Thursday, August 22, 2013

Trying to Save Piggy Sneed, by John Irving

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Some writers are so inextricably linked with place. Think Mark Twain and the Mississippi. Tony Hillerman and the desert Southwest. James Joyce and Dublin.

John Irving writes books set in Iowa, Vienna, and New England (often, all three). He's lived in all three places and has a strong sense of each. But for me, John Irving is inseparable from New England, particularly Vermont and New Hampshire.

So when I was setting off to Vermont last month, I checked out one of the only Irving books I hadn't yet read: Trying to Save Piggy Sneed. I hoped to immerse myself in a bit of Irvingian landscape. In part, I wanted to compare it to the real place; in part, I wanted to imagine Vermont one last time, unaided by reality.

Only when I scrunched up in my airplane window seat with a plastic cup of ginger ale did I realize this book isn't a novel. It's a collection of memoirs, short fiction (the dude hasn't written much of that; why would he, when his novels are often so epic?), and literary appreciation.

This conglomeration turned out to be the perfect accompaniment to my journeys. Novels are often a glimpse into the novelist -- perhaps more than usually so in Irving's case -- so what better way to experience the place than through the man, and to examine the writer than through his home state? If the two really are so strongly linked, then really I was seeing two things at once and getting a greater sense of their whole. Depth perception!

The whole Vermont experience, for me as a writer, was unmatchable. I took more inspiration from the VCFA Summer 2013 graduation ceremony (and the remarkable writers in that crowd -- cheers to all of you!) than I did from my own year's worth of graduate school classes. I returned home more jazzed to create (and capable of creation) than I'd ever felt.

Part of the mindset I cultivated in Vermont, I attribute to feeling so close to Mr. Irving. I had stepped into every one of his novels, which is not to say that I felt I might bump into Garp or Owen Meany around any corner. No, I felt I had come in contact with what makes Irving's books true. True, not in fact, but in emotion. (Irving writes on the first page of Piggy Sneed that "(to any writer with a good imagination) all memoirs are false." I love that idea.)

Sometimes, readers and fans and literary critics get too caught up in what is factual about an author's existence. We get tangled up in which Dublin building is "'The Dead' house," or whether Hillerman's mysteries are based in real cases. The source of a good author's stories is not the facts of his life, but rather, the truth on which he can work his magic of falseness -- his fiction.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Gifts of the Crow, by John Marzluff and Tony Angell

We've had a magpie couple living in the mini-woods along our driveway ever since last fall. "Trouble," we call them, and "tree-toppers," because they insist on flailing to stay atop the highest twig on the tallest trees in the neighborhood. These two magpies punctuate our every morning, and their presence pleased us to no end when we first moved in. (I'd be lying if I said that the abundance of magpies in the Durango area didn't influence our decision to live here.) Every time we take a walk, we greet the birds, whether we can see them or not. "Hi, magpies!" we call. "Hi, trouble!"

This spring, we watched the two schemers collect building materials from nature's Home Depot for their nest. Just as a Labrador retriever will insist on carrying more tennis balls in his mouth than he can actually hold, these gumptious magpies swooped through trees with twigs longer than themselves. We knew they were making babies. "Make babies!" we hollered to them. And before long, we heard series of calls in a fresher, higher pitch than usual. They made babies!

We had to leave the house for a few weeks this summer. Our landlady agreed to water the plants, and I really wanted to ask her to keep an eye on the magpies for us. We didn't want them thinking we had left for good.

The week before our trip, we found two beautiful magpie feathers in the driveway, little gifts from our flighty friends. These wing feathers revealed the white blocks that fan out like poker hands when the magpies take flight, and the black border shows flashes of green and blue and violet when you stare at it just carefully enough.

This story can only have one ending, can't it? When we returned from our time afield, the trees before our house stood strangely still and bare. One day without magpies means they're up to something; two days is an aberration. After a week, we had to acknowledge that our magpies were gone.

At this point, most people who have heard this story pull their lips tight into a sympathetic grimace. But we don't believe that the magpies are dead. (And if they are, they probably went down defending their brood against a bobcat.) These birds are smart; more likely than the death of an entire family is that they relocated. Maybe it was for a change of scenery; maybe the summer monsoons drove them from their nest.

We like to think that our wing feathers were truly gifts from our neighboring magpies. Parting gifts, because they knew us and where we walked, and they also knew they would be leaving soon.

A whole lot of hippie-minded mumbo jumbo? Our human knack for putting human meaning where there's just the cruel facts of nature? Could be. Or it could be that these birds are as clever and brilliant as John Marzluff and Tony Angell have shown them to be. Gifts of the Crow -- the magpie is the cleverest child in the crow family -- is full of anecdotes showing just how much corvids and humans think and act alike. Behind the stories, they have a career's worth of observation and scientific study.

Which means, these magpies remember us, and literally (not just sentimentally) always will. Without the ominous overtones, they know where we live. So we await their potential return. Every jay's caw causes us to dash for the windows, only to be disappointed. Yet our hope has wings; this week, we separately spotted two magpies swooping in that familiar arc over the driveway and into the brush.