This Lake Is Within Me
AN INTERVIEW WITH DAVID JAMES DUNCAN
BY KORRIN ALPERS, for Spectrum (volume LIX), the literary magazine of U.C. Santa Barbara
I first read The Brothers K last fall, and felt my heart opening and warming and breaking throughout. While there are many things I could say about such a reknowned author and activist, I will use the riotous, lovingly intentional introduction he sent me.
David James Duncan is the author of the novels The River Why and The Brothers K, the story collection River Teeth, the non-fiction collections My Story as Told by Water and God Laughs & Plays, and the fast response activist books Citizen's Dissent (with Wendell Berry) and Heart of the Monster (with Rick Bass). Happily, the novels, after decades, are still very much alive, and the bullshit Blackfoot River cyanide mine and Exxon Mobil Wild and Scenic River-invading "Megaload corridor" to the Tar Sands that David and others attacked with all their love and rage are very much dead.
David lives outside Missoula with the wonderful sculptor Adrian Arleo, where he is wrapping up a novel called Sun House, which fuses his loves for Asian and mystical Western wisdom traditions, acoustic folk and blues music, and the mountains, river valleys, wild creatures, and surviving open-minded and open-hearted people of the American West. The closed-hearted are on their own. --Korrin Alpers
What are you currently working on, and how has the process been so far?
I've been working for eight years, nonstop, on a novel called Sun House. The manuscript is just passing the thousand page mark. Little, Brown will be the publisher. The process has been arduous, but rich. I'm feeling a little secretive about this book because I'm on the home stretch after a very long effort.
How has your upbringing in the Pacific Northwest impacted your writing and other passions? How would you describe your relationship with that region?
The Northwest is my homeland. America is so big and, increasingly, mean, that it overwhelms literary art -- unless you enjoy writing dystopian fiction, which I don't. The breakdown of American politics and civil discourse, the corruption of the banking and energy industries, the drastic changes in climate, the sickeningly uneven distribution of wealth, are stories that, when you add them all up, overwhelm story-telling itself. I was drawn to story-telling as a young man because of stories that had a power to heal, or that filled me with wonder, or that made me laugh in a way that was not derisive, or that made me cry in a way that felt cathartic. To remain true to what drew me to this work in the first place, I find it useful to define my homeland as a bioregion made up of all the watersheds that flow into the Pacific south of Canada and north of San Francisco. I would describe my relationship with that region as an endless love affair, full of heartbreak. But there is wonder even in heartbreak. In my experience, the heart doesn't just break into pieces. It sometimes breaks open, increasing empathy; increasing our sense of connection to others; increasing a fierce capacity to see clearly, grim as it is, and still love.
What other aspects of your upbringing have contributed to your writing and involvements? I would love to hear about your opinions concerning faith and religion, and how your early experiences with Seventh-day Adventism has influenced you.
I've written two books in answer to this faith and religion question. The Brothers K answers in story form. God Laughs & Plays answers in the form of what I call "churchless sermons." Since the latter book is temporarily out of print, waiting for me to update and republish the best of it, I kind of miss it. So I'll quote a bit of it in answer to your question. Here are some reflections on an early experience with Seventh-day Adventism from God Laughs & Plays:
Language can be a tool of oppression. It can be a tool of exquisite expression. And it can be some weird combination of both. Consider the utterances of the legendary New York Yankee catcher and coach, Yogi Berra:
When told that the newly elected mayor of Dublin was a Jew, Yogi rasped, "Only in America!"
When his lifelong friend, Mickey Mantle, died, Yogi was offended, he said, "'cause the Mick an' me always promised to attend each other's funerals:'
Of Yankee Stadium, Yogi said, "It gets late early there."
To the players he was coaching, Yogi said: "All right you guys, pair up in threes."
Yogi said: "Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded."
He said: "The future just isn't what it used to be."
Said: "When you come to a fork in the road, take it."
And: "If you can't copy 'em, don't imitate 'em."
Yogi said: "I really didn't say everything I said."
