” by Dale Pendell. Written in 2010, the late Pendell who lived in Nevada County, details the Great Collapse in California from 2021 to 16,000 years later. This takes place after a global pandemic in 2021 kills most of mankind – more than 200 million die in the U.S. in the first month alone. Chillingly prophetic!  Pendell moves forward decades and centuries at a time with detailed stories of survivors and maps that show the steady filling in of Central California to form a “Great Bay.”

“FEED” by M.T. Anderson. Another prescient book written in 2002. Although this Young Adult novel was written before smart phones (introduced in 2007), Anderson absolutely nailed how insidiously this communication technology would infiltrate and control our lives. Like the Nib in Heart Wood, almost everyone has a chip implanted in their brain that connects them to “The Feed.”  I listened to this as an audio book first and was hooked.

About Heart Wood – From Sandra Rockman, Theater Director

Wow! What a feat! A really good read, mammoth detail and impressive imaginings with the Nibs, etc. Although sobering to read right now in the midst of the pandemic and the election – such an important story and sensibility. Thank you for all your work on it. The world needs this book right now.

Heart Wood – Four Women, for the Earth, for the Future

The perfect gift for holiday giving; the perfect read for the times we’re in.

You can purchase your copy of Heart Wood at all local bookstores.

HERE: To locate your local independent bookstore. (Available at The Book Seller and Harmony Books in Nevada County) And HERE for Amazon (ebook and paperback)

Visit me at: www.shirleydickard.com

If you enjoyed Heart Wood, please consider giving a review on Amazon or Goodreads. It’s one of the best ways to support me and all indie authors. Thank you!

Strategies for surviving crazy, uncertain times

Expand…Contract…Expand…Contract…that’s my experience of the yo-yo ride of these past few years. One moment I feel expanded and happy, then I check the news and become contracted and anxious. I think the terms expand and contract aptly describe how my body and mind have responded to what’s happening in so many arenas at once: divisive politics/2020 elections, changing climate/extreme weather events, social justice/Black Lives Matter, and the COVID-19 pandemic. Friends have their own descriptions for this: like being on a roller coaster, flung between hope and despair, up and down, empowered or immobilized.

So far, I’ve landed on two approaches for living within these polarities – for staying healthy and sane, yet aware enough to take action if needed:

Spend more time WALKING in nature

Limit how much CONTRACTION time I allow in my life

This excerpt from Heart Wood describes the first fairly well. Overwhelmed by what’s happening to the planet, Harmony takes off to walk by the river.

Harmony

2009, Luna Valley, Northern California

 A whole morning spent scanning through email alerts and reading Dora’s endless summaries of county supervisors’ meetings gives me little more than a headache. Time to escape to my favorite place—the river. Like a homing pigeon, my old yellow Volvo glides down the switchbacks of the narrow mountain road until I enter the Third River canyon. Here the road parallels the shallow, trout-filled water—shallower than normal for spring runoff, I notice. Should I be concerned? I hang right into the parking area, where I can pick up the river trail.     

Sandals off, hiking boots on, I find the dusty trail head and start walking. The first part is rocky and unstable, but I know it will smooth out around the bend and I’ll soon strike a cadence.     

My boots pick up a deep, thudding rhythm alongside the steady flow of the wild-rushing river. Each step drops me deeper into the mindless presence I came here for. My forehead smooths, my jaw loosens, my breath deepens. River’s good medicine.

Heart Wood Page 233

EXPANSION is bouyant. My chest feels light, my heart open. I notice little details around me – like the colors, smells, sounds of the approaching autumn. Small things lift my spirits: playing with the dog, an unexpected phone call from a friend, a news story of youth tackling an environmental problem. I feel optimistic. I’d like to stay in expansion forever, but as I move through the day, I know that contraction may be next.

CONTRACTION weighs heavy, making it difficult to think or move. My shoulders curve inward, it’s harder to breathe. Feelings of panic and hopelessness build as I lay awake wondering how our country and democracy are going to survive. Will we have to accommodate to more erratic hurricanes, wildfires, floods, and drought? Will we ever return to hugging our family and friends, listening to live music, going to school and work, taking vacations? What kind of world will our grandchildren live in?

