To Make a Prairie

To make a prairie, it takes one clover and a bee,

A clover, and one bee

And reverie.

The reverie alone will do,

If bees are few.



It took me a long time–years and years–to “make the prairie” in Little Century.  I had only written short stories before; I wasn’t confident, and I had a life, more or less, to attend to, so I kept going away and coming back to it.  But I could never really drop it or put it in a drawer for good.  I don’t know whether it was because I had something to say with the story, or because there was something crucial for me to learn in the process.  But eventually and with lots of encouragement from various generous people, I made a book out of it, and I’m happy about that.  I  hope the next book will be a little less painful in the parturition, but of course, we never know.  Though I often find Henry James’s work glitteringly opaque, his comments on writing are, as often, heartening: “We work in the dark, we do what we can.”  That’s probably true of any human endeavor–of human existence, even–but especially so of the gripping, strenuous reverie that is the making of art.

Rain and Tomcats

Through the rushing window he can see the whole length of Main Street.  Deserted?  Just rain and tomcats.  –Ken Kesey, Sometimes a Great Notion.

The landscape described in Little Century, the high-altitude sagebrush desert of central and southeastern Oregon, between the Cascade Mountains and the Owyhee river, is brisk, bright and relatively dry.  Perhaps that’s why it kept my attention for the years I was writing and suffering under the more familiar Oregon rain in the valley to the west: visions of that wide sky and those startling mountains were bracing to the limp and soggy spirit.  These days I live in Yamhill County, where people grow pinot noir and turkeys, japanese maples and hazelnuts. The hillsides are combed with grapevines, and in the spring and summer, the atmosphere glimmers with pollen.  You could throw a Dixon-Ticonderoga pencil at the ground here, and two days later pick graphite fruit from a yellow tree.

But it’s wet.  The Pacific storms come over the low Coast Range mountains and blow rain at us, all day, all night, and we drive around huge puddles and the creeks become some weird kind of cold-water bayou. High water on the playing fields cancels Parks and Rec soccer, and near our place, evil mosquito larvae are getting themselves, um, laid in the creek bottom.  The woolly biologist and I call our place the Farm of Cold Comfort, because if it isn’t the John Deere lawn tractor blowing a head gasket, or chickens escaping, then it’s the dog ingratiating himself with a primed skunk at 11:00 at night.  Recently, the farm of cold comfort has been serving up some lush flooding of barn and basement, as the septic system is overwhelmed with rain.  I need not go into those “Sorceror’s Apprentice” moments when I carried buckets of water up the basement stairs and wondered if the woolly biologist would return with a sump pump in time to keep the furnace from being rendered defunct.  Suffice it to say that, in March, I have many thoughts of lighting out for the desert.