I have a wooden box, a small chest, really, covered in ragged leather, in which I keep years of letters, starting with Donna Gardner’s (“it is super fun here without you”) back in the fourth grade. Another box sits on my bookshelf, every letter in it written by the same lovely man, same fellow who made the box and gave it to me. My husband hoards the letters I wrote to him, and I hoard the letters he wrote to me, in our drawers beside our bed. Messy, mixed-in, but we know we are there—those greenhorns we used to be. Who do you know heartless enough to throw a careful letter carelessly away?
I liked writing to Stanley Crawford. I liked that the days were warm when we started, and when we stopped, that winter was closing in. I liked making up a new person who turned out not to be him.
I met Stan and his wife, Rose Mary, on the eastern seaboard, in the lobby of a B&B too dolled up for any of us. I knew his work—the novels, starting with Gascoyne, Some Instructions to My Wife, the splendid The Log of the S.S. the Mrs. Unguentine, and, more recently, Petroleum Man. I knew he had lived and farmed in the Embudo Valley of northern New Mexico for going on forty years, and written three books of nonfiction there. He and Rose Mary built the house they raised their children in: built it from the clay it stands on, made every brick. I was smitten with them both.
Crawford is tall, even sitting down. He is serious, and boyish, and straightaway I could picture him with his dog in his arms fording a swollen river. He isn’t Unguentine, not that cranky, brash, seafaring tyrant, but quiet, and maybe inward, a man accustomed to fixing things, to living in the wind in open country.
Dear Stanley Crawford,
I have been trying with no success to know why it is I have waited so long to write to you—waited years, really, since I read you first—and now these many weeks. I could not get over the hurdle of knowing how strange it might be, for you, to write in this now-relatively- intimate manner to a stranger. I know something of your life and you know nothing of mine; it seems a little uncivil, this imbalance, as though I’ve spooked around in your house and fields. I know garlic-planting season is upon you. I know the wind you speak of that BLOWS from March until May. I grew up in New Mexico, a good ways from you, in an old adobe, in what used to be the outskirts of Albuquerque, on ground we irrigated from a wide ditch that drew water from the Rio Grande. We grew grass, little more, for horses, and for one highly obstinate cow.
I live in western Massachusetts now, where anything grows except okra and green chile. What is life without green chile? Without posole on a cold day? We had frost this morning in the shadows. Time to plant fall bulbs, dig gladiolas, harvest the green knots of brussel sprouts. I grow a little, nothing like your annual yield of five hundred pounds of garlic a year. I live in the hills, but haven’t, as you have, headed for the hills to make a new life, to build a house with bricks you made by hand, one at a time, for the first time. I guess I won’t likely be finished being amazed by such a feat until I have embarked on such a life or left this one.
Did you consider, in your twenties and thirties, settling down in South America and farming there, at a similar elevation, in those rich volcanic soils? What drew you (besides Easy Rider) back to the states from abroad? You write about your place, your life there in New Mexico, in three books of nonfiction—but has building a house and garlic farming and plunging into the wind in Dixon also changed the way you write fiction? Would the peripatetic Stanley Crawford have written different books? (Am reminded here of Sebald and the long purposeful outings of his novels, the walking tours to discover and dispel, of the body’s desire for motion.)
Please feel free to ignore any question that strikes you as silly or meddlesome. I’m curious, and feel unsettled by this unsettling world.
It is agreeable of course to write to someone who has a good sense, through the actual experience of it, of the gardening and farming life, and of the landscape hereabouts. Just last night, we had a downpour and all the arroyos were running—three of them to ford on our way home through the village, axle-deep in muddy brown water, the roof leaking in its three predictable places.