WHEN I’M FEELING THIS CONTRACTED, I try to avoid the news, but it’s too easy to pick up my phone and take a quick peek at what’s happened since the last time I checked, which is sometimes only a half-hour before. At least I have some control. In Heart Wood’s future world, newsfeed from the Nib implanted behind Amisha’s ear can’t be turned off. We’re not there….yet.

MY SECOND APPROACH to surviving these times is first, to recognize when I’m beginning to feel contracted, then to consciously limit those experiences. Like the thermostat in my house, I can adjust my exposure up or down as I need. If I’m cold, I turn up the heat; too warm, I turn it down.

I’M LEARNING TO GAUGE which news source I can handle at the moment by whether its style leaves me feeling expanded or contracted. Same with conversations with similar-minded friends. It’s satisfying to vent about what’s happening, but afterwards, how do I feel? Distress may motivate me to take positive action, but not if I’m worn down by it. I’m learning I can change the topic or change the channel.

BACK TO WALKING. Even if you don’t have the natural world right outside your door, trust me, the simple act of walking is good medicine. You can start small, add city blocks and minutes as you can, pay attention to what you’re feeling, and appreciate where bits of green nature show up.  It’s good for the heart and spirit, and it’s free.

ON MY DAILY WALKS, like Harmony in Heart Wood, I may start out walking fast, eyes narrowed straight ahead, mind turbulent with worrisome thoughts. Then something happens. After 15-20 minutes, my pace slows, my senses expand. I see that dogwood leaves are blushing red, feel acorns crunch beneath my shoes, and smell the clear air after months of wildfire smoke. I stop thinking. When I return to the house, I feel calmer, more resilient. And more ready for the next wave

I really wasn’t prepared for how many readers returned to buy extra copies of my eco-novel for giving to friends and family. Now is the perfect time to order Heart Wood for the upcoming holidays!

Purchase your copy of Heart Wood:

HERE: To support your local independent bookstore!

HERE: Amazon (ebook and paperback)

Dams: A 19th Century Solution to a 21st Century Problem That Won’t Go Away

Dams have been in the news and on my radar again. Just as I’m revising the chapter in my book about fighting a dam back in 1990 (yes, the novel’s still in progress, but I’m pedaling faster now that I’m working with a writing coach!), here in Northern California the Oroville Dam spillway break caused the evacuation of 200,000 people in the Yuba-Sutter lowlands,  and a new dam is being proposed on the Bear River in Nevada County. 284

I totally emphasize with all that would be impacted by the Centennial Dam that Nevada Irrigation District (NID) is currently proposing for the Bear River west of Colfax (Nevada and Placer Counties). Back in 1999, the Moonshine Road area of Camptonville was faced with the prospect of a dam on the Middle Yuba River. Without benefit of today’s social media, our very small community of 600 people organized, educated, then partnered with SYRCL to form our own MYRACL (Middle Yuba River Area Citizens League). Eventually, the Yuba County Water Agency took the Freeman’s Crossing Dam off the list of options for flood control. But in the current political culture of abrupt reversals, no one can afford to be complacent. Thankfully today, myriads of new organizations have joined SYRCL to focus on protecting our rivers and environment. Folks are better connected, informed, and proactive.

If you want to become informed about the Centennial Dam proposal and learn how to impact the process, here’s some links to check out. Citizens have until April 10th to give public comment to the Army Corps of Engineers, so do it soon!

www.SaveBearRiver.com, and SYRCL’s http://yubariver.org/get-involved/

Now back to my writing. Dams provide the dramatic backdrop for my present-time character, Harmony, a back-to-the-lander religiously devoted to saving the planet.  Based on the true events  in Camptonville, Harmony  was part of a group that struggled to ward off a dam that would have inundated over a third of the families in her small, rural, community.

But in the end, it was the children who saved the river.

Excerpt from The Desk:   (Note: “The Desk” was the former working title for “Heart Wood” before 2020)

       Back then, the prospect of this dam hung like a shroud over our school kids. In classrooms, bathrooms, lunchrooms, and recess, all they could talk about was that half of their friends would be flooded out; families would be forced to leave; the school would have to shut down.

      Mrs. Watson, the fifth grade teacher, understood that the best antidote for anxiety was action. She assigned her ten-year old students the project of creating a plan. What did they want to happen?  Who could they approach?  What would they say? Soon parents and school staff got on board and helped the class get on the Supervisor’s Agenda. TV and news media were alerted, and at ten am, the school bus dropped twenty children into a throng of reporters and cameras in front of the county government center.

