Some things I think about every day. Sandy Hook. Marjory Stoneman Douglas. I must find a way safely to distribute this pressure. So I’m trying, with you, to check in with myself about where I am now, not only as a writer, but as a human, one who naturally tends toward obsession. Why write about something unless it obsesses me? Why settle for less? For an essay becomes a relationship, and I won’t spend a half hour’s cup of coffee with one unless there be sparks. The relationship develops by degrees—infatuation, frustration, bliss, satisfaction, dwelling—often related to, for me, the length of the piece and the time spent dancing or grappling with it.
But is obsession helpful or not? It can be an engine, and trouble taken over fact-checking, rhythm, and clarity repays itself. See Didion’s fascination with the Hoover Dam. See, currently, Edward McPherson’s Dallas—the TV show and the city. See the obsessions we all bring to this table—for sound and for silence; for news of the world and of the body; for bonefishing in clear water; for tides, muddy and clear, that rise to remake the world. Obsession gives us stamina to stay with our subjects for as long as it takes, and to wrest meaning from them. But obsession also can be exhausting for both writer and reader, like staring at the eclipse without protective glasses—it can burn you, forever altering the way you experience the world, to your harm.
So I follow my gut, and start at an angle. Something about the essay form lends itself to this obliqueness, at least at the outset: remember our common ancestor Montaigne, some of whose titles include “Of smells”; “Of honorary awards”; “Of riding post”; “Not to counterfeit being sick”; and my favorite, “On Thumbs.” Mere places to begin, in a maneuver I like to think of as sidling up to one’s real subject. For example, a few years ago I taught myself to hula-hoop and started writing about that, in the course of which I discovered my real subject, the atom bomb. Usefully for my purposes, the hula-hooping fad of the 1950s hit its apex at about the same time as aboveground nuclear testing at the Nevada Test Site. I had tricked myself into taking this on.
Lately I find myself delving into why I care about paper dresses, which were manufactured just up the mountain from me, in Asheville, North Carolina, a fad that at its peak in 1967 saw 100,000 dresses shipped in a single week. Paper dresses were going to revolutionize clothing in the same way that paper towels and paper napkins had revolutionized housekeeping. At the plush Grove Park Inn, overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains, society ladies wearing paper evening gowns embellished with silver foil rang in the New Year. Went the Paper Caper ad campaign, “Won’t last forever? Who cares! Wear it for kicks—then give it the air.”
In another essay, I felt moved to examine the Lifting and Spanking Machine, one of the many devices on display at a museum in southern Illinois dedicated to the preservation of initiation items for fraternal organizations like the Moose and the Elks. I think of this as the Hazing Museum, and not long ago, I drove a rental car across the flooded Mississippi River to visit. Special blindfolds had been sold alongside life-sized stuffed goats, some with real keratin horns, which initiates were made to ride. The Traitor’s Last Judgement Stand, built of solid oak, collapsed at the turn of a lever to dump initiates on the ground. The docent told me that his late mother had helped to cut and sew electrified carpets. Said the manufacturer’s catalog, circa 1922, “The electric carpet . . . is a splendid addition for bushels of fun, as candidates can be ‘touched up’ occasionally if they get tired or if they are not inclined to work lively.” In an interview, the docent’s mother had said, “I don’t know how many electric carpets I made. . . . [W]e sewed these strips of copper wiring down it. . . . I knew what they were and the guys who put the electrical connections to them said they tried it out on somebody and it knocked him to his knees. I knew it was for initiations but at the time I never thought too much about it.”
Melville said: To write a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. Yes but I would start with the odd things that pull my heart: the brick smokestack overshadowing the abandoned textile mill, the dovetail joints of the Traitor’s Last Judgement Stand, the glass insulators—once called the lovely jewels of the poles—that gleam in the sun along the North Kaibab trail. I love best to write about something that others have overlooked. Those paper dresses printed with swirling paisleys and psychedelic bubbles were sized Eeny and Meenie; Big and Bigger. Said Audie Bayer, who came up with the idea for the dresses: “I feel like it was a great surprise that anyone cared about it.”
Obsession: Why does it matter? Why take the trouble to get to the bottom of things? Here’s my answer, which comes to me slantwise.
I remember when I first encountered the work of wildlife biologist Olaus Murie. I was a seasonal park ranger back then, and spent a half-hour’s pay on a secondhand copy of his Field Guide to Animal Tracks, in which he renders careful line drawings of wolverine tracks, marten scat, and the “double-rutted trail of Alaska brown bear on high tundra.” He writes with justifiable pride of his extensive collection of track casts he had preserved from the field using plaster of Paris carried in tightly-sealed jars. “Loose plaster plays havoc if it gets into your packsack,” he warns. I taught my campers to do the same with rubber wolf tracks we pressed into the soft sand of the beach beside our little mountain pond.