Each of these sentences is wonderfully right in its wrongness, bending the common usage the way a good blues guitarist bends his strings. Yogi Berra is living proof that it's possible to celebrate our linguistic pratfalls. I don't know how he does it, but I know this: he doesn't do it on purpose. As the Yog tries to grasp something else entirely, wonderful sentences grasp him. And being grasped - by wonder, by blunders, by the moment, by the day - being seized by things, rather than trying to do all the seizing myself: this is something I have huge faith in. I trust what comes to me, what befalls me, more than I trust what I aim at or seize for myself. Look what became of Rome, a nation led by Seizers.
As a child I was taught, by certain pious adults, that what is funny or pleasurable, and what is holy, are two separate categories. When I was twelve years old, for instance, I was thrown out of church one weekday evening by a Seventh Day Adventist man pulsing with rage, for sneaking into the main sanctuary and playing, for a few friends, the Ramsey Lewis version of"Hang On Sloopy" on the church's big grand piano.
"This is God's House!" the man roared in my face.
"That was Ramsey Lewis's music." I peeped in reply.
"Get out!" he bellowed, seizing me by the scruff of my blazer.
"Okay." I said, and left.
It was a gorgeous piano, that grand in the church: a big black Baldwin. The music I'd been playing was the first rhythm-and-blues my scrawny white fingers had ever mastered. The entire church building, except for my friends, our Bible teacher, and one unsuspected landmine of a man - had been empty. In Buddhism, "Vast Emptiness" (cf. Bodhidharma) is the spiritual goal. I don't know who Sloopy is in Buddhism, but in the song he's the protagonist. "Hang on, Sloopy, Sloopy hang on!" the song tells him again and again. Hang on to what? Maybe Vast Emptiness.
I'd been playing Bach for years, loved Bach, and could easily have played some that night. Having heard Ramsey Lewis, though, it seemed probable to me that any God in whose image I was made would enjoy him at least as much as I did. Black American rhythm and blues is to Bach, it seemed to me at age twelve, what Mary Magdalene is to Mary - and Jesus loved them both. To put it another way: Ramsey Lewis bent notes the way Yogi Berra bends words. "Hang On Sloopy" was, at the time, the most exciting piece of music I had in me, and it felt great, making it fly out into the dark sanctuary's Vast Emptiness. The kids for whom I played it loved it, too - till the SDA God's cocksure sergeant-at-arms came roaring in and filled us all with guilt.
I have never felt the truth of what that man did. I have never understood why the piano's location in "God's House" forbade my choice of song, and have never been able to believe in that enraged man's God . I don't believe I ever will, though the man seems to have cloned himself, bought several broadcasting networks and a political party, and set out to turn all of America, Washington DC first, into a graven image of himself. I was reminded of the "Hang On, Sloopy'' fiasco a few years ago, when I heard about a little boy who'd named his teddy bear Gladly. "Why Gladly?" someone asked him.
"'Cause he's cross-eyed." the boy said.
"What's crossed eyes got to do with the name Gladly?" the questioner naturally wondered.
"We sing it at church." the boy said. "It's a hymn. Called 'Gladly My Cross to Bear.'"
I never learned the name of that little boy, though he is clearly related to Yogi Berra. But when I first heard of him and his cross-eyed bear, then thought of Jesus and his terribly unfunny cross, then tried to decide whether there was anything blasphemous about the boy's boyish understanding of the hymn title, I thought at once of Christ's words, "Whosoever shall not receive tile kingdom of God as a little child shall in no wise enter." And it occurred to me that if Christ did not find "Gladly the Cross-eyed Bear" funny, even in spite of the manner of his death, his words about the kingdom of God would be a lie.
I have bet my literary and spiritual life on the belief that Christ is not a liar. I have staked my life on an intuition that Jesus does find the likes of Gladly funny, and that once upon a time he found another boy's R & B piano palatable, too.
In previous interviews, you've mentioned that as a young adult you were fixated on finding work that would serve others. Tell me about that time, and how eventually it all led to writing.
I was in high school in '67 thru '70, when the resistance against the Vietnam War reached its height. High school was the hardest time of my life. I'd lost a brother; my parents' marriage ended; I felt trapped; felt the life choices offered by high school forced my integrity to rise up and say: No. Not this. Not this either. None of the above. The life options high school presented in l970 were non-starters for me. So: how to proceed with what you called my "fixation on finding work that will serve others"?