   

CV Students Oppose Dam 1999
Grass Valley Union Reprint, April 28, 1999

  Once inside the Supervisors Chambers and called to speak, students displayed their six-foot, hand-drawn poster depicting how the dam would destroy their community. One-by one, four students stood at the microphone and read the speech they had practiced in class. How, they asked, could the Supervisors purposely wipe out one of its own communities?

     Towering above them from their elevated desk, the five Supervisors leaned back in their seats, taking in the children, cameras, reporters, then back to the children. The Chairman thanked the students politely and announced they would make their final decision by the end of the afternoon, then added he wished he could to bring his own constituents to the school to learn how to make a good presentation! 

     The next day the school’s hallways were plastered with news coverage of the childrens’ appeal….the children who saved their community from being flooded.

Flash forward to 2,020. Having once defeated this dam that would have flooded her home, Harmony is now faced with the revival of the 19th century solution to the 21st century problem of droughts, decreasing water supply, and increasing demand. What is now different in this (hopefully)  fictional account is that by 2,020, the environmental regulatory process has since been dismantled. No more red tape, pesky regulations, meddling oversight, or tedious public input. Developers are freed at last to finally get things done!

May I repeat how you can impact our future right now?

Check out: www.SaveBearRiver.com and SYRCL’s http://yubariver.org/get-involved/    The public has until April 10th to comment on NID’s plans to construct Centennial Dam – a new reservoir on the Bear River between the existing Rollins and Combie Reservoirs. It’s up to us citizens to take notice and take action.

Back to Blogging

5 am at desk

Well, folks, after taking a year and a half off, I’m back. I don’t promise to blog on a regular basis, but I do promise to write as I’m inspired.  I don’t know how daily bloggers have the time!  Time?  Isn’t that supposed to come with retirement?  Hardly. My days are filled with more than ever – but at least I’m doing what I love – writing about the history and landscape of women, California, and  the future we’re shaping  – all part of my novel – The Desk(Note: “The Desk” was the former working title for “Heart Wood” before 2020)

In my last blog (April 2014 – really?!) I had just taken on the editorship of our community’s small newspaper – The Camptonville Courier – rescuing it from near drowning. Nineteen issues later, it’s again thriving.

In spite of being distracted by running a newspaper (which I love), I’ve made decent progress on my novel this year. I’m semi-disciplined to rise before dawn and with a steaming cup of coffee, write for a few hours. The darkness keeps the real world out, and I can float back into Great-Grandmother’s world of 1850-1915, or forward to the future world of Great-Granddaughter, Amisha, end of this century and into the 2100’s, or stay right in the present and witness the slow deterioration of our planet.

Like the racing tortoise, (slowly, but Shirley), I’ve been steadily working on this book for over six years now.  As I look back at 2014, I’m amazed at some of my accomplishments.

First, the novel is now fully fleshed out, thanks to a few personal writing retreats at Skyline Harvest Retreat Center.  Having days alone with few interruptions enables me to immerse myself in the other worlds I’m creating.  There’s an unseen energy at Skyline that beckons me into a much deeper place.

I’ve made a few historical site visits.  Woodland, Yolo County, is where my Great-Grandmother lived and worked. I drove past where the family farm used to be (now a trailer, rusted cars and barking dogs), and left a bouquet of lavender on her grave in the Woodland cemetery. This summer I followed traces of her little-known life in the Nevada Desert before California – but that’s another blog!

I’m now standing at a new plateau in writing this novel, getting ready to interweave the three women’s stories with the legacy they inherited with the desk. Time to get out the cork board and move those 3X5 cards around.

© All materials copyright Shirley DicKard, 2015, except as otherwise noted.

Coming Up for Air

spiral_fire

“Watch out for potholes in the river bottom – step in one and you’re gone forever.” My mother’s words warned us children as we waded  in the swift currents of the American River on a hot Sacramento day, but she could have been warning me about my recent life.

Taking on the Editorship of the Camptonville Courier has been like slipping into a pothole and I’m only just now coming up for air. For the past three months I’ve been navigating the unfamiliar world of publishing, where I’ve been pushed up a steep learning curve, challenged to learn a foreign vocabulary, and driven on by unrelenting deadlines.