The rain and the sopping fields means that this morning I actually can take the time to answer your thoughtful letter. I’ve spent all of two months, on two separate occasions, in New England, mostly at the MacDowell Colony, with a few excursions a ways north and to western Massachusetts—whose occasional patches of openness were a relief from the enclosedness of the landscape—and always with a sense of disjunction between what I imagined it should be like from my youthful reading of American literature—in effect, New England literature—and what I was actually seeing twenty and thirty years later. I finally walked around Walden Pond only in November of 2001, but I still keep that other one, my own private one, in reserve. And, to stray a little, I chose to set my most recent novel in Connecticut on the strength of what I absorbed from the backseat of a small BMW racing back to Manhattan on the interstate.
You ask an interesting question about South America. I was twenty-two or -three when I started teaching English as a foreign language in Cali, Colombia, a beautiful city at three thousand feet in the Cauca Valley, with topsoil seventy feet deep—on which they grazed cattle! One of my classes was an advanced English class, and some of my students were so good that we spent time trading, you might say, English for Spanish. I left Colombia with a fluency I was never quite able to attain either in French, which I read better, or Greek, now mostly gone. I was intrigued by the thought of staying on for more than a year, but I had begun to take note of the melancholy fate of long-time expatriates, particularly those of an artistic bent. There was an old Belgian pianist (and probably composer) who had fled to Colombia in the late 1940s out of the fear that the Cold War would heat up in Europe into World War III. He was too old to return, at least in his eyes, and his life seemed consumed by fretting about termites eating their way into his pianos. Yes, I entertained fantasies, if briefly, of homesteading over the mountains in the Putumayo—but as a spoiled American, I too much missed the abundance and ease of my native California, and returned there in late 1960 and enrolled in the UC Berkeley graduate program in English lit.
That first two-year session abroad, Paris and then Cali, was followed in 1963 with a five-year expatriation consisting of four years in Greece (Piraeus, Lesbos, Crete) and a second year in Paris. When I think about it now, there were two conflicting pulls in my life. One, the literary thing. At the time that meant exploring oneself through tramping around the world, experiencing the extremes, in effect creating through a chaoticseeming life the material about which one could then write. Learning other languages, learning to invent and play new personas through new languages, seemed very much a part of this. The ethos, if you will, was not something I picked up from my academic studies so much as from my fellow students, writers-to-be and filmmakers whose alternative canon had not yet been sanctified by the academy. Rose Mary and I met on Crete in 1967 not long after the April 21 Colonels’ Coup, at a time when I was becoming disillusioned with the expatriate life and longing for something literally hands-on. My father had been a high-school wood- and electric-shop teacher; I grew up in a house where I knew you could build or fix anything, but this was of no interest to me until after fifteen years of living as a student and then as a writer I began to feel too helpless in a world that seemed to be about to crash. We returned to the States in December 1968 into a very unsettled country, to the Bay Area, one of the epicenters of anti-Vietnam protest. Ten months later we took refuge in rural northern New Mexico.
It took me fifteen years of building the house, learning to garden and then farm, to figure out how to write about the life I was trying to live. It was not my intention to do so; that came when all other possibilities had withered away. In my fiction, Log foreshadowed our agrarian life, and Some Instructions, in a convoluted way, was in its time a wry summing up. After that, the void for about ten years. The way I have put it elsewhere is that my life had become more interesting that anything I could invent. Had I remained the peripatetic novelist I started out as? I tremble at the thought. Within a few years of publishing my first novel I knew but did not acknowledge that from then on books were more likely to come to me in slow, indirect ways, rather than in the lightning flashes of the first four novels. A year’s study of the Los Alamos National Laboratory atomic weapons work finally crystallized into a short chapter in the garlic book—ten years later. Another long study of the basic processes of industrial civilization ended up in exasperation—at my own limitations, as well as the political situation of the time—as Petroleum Man.
Tomorrow morning snow is predicted, rather earlier than usual. I had the luck or foresight to harvest all of the acorn and butternut squash last week, a good three thousand pounds. There’s nothing like a big pile of winter squash to give comfort in these strange, shifting times.