What I love about Murie’s book is that even though it fulfills its purpose as a reference guide, it gives glimpses into his life in the field, both as a young solo biologist and later as a researcher and family man. For example, in the entry on the gray wolf: “One night four of us, including our year-old baby, were encamped on a gravel bar of the Porcupine River, in northeastern Alaska. It was clear September weather, and we slept that night in the open without tent. At dawn we were awakened by a voice across the river. Soon we realized that we were being serenaded by two wolves, one upstream, the other below our camp. First one, then the other, raised its muzzle and howled. Apparently we were intruding on their home ground. At any rate, we lay there in the crisp autumn morning, comfortable in our sleeping bags, and listened to this song of the Arctic wilderness with a feeling of awe.”
We do not live in the same world we did yesterday. How do the things we write reflect the time of their gestation and birth? I yearn for particularity (for example, not just “steel,” but “an alloy recommended for use where beauty is preferred”), and I also want to sound a mythic note (bones, clay, stone). This is not a problem I can solve, but a duality, a tension, to keep in mind. I think of writing as a way of living a considered life—which, let’s remember, has always been a struggle. Murie’s wolf-serenaded campsite is idyllic, but remember that when the first edition of his field guide was published in 1954, we were two years into heavy atomic testing at the Nevada Test Site—Ranger-Able, Ranger-Baker, Ranger-Easy, Tumbler-Snapper—having already detonated Ivy Mike, the first hydrogen bomb, in the South Pacific. Murie writes, as we all do, from the past to the future. I want that.
Yes, this is a time of terror and struggle, as are all times, yet I want to write something to which present as well as future readers will relate, to build a kinship across time. Why not strive for that, to speak to them as Whitman speaks to us. (“Now it is you, compact, visible, reading my poems, seeking me / Fancying how happy you were if I could be with you and become your comrade / Be it as if I were with you. (Be not too certain but I am now with you”).
In their travels, Olaus and Margaret Murie came across a proverb carved on a headstone: “The wonder of the world, the beauty and the power / The shapes of things, their colours, lights and shades—These I saw. Look ye also while life lasts.” They took this as their shared life’s motto. In the years preceding and following the publication of that field guide, they both drew on their time in Alaska to argue for the preservation of the land we now know as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It was one of the great blessings of my life to visit this place and to write about it, obsessively, until I felt I had it right.
From their tireless work we still benefit. This time, this possibility still lies open to us.
Here is a story I would share with you. I found this in the course of researching a recent essay about tornadoes, moviemaking, and the shivery, electric potential of the human voice. There was a boy named Dale Larson, 17 years old, who one day in September 1928 was working in his daddy’s fields in Nebraska when he saw a funnel cloud approaching a one-room schoolhouse a couple of miles away. Three of his sisters were in that schoolhouse, plus 26 more, including the teacher. Dale Larson jumped into the family Ford and tore off across the field hell for leather, shearing off a tire as he went, and got to the school in time to burst inside and tell the teacher, who led the students single file into the cellar dug outside the school, where they descended into the ground, closed the door, held it shut with a jump rope, and waited while overhead the storm screamed.
When silence fell, they opened the door, emerged.
An eyewitness wrote, “To this day, I feel the shock I felt when I first looked over the school grounds. It looked as if a broom had swept the grounds clean! . . . No desks, no boards, no walls, no floors, no stove, no books, no lunch pails, no trash, no cars were visible! All gone!” Everyone was saved. “It happened so quickly!” wrote the eyewitness. “Where did it go!” The families of the children whose lives Larson saved took up a collection to replace the Ford, which had been lifted by the funnel and slung down in a field miles away, smashed to pieces. Only the teacher’s bell was left.
Imagine not only the children he saved—but the children they would someday have, saved too, and their children’s children.
Wrote John Muir, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”
We are the catchers and sharers of stories. Wrote Tom Wolfe, “A writer needs at least enough ego to believe that what he is doing as a writer is as important as what anyone he is writing about is doing and that therefore he shouldn’t compromise his own work. If he doesn’t believe that his own writing is one of the most important activities going on in contemporary civilization, then he ought to move on to something else he thinks is.”
The boy, aged 17, jumped in the family Ford and raced the tornado to save the children in the schoolhouse. He did save them. Let us now write those stories ourselves. Let now, all of us, be saved.