Three editions later, I emerge from my hole and look around at my “normal life.” Though I vowed I wouldn’t sacrifice writing on my novel or practicing the cello, that’s exactly what happened. So yesterday, when I realized that I had actually written, practiced, and planted seeds in my vegetable garden, I felt a surge of hope. It’s said recovery sometimes sneaks up on you!

The uncanny thing is that this experience has found a way into my writing. At times, I don’t know whether I’m writing a novel, or the novel is writing my life.

Here’s a scene from The Desk, touched with magical realism as the present-time character, Christie is unknowingly nudged by the apparitions of her great-grandmother and great-granddaughter conversing at her bedside as she sleeps.  (Note: “The Desk” was the former working title for “Heart Wood” before 2020, and “Christie” is now “Harmony.”)

“Everything has the same urgency to her,”  says the short, plump one with the stiff lace collar that prickles her neck. “She’s paralyzed by her despair for the future and damming up her own power.”

“And thinks she can avoid it by saying she’s retired. Now where the hell did she get that idea?” The tall one flicks her long sandy-colored braid over her shoulder and crosses her arms in disgust.

“She doesn’t know the desk’s power.”

“Maybe the desk needs a little help?”

“Should we?”

“A little nudge?”

“No, I’m thinking something bigger.”

*  *  *  

The night is deep and dark when I awake making plans – not in my usual sleepless pattern where thoughts wiz across my mind like neutrinos in a vacuum chamber. These particular thoughts are organized, concrete. I observe them, allowing each one to pass by as in meditation, waiting for them to dissipate as they usually do so I can return to sleep.

But they don’t. My eyes dart back and forth as I listen intently to what seems to be outlandish plans to run the community newspaper.   In one swift move, I am out of bed and seated at my desk, taking notes.

© All materials copyright Shirley DicKard, 2014, except as otherwise noted.

Acting Locally

Just when I thought my life was perfectly full, I take on something really big.  It wasn’t my idea – well, of course it was – but somehow I had made the decision without telling myself.  I realized this when I woke up at 4 am and started writing notes on how I was going to run the local community newspaper.

The Camptonville CourierBeing Editor of The Camptonville Courier was never, ever on my retirement radar.  Five months ago the last volunteer Editor left, and though people in our small town said how much they missed the monthly “community voice,” no one has come forward to take it on.  Certainly not me!  I’m a writer.  That doesn’t mean I know publishing or want those responsibilities to take over my life.

Yet, something’s right.  Here I am, one month after that fateful night, and loving what’s happening.  Instead of feeling overwhelmed, I feel supported and delightfully challenged by all I’m learning about running a newspaper. More importantly, I have a crew of twelve community volunteers who are helping by taking on pieces of the work.

What cinched it for me is this is one thing I can do for my community. I’ve often grappled with what is right action, considering all the suffering and planetary deterioration around us.  Not surprising, Christie, the present-time character in the novel I’m working on, grapples with the same question. She knows that by the end of the century, her future great-granddaughter Amisha will be grappling with the impact of the actions we do/don’t do today.  Here’s a draft excerpt from The Desk (Note: “The Desk” was the former working title for “Heart Wood” before 2020, and “Christie” is now “Harmony)

“It seems no matter what route I take, I always end up wallowing in the same pool.  Signs are everywhere.  My humming laptop has already collected the morning’s emails – Outrage! Warning!  Take Action! Thank god lots of people are working hard for causes, yet I sit here paralyzed by despair.  I’m not a hero.  I’m just me, living my life with right intentions as best I can, yet sensing there’s a huge tsunami coming toward us.

I go downstairs and refill my coffee cup.  On the way back up, I rationalize that in small ways I am doing something.  I grow my food, reuse cloth shopping bags, frequent farmer’s markets, and shop locally before checking Amazon. I’m a poster child for “One Hundred Ways to Save the Planet.”

Seated at the desk, my new fountain pen is poised in my hand, ready to write. I’m in love with it. Compared to a ball point, the ink flows almost as fast as my thoughts.

     Amisha taps me on the shoulder.

     “Thank you.”

     “For what?” I ask, startled at her voice in my head.

    “For water.  The hand pump still works.”

     “Oh that!” I laugh softly.  My husband wanted a fancy solar pump and back-up system, but I told him I wanted simple.  Too much high-tech stuff makes me feel helpless.

     “You planted fruit and nut trees,” she continues.

     “It’s what we back-to-the-landers did.”

     “But they lasted.  Even without anyone’s care.”