With great pleasure I received your letter, which speaks with more eloquence than I can summon of the conflicting needs and desires a person faces most any day, between the pragmatic and the literary, the want to move and the want to stay put. I’m restless, and feel often that I ought to have grown through it. Funny, too, at this time of year, even living in the center of town on little more than an acre, how strong my want is to draw in, shore up, have a little store of fruits and nuts to carry us through the cold months ahead. Maybe this is a form of restlessness, too. We still have apples on the trees—a record harvest, the limbs breaking they have been so heavy with fruit—and cider to press with the neighbors. Not a leaf on a tree. Even the tamaracks, gone yellow, are losing their fine needles.
This morning I finished your Garlic Testament and felt fortified, exhorted, by its quiet loveliness, by your optimism and good sense. Honest work, self-sufficiency, staying put. A neighbor of mine once insisted that no matter how brief a person expects his residency to be, he ought always to live in a place as though he expected to stay forever. I used to plant flowers I never saw bloom—I had to imagine them blooming: a lesser satisfaction, but a satisfaction nonetheless. It occurs to me that this is a bit like having a book out in the world: you write the book, and you know it is out there, but you will never track its dispersal, or its effect on those who come across it.
I wonder about the role of the political in your work. You speak of politics overtly in Testament, and in your recent novel, Petroleum Man. In a book like The Log of the S.S. the Mrs. Unguentine, the role of the political—maybe I mean simply casting a lens on the contemporary and the public—is, on the surface, scant. The Unguentines cast off; it’s a domestic drama set on the high seas, an adventure in which there is neither an element of pursuit, nor of questing (unless it’s the questing for the perfect climate to improve what grows onboard.) I think it’s brilliant, to fuse these two traditions, to graft a new animal altogether. Everything is marvelously out of whack. I wonder about the evolution of the book: did it arise from your qualms about the restless, expatriate life, from a divided desire? Unguentine can fix or invent just about anything; he is scientist, artist, carpenter, gardener, tyrant, wizard, husband, father. (He is maybe some version of your able father?) He is dead when the book begins, and yet he lives. Lives to father a child who “matured a genius at five, became an excellent swimmer, grew modest and swam away one day, no doubt having had his fill of us, the barge, these seas”—surely one of the swiftest childhoods on record. Unguentine builds a biodome and takes it down again, in what strikes me as a premonitory frenzy (perhaps he needed that good heap of winter squash to settle him down). Maybe Unguentine didn’t inhabit a “world about to crash” but, arguably, we do. Were you, do you remember, seeing forward fearfully into the mess we’re in now? Were you looking back, say, to Melville, when you wrote that first irascible line: “The name is Unguentine”?
I remember Grace Paley saying that she was afraid some of the literary life; she worried that hanging out with writers would draw her away from mothering, from the political activism so central to her life. So many of us wear so many hats, for better and for worse, and perhaps it’s unreasonable to expect that we’ll ever stop negotiating and measuring and assessing the various ways we spend ourselves. Where to march, what to write, what to grow. How to be. It’s refreshing to hear you speak with such clarity and pleasure of the choices you have made. “I like to do one thing slowly,” a musician friend said, and I thought of you bending and stooping and picking up again and again: a brick, a squash, a bundle of garlic. A word.
I hope your planting has gone well.
Both rooted and restless, yes. You put it well.
We finished garlic and shallot planting ten days ago, and I’ll finish up the field this afternoon by shaping the beds—smoothing out the planting ridges with a bedshaper, which makes it easier to manure, mulch, and lay down the drip lines in the spring. This is a terribly beautiful time of year, skies clear beyond belief, the shadows long, the hours of midday warmth of an urgent preciousness, with so much less to do in the field that I can now and then take time to sit and muse.