It might sound pretentious, but I was an experiential mystic as a kid. I had experiences of a profound and joyous unity hiding behind the curtain of every day suburban Americana, and wanted to live in a way that was in keeping with my deepest intuitions about truth, compassion, spirit. The high school atmosphere was deadly to that wish. So I was incredibly fortunate, during high school, to have a close friend two grades ahead of me, at Stanford University, who was deeply interested in comparative mysticism and world wisdom traditions.
I spent my last two years of high school reading his Stanford humanities curriculum, while my high school grade point average plummeted. I also discovered a few great novels that dealt with mortality in story-form, and discovered an alchemy that somehow made grief beautiful. This was a revelation: art doing what religion had, for me, failed to do. I felt called to a deep engagement with literature, and was open to the possibility of someday trying to create it, but not just to hear my own voice or see my name in print. After losing my brother, no preacher, teacher, relative, ever said a word to me that lessened the pain, and many a preacher increased the pain. Then, in a few great novels, I discovered this alchemical story telling that somehow made grief moving, and gave me companions in loss. Wow, that helped me. I doubted I'd ever master such an art. I doubt anyone ever does. The kind of writing I'm talking about feels like grace somehow slips in when an author works so long and hard that self-forgetfulness occurs, and the alchemy rises up in the art all by itself.
I graduated from high school (barely!) and, like my classmates, got drunk at the senior all-night party. But the next morning I drove to the Cascade Mountains, hiked to a lake high in the Santiam watershed surrounded by ancient forest, stayed there for two days with friends, then stayed another seven days by myself, fasting on water and sunlight. My company was frogs, birds, chipmunks, deer, enormous trees, three thin volumes of wisdom literature, and the wilds. I grew pretty sick and shaky by about day four. But the wisdom texts I had along were a great help. "The light of our eyes, the hearing of our ears, both are born of the colors and the sounds of our Earthly Mother, which enclose us about as the waves of the sea a fish, as the eddying air a bird . I tell you in very truth, Man is the Son of the Earthly Mother, and from her did the Son of Man receive his whole body. . . Of her were you born, in her do you live, and to her shall you return again. Keep, therefore, her laws''.
By day six I felt euphoric and.... kind of transparent, so that when a wind blew through, or rain fell, or the owls called at night, it all seemed to flow into and through me. I lost 25 pounds and I was skinny to start with. But I lost things I wanted to lose, too. I sloughed off high school, for instance. What a boon! The stereotypes and boxed-in thinking that had ruled my life for four years fell away, the grim career options high school presented no longer felt like options at all, and the same courage it took to not eat for a week gave me the courage to begin to live by my own intuition, though I had no idea where that would take me.
Another odd fruit of the fasting: at six foot one, I found out I would flunk a military physical and be declared ineligible for the draft and Vietnam War if I weighed 128 pounds. I came out of the woods weighing 130, so 128 seemed doable should I lose my college deferment. This removed the pressure I felt to attend college. I did attend, because I felt drawn to literature, and so felt I should not only study great fiction, but history, philosophy, poetry, biology, other cultures, music, and other subjects that support literature. And not alone. I needed the mentoring of people much more experienced than me.
The following summer I got a job care-taking wilderness cabins at a lake 7,500 feet up in the Wallowa Mountains of northeastern Oregon, seven miles from the nearest road. Again, my main companion was wisdom literature, and a recorder I taught myself to play. Full disclosure: a fly rod, and a Swisher Sweet cigar in the evening as I rowed the lake. I hiked myself to blissful exhaustion, and fell ever more deeply in love with wild places and flowing water and mountains, and their power to orient me.
And the year after the Wallowas I went to India - the literal Orient - on a pilgrimage that was fruitful beyond my wildest hopes. Those three years, at 18, 19, and 20, were a formative trifecta. An inner connection was made that remains in place to this day.
Your novels are often praised as beautifully delving into the human condition, and into the diversity of human experiences. How do you approach writing about these subjects?