      “So the drought-tolerant ones really were?”  I’m impressed.

     “I couldn’t have survived without them.”

     I shift in my seat, feeling uneasy.  “But it wasn’t enough, was it?”

     “No, it wasn’t.” Her voice is cold and dry inside my head. I cover my eyes, despair drawing me down like quicksand.

© All materials copyright Shirley DicKard, 2014, except as otherwise noted.

Writing the Middle – Like Crossing a Desert

Immigrant Trail  Nevada Desert
Immigrant Trail – Nevada Desert

Sometimes I feel I’m writing across a desert  – that vast stretch between the beginning and ending of a novel.  The only way through is to take it one step at a time.

My Great-Grandmother had to do it literally.  Immigrants on the California Trail would make one last water stop in their covered wagons before leaving the Humboldt Sink where the river fanned out and disappeared into the Nevada desert. Forty miles and several days of waterless, hot parched desert lay ahead and there was no choice but to roll through.  Along the way animals died, prized possessions were jettisoned, despair set in.  Rather like writing through the middle of a story, I’m finding.

It’s humbling to learn that a great story takes more than a great idea. Writers have to craft this passage well so the reader wants to stay with the story.  But it’s also where authors can get stuck in boggy, soggy ground.  Between the beginning and end, there are elements of plot and character development, back stories, turning points, cliff hangers, triumphs, setbacks, reversals, and ever-present conflict and tension.  Add to this, layers of character arc, motivations, subplots, story theme, and . . .  Whew!  It’s why I immerse myself in writing classes, conferences, critique groups, and reading, reading, reading.

When will The Desk be finished?  Well, I’d say I’m about two-thirds across the desert.  Like Beulah the Ox who detected the faintest whiff of water and quickened her pace, I can feel the pieces coming together, but I’ve still many miles to go.  And when I do finally tie it all together, I’ll still have a steep granite mountain range to traverse, called Revisions.

(Note: “The Desk” was the former working title for “Heart Wood” before 2020)

© All materials copyright Shirley DicKard, 2012 – 2013, except as otherwise noted.

Beginnings

Emergence  Utah Petroglyph
Emergence
Utah Petroglyph

I think some beginnings are only recognized in retrospect.   You’ll be amazed at what you’ll be doing, the voice in my head told me.  It’s not even on your radar.  I’d been pondering my up-coming retirement and heard this not once, but many times – usually when meditation had cleared my mind of clutter.

When my sisters visited me in 2008, I read them a short fictional piece I’d written about inheriting the family desk. That was it – one page.  I made a few revisions and put it away.  Later I wrote another short story of an ancient woman obsessed with horrific visions of the future who died holding an acorn to her breast.  In one of those “ah-hah!” leaps, I knew this would be the acorn/oak tree from which the desk would be made.

Family women who wrote on the desk started lining up, starting with my activist Great Grandmother who farmed California’s north central valley after the 1849 Gold Rush, and ending with a present time woman struggling with how to live on a degraded earth. I thought that was it until the “visitation” one night from the future – Amisha, my great-granddaughter.

The mystery held within the family desk currently encompasses three women and the future.  I hope that’s it!  With my ending already in place (see my December 7 post), I have only to cross the desert to bridge the beginning with the ending  (my next post).  As I look back, the beginning of “The Desk” did sneak in under my radar, but now it’s an integral part of my life.  And yes, I am amazed!

(Note: “The Desk” was the former working title for “Heart Wood” before 2020)

© All materials copyright Shirley DicKard, 2012 – 2013, except as otherwise noted.

Endings

5 am at deskI’m often asked when my book will be finished – the novel I’ve been working on for four or five years now. “Who knows?” I shrug and sigh.  It’s become a journey unto itself.

It’s not that I don’t want it to end, for I know the last scene.  My friend Roger Rapp laid it out for me during a dinner conversation a few years ago.  He said John Irving always writes the last paragraph first, then writes toward it as if it were a piece of music he could hear.

Roger, who understood the underlying theme of my story, looked me in the eye and told me what the last paragraph of “The Desk” would be. I remember the goose bumps.  He was absolutely right on.  Roger died suddenly the next month, but his gift of the ending will endure.

(Note: “The Desk” was the former working title for “Heart Wood” before 2020)

© All materials copyright Shirley DicKard, 2012 – 2013, except as otherwise noted.