You touch, perhaps indirectly, on something else. Rose Mary and I live, to many eyes, a commendable life in a beautiful place, and though we often tire of it, we’re always anxious to return here from a day in town. To a certain extent it is the gaze of others that renders this life beautiful, if only because those quieter perceptions or more miniscule ones, the glint and texture of things, cannot quite survive the relatively clumsy business of speech or even pointing. You can tell when another wordlessly perceives the minutiae on a walk, say, but we also have visitors in whose presence the sky grows dull and the colors fade, those who don’t know why they are here and who wish to be elsewhere. Readers are like visitors, only of a different kind. I’ve met quite a few of my readers. A few have told me that one or another of my books have changed their lives. I don’t know quite what to think; that isn’t what I had in mind.
But I was going to say something else. I’m always drawn back to Frost’s aphorism, perhaps incorrectly remembered: “To socialize is to forgive.” The implication here is that alone, working in solitude, we tend to become self-obsessed, become envious or superior, grind axes, refine feuds. I have known the occasional soul who seems to live the good life without having to be constantly battling his or her inner demons. I’m not one of them. Perhaps this is why I also write fiction. Which is or can be an exploration of all the uncontrollable in one’s nature. This is not necessarily negative: some of us are uncontrollably hopeful, at least some of the time. I used to think that writing fiction was also a way to defend oneself, one’s psyche, against the predations of mainstream culture, but this seems to have become somewhat more complicated than it was; and perhaps that’s what I’m trying to do with my nonfiction now
At the time of writing Log I wasn’t anticipating the grand mess we’re now collectively in; I was responding to the relatively minor mess, minor compared to now, we were in in the late 1960s. (Until recently I thought of it as an apocalyptic novel; the reality, as I now see, is more ambiguous.) I bought deeply into the myth of self-suffi- ciency (which had not yet become survivalism, but no doubt was on the way), in which one attempts to free oneself from all the “corrupting” dependencies exacted by industrial and postindustrial society, which we all “knew” would crash somehow, sooner or later. If one were to have taken Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog: Access to Tools seriously, which I certainly did in 1969, a fictional result would have been something like Log. I think even my father was startled in the end by the number of tools and amount of agricultural equipment I amassed over the decades. These days, I feel that the book was written by someone quite different, a younger self I would now feel uneasy being around. And of course it was.
I don’t spend a lot of time with fellow writers; I’m much more interested in small-scale agriculture, local economies, and the social-justice issues connected to them. Farming didn’t make me a better fiction writer; it enabled me to become a nonfiction writer.
You mentioned Melville. A weight, more than an influence. A good friend loved his work but I could never get there.
To get back to rooted and restless. While going through Thoreau some years back to try and pin him down on his attitude toward the emerging technologies of the day, the railroad, mainly, about which he was critical and enthusiastic both, I was intrigued at his late fantasies of going west: the rooted man, dreaming of Chicago…. Maybe we’re all incurably split down the middle. The curse—and gift—of the imagination?
Thank you for your letter, and for your patience with my ridiculous delay in responding to it. I have the usual excuses, the veiled complaining about the hectic that is so much a part of the fabric of social exchange. Even complaining is likely a form of seeking forgiveness, as the quote you offer from Frost suggests, an expression of the want to feel not-alone, an assertion of the doing for others we do in part to take the teeth from the possibility that we will ourselves be (alive still) forgotten.
Here in our region, we’ve had a small healthy dose of knowing what it might take to survive here, should the scientists and writers of the end-of-everything be right: a massive, gorgeous ice storm that snapped power lines and hardwoods, gathered on every twig and blade of grass and fattened around the seed pods until the fields looked to be embellished by thousands of vodka lollipops that broke musically as we walked in. (We harvested these and melted them for drink and wash water on the woodstove.) The good life you live and speak so candidly of surely prepares you for disaster, hopefully allows you better than most of us to enjoy hardship of this kind. We were fairly un-Unguentine about it, adept at fixing nearly nothing. Cheerful and inept. For our tribe, the storm was more adventure than hardship.