I was originally moved to become a story teller for two reasons. As a child I felt an enormous love for the world, people, wild places, rivers, trees, mountains, lakes. I had my ups and downs, but was a pretty darn upbeat kid. And joyous at times. I started climbing 150 foot tall Douglas fir trees, for example, when I was eight; discovered fly fishing at nine; found a little trout stream close to home when I was ten, and had hundreds of Huckleberry Finn-like adventures there. One kind of story-telling arose out of that.
The other thing that drew me to fiction writing, as said, was my attraction to a story-telling magic that makes loss more bearable, and sometimes even beautiful. I approached this writing challenge by not forcing anything. Not till I was thirty-four did I publish a nonfiction piece about losing my brother, called "The Mickey Mantle Koan," in which this grace seemed to flow a little. That memoir then tapped into deep memories and feelings I wanted to explore further. I turned to a work of fiction set in the Sixties, narrated by the youngest of four brothers, and the writing began to feel like prayer in W. H Auden's sense of the word: "Whenever a person so concentrates their attention -- on a landscape, a poem, a geometrical problem, an idol, or the True God -- that they completely forget their own ego and desires, they are praying." Writing Brothers K was a way of living with big brothers again, and if that book contains some of the grief-made-beautiful alchemy that drew me to writing in the first place, it is not because of my brilliance or any such thing. It's because I forgot my ego and desires and got lost in the story-telling itself. Flannery O'Connor is telling the simple truth when she says: "No art is sunk in the self, but rather, in art the self becomes self-forgetful in order to meet the demands of the thing seen and the thing being made.'' Getting lost in the doing is so damned important. Here are a few of Jim Harrison's famous last words which I have tacked to my study wall:
"In a lifetime of walking in the woods, plains, gullies, mountains, I have found that the body has no more vulnerable sense than being lost....It's happened often enough that I don't feel panic. l feel absolutely vulnerable and recognize it's the best state of mind for a writer whether in the woods or the studio. Your mind feels a rush of images and ideas. You have acquired humility by accident. Feeling bright-eyed, confident and arrogant doesn't do this job unless you're writing the memoir of a narcissist. You are far better off being lost in your work and writing over your head. You don't know where you are as a point of view unless you go beyond yourself. It has been said that there is an intense similarity in people's biographies. It's our dreams and visions that separate us. You don't want to be writing unless you're giving your life to it."
Are there aspects to the human experience you'd like to discuss more intentionally, more thoroughly? What experiences have you failed to honor?
I would like to have been able to write more about people from different cultures. I've done a pretty good job of exploring world wisdom traditions. But I would like to have been able to speak and write in languages besides English. I never took the time to do that because I've lived so constantly among English speakers that there wasn't much of a payoff. I'd love to know more Africans, Asians, American Indians, India Indians, South Americans. I know some, but not enough! In some ways my love of the natural world has been at odds with this desire. I love the wild parts of the West, but they are generally not havens for a wide array of cultures. Still, I try. Two lines from Sun House that show me trying: Amar a alguien o algo, en cualquier Iugar, es la unica iglesia. (Loving anyone or anything, anywhere, is the only church.)
Tell me about your connection to nature.
Nature has connected me, lifelong, with a different kind of wild country than we encounter in national parks or designated wilderness areas: a wild within ourselves. Consider the William Stafford poem,"Why I am Happy:'
Now has come, an easy time. I let it
roll. There is a lake somewhere
so blue and far nobody owns it.
A wind comes by, and a willow listens
I hear all this, every summer. I laugh
and cry for every turn of the world,
its terribly cold, innocent spin.
That lake stays blue and free; it goes
on and on.
And I know where it is.
Strange to say, I had vivid dreams of just such a lake several limes during childhood, and they filled me with an overwhelming yearning. The dreams came when I was 8, 10, 12 years old, decades before I met William Stafford or read any of his poems. They came to me in a house in the sprawling working class suburb east of Portland, years before I started hiking into "blue and far" mountain lakes in my teens and twenties. The poem "Why I am Happy" completely resurrected my recurring dream. I was always walking up a wooded mountain that did not exist in Iife, but I had discovered it close to my home anyway. Coming over a rise in heavy forest, I'd suddenly glimpse, through the trunks of big trees, sunlight on dazzling water. A big, beautiful lake within walking distance of home! How was this possible? Because, just as Jesus said of the kingdom of heaven, this lake is within me.
