Friday, June 18, 2010

An Important Message from Unknown Inuit Elder

My imagination is spiraling northward toward the arctic. Ever since I encountered the landscape of the far north for the first time in the summer of 2004, I have been thinking about it, first through the prism of my experience there, and then through the lens of my craft, fiction. Regarding the fiction aspect, at first I was horrified. My feeling as I hiked across the tundra, among the cotton grass and moss campion cushions, among razorwinged jaegers, gyrfalcons, and rock ptarmigan, as I glimpsed cross foxes and grizzlies, as I walked breathless in the slanted light of a summer solstice midnight, I realized this: fiction is completely irrelevant to this place. When you have watched a wolf amble across the tundra and swim across a braid of the Canning river to raid a gull's nest, when you have observed this creature free in its natural domain...and when you have lain in your tent and feared, on some level, for your life, and wondered if it was possible for a post-millenial urban human being to end up grizzly prey (and felt a certain rightness about human as prey), artifice falls away, at least it did for me. Experiential knowledge trumped art in every significant way. The far north is wild, magnificent, sublime. To describe it, I thought, does it an injustice, because how could I not taint and temper its power by my own weakness (as a writer, as a vessel of human perception). The truth is, being in the arctic just about re-calibrated the artist right out of me.

After a while, I began to think about it differently. An old adage ran through my head: When the student is ready, the teacher appears. Just before I went to the Alaskan arctic I had graduated with an MFA in fiction. When I returned from that hiking and rafting trip north of the Brooks range, I wondered if my schooling had been in vain. I felt like 12 days in the arctic showed me more about the creative process than those two years in school.

Luckily I've changed my view somewhat. One day I was complaining about all this to my boyfriend, and he said: "So don't describe it. Create it." And somewhere in those two short sentences I dug in my heels and grabbed hold of the thread of an idea, the end of a guide rope, let's say, and began to follow the spiraling path into my next book.

When I began to research arctic narratives, I encountered expedition after expedition, and while accounts of egomaniacal captains and very bad 19th century planning intrigue me no end, and I love the macabre dynamics among the men on those ships, I leaned away from the expeditionary tales. What I'm leaning toward is still mysterious, but it is unfolding itself over time: the Russian Orthodox ascetics of the north, the tales of the Pomor hunters, Salomon Andree's journals, and most of all Spitsbergen, the great archipelago that no country claimed until almost the 20th century. This place, this icy terra nullis, has become the most fertile and bountiful imaginative landscape to me.

A few weeks ago I was reading an essay and found a quote that speaks directly of the arctic and the creative process. Typical of arctic narrative, there are many layers to the quote's authorship. It appears in a book called Echoing Silence: Essays on Arctic Narrative, in an essay by Aron Senkpiel. In the essay Senkpiel quotes Knud Rasmussen, the Greenlandic polar explorer and anthropologist, who in turn quotes an unknown Inuit elder from Pelly Bay, in Canada's Nunavut territory. This person, this unknown elder, is speaking of the creative process, and for me this quote is incredibly useful and inspiring as I take one slow step after another northward, to write about the arctic.

A person is moved just like the ice floe sailing here and there out in the current. Your thoughts are driven by a flowing force when you feel joy, when you feel fear, when you feel sorrow. Thoughts can wash over you like a flood, making your breath come in gasps and your heart pound. Something like an abatement in the weather will keep you thawed up. And then it will happen that we, who always think we are small, will feel even smaller. And we will fear to use words. But it will happen that the words we need will come of themselves. When the words we want shoot up of themselves-then we get a new song."

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Thanks again, Frans Meijer

In our age of declining biodiversity, it's difficult to imagine a time when the US Department of Agriculture regularly hired explorers to hunt down new fruit and vegetable varieties across the globe. But this is exactly what Frans Nicholaas Meijer was hired to do in 1905. During his stint as a USDA agricultural explorer, he traveled all over the world and returned with many new species that went on to be widely cultivated in the States. He is best known for his Chinese imports, including Gingko biloba, soybeans, and Chinese cabbage, among others. Apparently afflicted with a severe case of wanderlust, he spent his adult life traveling, sometimes on foot across vast distances. Sadly, in 1918 at the age of forty-three, he drowned in the Yangtze river.