By now I hope you have settled in to the simpler months of winter, your writing months, a different sort of pleasure and complication. My husband is a writer, too, and I always know by his mood how well and how hard he is writing: the better the work is going, the harder it is to come up from under it and be with others. Tricky business—finding solitude, or privacy, in the unrest of the domestic. I wonder if you reserve the winter months for writing to avoid the messy difficulty of juggling too much at once. How do you think it affects your writing, the long dormancy through the farming months, the intense months of work when the ground sets? Can you say at all how raising children affected, and affects, your writing life? To what extent did Some Instructions arise from lived experience, the want to make order from (natural) disorder? (You say in your letter that fiction “is or can be an exploration of all the uncontrollable in one’s nature”… this seems right to me. But does external disorder—the uncontrollability of others, say—also compel an orderly rendering in fiction? A record of flux? Fixity and flux; rooted and restless. I see I am back to my old pairings.)
A student of mine (I typed a student of mind ) recently made use of the common phrase “he thought to himself.” It struck me that we seldom think “to ourselves,” that our thoughts are predominantly a running conversation with others—alive or dead, near or distant—and that it would be truer to say “he thought to his mother, to his brother” and so on. We don’t say so. But your novels—I’m thinking particularly of Some Instructions and Petroleum Man—posit a speaker and a listener: they address, explicitly, a wife, children. Would you talk a little, please, about how this restriction enabled and complicated the writing of those books? And (I ask this sheepishly) would you be willing to say more about what you are working on now?
After your account, I can have no complaints about our week long run of merely cloudy and snowy weather.
When I first started writing I didn’t have to worry about “the unrest of the domestic,” as you put it so well. I lived alone, but in a convivial seaside village on Lesbos and then a small town on Crete; when I finished my solitary writing day, I stepped out the door and inevitably found someone to talk to on the street, at a café, a restaurant, or out on the beach. Even better: there was always a feast of languages. When Rose Mary and I got together, our first year and a half were the most difficult. I was writing my head off, but not well, and was no doubt moody and difficult. I was a new writer and was supposed to write all the time, wasn’t I? I had not yet discovered that there are times when one can’t write, one shouldn’t write, times for thought, for deepening, or just reading, or simply living.
Camus said that what prevents you from doing your work becomes your work. This is how I regard talking about writing, at least before the lonely work of writing is completed. Writers are probably unhappy or discontented much of the time about what they’re trying to write, but if you actually give voice to such complaints, or even to your hopes, then that, not the writing, can become your work. Talk is the cuckoo egg that hatches and eventually nudges the authentic fledglings out of the nest. We have all known writers whose books have gone up in the smoke of talk.
The genesis of Some Instructions is something of a puzzle. I don’t know where the obsessive voice came from. I had been given an apartment for a month in Santa Fe and was rereading everything by Chekhov I could get my hands on. But the voice came. I was delighted, appalled. Perhaps this is a reliable sign that something is interesting: I am at first appalled. Add, perhaps, that I have always delighted in Molière’s obsessives. Finally, the strange satisfaction of bottling up, you might say, the chaotic. The novel has been widely misunderstood, especially by men.
But perhaps all of the novels posit a speaker addressing a listener, not just Some Instructions, as you have said. The wife there is of course no Mrs. Unguentine, who would have talked back; she’s a cipher, a nonentity, a projection, an ideal, whatever, as are the son and daughter. By Petroleum Man they are “real” characters and they talk back. I have never thought of this in quite this way, but perhaps as I writer I need an implied or explicit overarching dialogue, that in effect my nonfiction persona or fictional narrator is in fact addressing someone, a someone who voices objections, asks questions, irritates, stimulates, attracts, someone in the past, someone in the future. Perhaps the hardest thing is to find that pairing, that speaker, that listener, and that tie or issue that binds them. Perhaps as a reader I’m most satisfied when I feel I am overhearing, or even participating in, a conversation.
I’ll leave it at that. Always good to hear from you, your musings and thoughtful questions, which will soon (I suspect) exhaust the small matter of this particular self.