Tell me about where you live now in Montana, and why you chose to live there? How does it affect your writing?
For a quarter century now, my wife Adrian and I have lived on the banks of Montana's Lolo Creek, a tributary of the Bitterroot River. Lolo means "crazy" in Hawaiian, but "stars" in Bambera, the main language of Mali, so I enjoy lying to people that York, the one African on the Lewis and Clark Expedition, was originally from Mali and named our home for its beautiful night stars. Lolo's a mediocre stream, fishing-wise. But it marks the northeastern edge of the contiguous Frank Church, River of No Return, Selway Bitterroot, Gospel Hump, and Cabinet wilderness areas of Idaho and Montana, which together comprise a pristine wild about the same size as a far more frightening wilderness known as New Jersey. You can tell I'm talking pure truth here: you can't make up names for wilderness as good as Gospel Hump.
Though I was born and raised in Oregon, my dad was a third generation Montanan who loved wild country, and started exposing me to it young, usually in the company of fly rods. My dad also raved when he'd talk about Montana, which took inside me even though he never showed me to the place he loved. Simultaneous to that, my mother and grandmother were fourth and fifth generation Seventh Day Adventists who, during my childhood, felt church-going was a matter of life and death. I agreed halfway: I felt that church-going was a matter of death. For as far back as memory goes, it was my spontaneous, wonderstruck feeling that wilderness is the one true church, that nature was the divine manuscript, and that if you lived anywhere near that manuscript and had any sense, you would naturally choose to worship there, and study it all for yourself, sans preachers and pulpits. Jesus -- the so-called cause of the churches I had to sit in once a week -- defined church as anywhere two or more gather in his name. It has always seemed to me that such a gathering might best be conducted by rowing a small boat across a mountain lake with a friend in the stern, each of you holding an old split cane fly rod, trolling a bucktail coachman behind you, making a little Galilee out of the situation.
The move from such lakes to my mother's kind of church threw my psyche into the state texters reference with the acronym WTF. I just couldn't match what I'd see and hear in church pews to who Jesus appeared to be in the Gospels. Jesus launches his whole deal with a forty-day stay in wilderness; he goes public in the River Jordan with a wildman, John the Baptist, who causes a wild bird to land on his head; he preaches his best sermon on a mount, serves wild not farmed fish to the masses there, and sails and fishes Galilee with honest to god rough looking rough handed rough tongued fishermen; he overtly states his preference for places where he can hang with publicans and sinners and dodge scribes and pharisees; he turns water to wine, likens his blood to wine, and recommends we drink it mindfully and often.
I loved and trusted this Jesus as unguardedly as I felt he loved me. "What a pity," wrote Annie Dillard, "that so hard on the heels of Christ came the Christians." The Adventist variety built a bunch of teetolling barn-size boxes with the most uncomfortable seating and sorriest music known to man, shut out the seas, mountains, rivers, fishers, barkeeps and good music, stuck a pharisee in a pulpit, sent scribes with offering plates trolling the aisles, named these barn-boxes of pious commerce "churches," claimed full custodianship of the wilderness man Jesus by claiming to contain him in their boxes, and preached that everyone but themselves, which was virtually everyone I knew including my non-Adventist father, was destined to burn for eternity in hell while I got stuck sitting around for-fucking-ever with Ben Carson! The late great William Stafford has another poem that speaks to the way this left me feeling as a boy. "The Way It ls," he writes,
There's a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn't change.
People wonder about what you are
pursuing. You have to explain about the
thread. But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can't get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time's unfolding.
You don't ever let go of the thread.