I am particularly grateful to Meijer for bringing us the lemon that now bears the anglicized version of his name. Thought to be a cross between a lemon and a mandarin, the round, thin-skinned Meyer lemon has a delectable floral scent and taste, and is less bitter than a Eureka or a Lisbon. There are two abundant Meyer lemon trees in our yard, and this yellow jewel has provided us gallons of lemonade, (often infused with rosemary), quarts of marmalade (honeyed and vanilla bean), limoncello galore, and Moroccan style preserved lemons, not to mention untold squeezes over salads, poultry and fish. But there is one recipe that stands above all the other lemon-oriented delicacies I’ve made, a recipe so heavenly, so wickedly and perfectly decadent that the people who eat it swoon off their chairs. It is something I would have loved to make for Frans Meijer in gratitude. My landlord, the man who planted the trees in our yard, handed me the recipe very casually a few months ago. Let's just say my response upon first tasting the result was anything but casual. I would describe it more as a joyful seizure. It is Meyer Lemon Custard Cream Pie. Yeah. It is insanely good. This recipe is from Sunset Magazine. There’s no date on the photocopy my landlord gave me, but the short article is by Elaine Johnson.

Meyer Lemon Custard Cream Pie

Prep and cook time: About 40 minutes, plus two hours for chilling.

Makes one pie.

10 (about 2/13 lb.) Meyer lemons

1/3 cup cornstarch

1 cup sugar

3 large eggs

1 cup whipping cream

1 baked, cooled 9-inch pastry shell, or one homemade baked, cooled pie crust

1. Grate 2 teaspoons peel from lemons. With a zester or Asian shredder make a few long strands of peel to decorate the finished pie. Squeeze one and one-third cups juice from the lemons.

2. In the top of a double boiler (I use a makeshift boiler using two saucepans and it works fine), mix the cornstarch and sugar. Stir in the lemon juice and grated peel. Fill the bottom of the double boiler with 1 inch of water. Place pans over high heat and bring water to a simmer. Stir until the mixture isthick and shiny, 8-9 minutes. In a bowl, whisk eggs to blend. Whisk in about ½ cup of lemon mixture, then return all to pan. Stir until mixture is very thick and reaches 160 degrees on a candy thermometer, about 5 minutes.

3. Remove top pan. Place it in a bowl of ice and stir often until the mixture is cool to touch, about 6 minutes.

4. In a bowl, beat the cream with a mixer (or with a whisk, if you’re me) until stiff. Fold in lemon mixture, then spread evenly in pastry shell. Scatter reserved strands of peel on top and chill for a couple of hours. I’ve used rosemary blossoms, raspberries, and blueberries on top of the pie.

Thanks again, Frans Meijer!

Bibliography: here and here.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Djerassi and Home

I just returned from a month at the Djerassi Resident Artists Program. Now that I’ve been back for a couple of weeks, my perspective on the time I spent there is coming into sharp focus. I am deeply honored to have been invited to share a month of writing and shared life with nine other artists – seven invited artists and two talented Djerassi program managers.
Creatively, I spent the month moving between two worlds. I wrote some new material for the ending of Among the Wonderful, and throughout the month corresponded with my editor, Roland Pease, on various minor revisions. This process was a joy; after the years-long quest to find a publishing home for my novel, engaging in conversation with someone as eager to discuss my book as I am is a gift I won’t be taking for granted anytime soon. I also plunged further into the research for my next book, The Gyre. This involved plowing through a couple of volumes of Russian and Russian Orthodox history, mythology, and folklore, arctic narratives, and of course, Salomon Andree. A full month to write, read, wander across the Santa Cruz hills amid redwoods and sprawling oaks, above the fog and among large-scale art installations, and share meals and evenings with artists from all over the world? Whew. The hardest part was staying open to all the beauty and inspiration around me; overstimulation was the only peril. Here is some information about the amazing artists I lived and worked with:

Mariko Nagai
Josh Beamish
Jutta Strohmaier
Molly Bain Frounfelter
Lauren DiCoccio
Tra Bouscaren
Eduardo Caballero
Csilla Babinszky
Kristofer Mills

Of course, as the weeks went on I missed home, and that particular homesickness was itself a tremendous gift. I missed Jason and our country life in the city. While I was away, J harvested fava beans, chamomile, and lettuce. He watched the raspberries ripen and the blueberries emerge in dense clusters out front. Our sunflowers grew four feet. At the community garden the potato patch sprung up and the pink-lemonade climbing rose went wild. I missed riding my bike and hanging out at Actual Café. For the first time since we moved here two years ago, I missed Oakland.