Wilderness became my thread. Moving to Montana was simply following the thread. Let me show you something that explains why I live where l do better than words. Here is a real place in the real world that, for me, is a wild without and a wild within:
This cedar grove is as far as a person can get from a road in the lower 48 states. To reach it I had to hike twenty miles, on foot, from a trailhead at the dead end of a dirt road that was already deep in wilderness. It changes you to walk that far into a completely wild place, and arrive in a grove so dark that barred owls hunt during the day. It was overcast when this picture was taken so the light looks flat. Usually it's not. A shaft of sunlight falling to the ground here is a wonder so beautiful it freezes you in your tracks. The forest floor is cedar duff so soft that footfalls are silent. The greenery is angel-hair fern, Canadian ginger and common wood sorrel. There are mineral licks in the grove with the hoof-prints of moose and elk leading to them from all directions, forming a circle like the spokes of a wagon wheel. The silence is all enveloping but intensely alive.
Consider the lungful of air you inhale and exhale as you read this sentence. Everyone who breathes is dependent on the lives of every forest and exfoliating plant on Earth. When our relationship with those forests becomes monetized and the trees all fall (and this, by the way, is the last cedar grove of its size left unlogged in the entire lnterior West) our ability to breathe is impinged. This is as true for the CEOs of timber companies as it is for the Ticuna people of the Amazon.
The species of cedar I'm gazing up into lives up to three thousand years old and this one was about as old as they get. It had been feeding humans good air for 500 years at the time of the Buddha, 1,000 years at the time of Christ, and looked much the same as it does in this photo, at about the age of 2,800, when the country that harbors it became known as "the United States." How little that name changes this grove. And how small the problems of the United States feel when I stand in these trees. The only scriptures I've studied that are as old as this cedar are India's Upanishads. I like connecting the two because the Upanishads were composed, orally, by forest rishis who lived in places that looked a lot like this grove. Here is how those ancient forest dwellers experienced truth in such groves, and how I still felt standing in this one:
There is a path , extremely fine and extending far.
It has touched you, you have discovered it!
That beneath which the year revolves,
the breathing behind breathing, the sight behind sight,
the hearing behind hearing, the thinking behind thinking,
the first, the ancient. With the heart alone behold it!
That is why I live where I do. This grove lets me feel the truth of W.B. Yeats' statement: There is another world, but it is in this one. This grove is an answer to Mary Oliver's famous question, What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
I suppose I should also point out the fly rod in my hand. I carry that rod for the same reason my namesake, King David (those Adventists!) carried his: a rod and, in my sixties, a walking staff comfort me. My marriage to fly rods and rivers had its golden anniversary five years ago. It has in that time led me through hundreds of valleys of the shadow of death and kept me in the company of millions of exfoliating trees of life. My marriage to fly rods has entailed thousands of liturgical river and creek walks, hundreds of thousands of points of contact with wild trout, salmon, steelhead, millions of mesmerizations by rifles, rapids, eddies, pools, millions of bird songs and sightings, thousands of encounters with otters, beavers, mink, ungulates, and trillions of riverborn insects all communing with the same currents, weathers, forget-me-nots, sedge-grass, sunlight, cattails, moss, and watercress as me. My marriage to fly rods has infested my prose with whitewater sentences and mystical eddies horrifying to fans of early Hemingway because, with each return of season and of salmon, it fills me with a music that sometimes thrills me like whitewater and sometimes spirals quietly round on itself like a nebulae of stars or foam-topped river eddy. My marriage to fly rods has imbued me with grateful faith in a universe I don't know how to praise enough.
Often I feel this faith intensely just as I'm kneeling to release a wild fish, and so have crushed a little wild mint with my knees. To watch a trout vanish in clear water just as a blast of mint fills the cavities in my head, later gives to the vanishing of myself in the creation of art a scent so specific that a cup of mint tea often inspires more art. To walk the same rivers sixty, eighty, a hundred times a year is not vacationing: it's a practice commted to a beloved wild church that causes perception to swing in two directions, outside, and in. To commune with such a place in a thousand weathers and shades of light is the soul's own search engine. Wild details grow exquisitely clear even as dreams become more pregnant and inner realms more palpable.
John Muir said it: "Nothing can take the place of absolute contact...The cold and perishing cannot be warmed by descriptions of fire and sunshine, nor the hungry fed with books about bread...One can only see by loving; love makes things visible and labor light."