Gratitude from Country Mouse

Tamara Ellis Smith

When I sit at my desk on the second floor of my house, I look out over our town park with its playground and band shell, soccer and baseball fields, and, right about now, the remains of our skating rink made by the local tow guy. Beyond the park I see the line of trees at the Winooski River’s shore, and beyond the river I see five hill peaks. To the right of my house is Jericho Settler’s Farm, where we hear the baaingof sheep and the snorting of pigs. To the left of my house is On the Rise Bakery, where the smell of baking bread and brownies and pizza tumbles onto the street.

Kissing the Earth was born out of a series of conversations between Sharry Phelan Wright and me about creating a blog together, one about writing that would be different from the others out there in the vast blogosphere. Beyond our passion for children’s literature, we also share a deep reverence for nature and for finding the extraordinary in the ordinary—and thus we created our bi-monthly blog about the intersection between landscape and writing for children.

At Kissing the Earth, I am the country mouse. I live in Richmond, Vermont, a small northern rural town all the way on the other side of the country from Sharry. I run with my dog (and my running partner and her dog) on the trails by the river, cross-country ski behind the farm, and attend a yoga class in the loft of my neighbor’s garage. My kids walk to school, and my husband rides his bike to work. (Or he used to, before Tropical Storm Irene destroyed his office. To read a Hunger Mountain essay about how Irene influenced my writing, see here.)

I feel a sense of gratitude for where I live. I am well connected to this feeling; it is right on the surface where I can find it and touch it easily, but it is also deeply inside of me in a place where I can feel it in my bones. But if someone had asked me a year ago—before Sharry and I began writing our blog, Kissing the Earth—why I feel this gratitude, I would have been at a loss for words. Writing this blog has changed that. Now, when I hike through the woods and feel that rush of centered wonder and happiness, I take a moment to really explore what’s stimulating that good feeling. The way the trees covered in snow create a canopy over the path. The comfort that the flora-embrace brings. Now, when I walk the kids to school and I feel that same rush, I breathe slowly and deeply and take in the warm, thick smell of my neighbor’s wood-fired stove. I register the way it triggers a sense of safety inside me. Now, when I run along the trail by the river, I feel, once again, that same centeredness. I stop and listen to the ice cracking around the flowing water and bend down to see the tracks that a pair of foxes left while trekking the same trail, veering off now and then to drink from the icy water’s edge. And then I understand why I am feeling a sense of connectedness to this trail, this river, this place.

I am able to see—and feel—how the amazing individual pieces of my landscape make up its whole. I am able to name what brings me joy and sing its very specific praises. And because of these two things, I am able to find where I fit into my landscape and where it fits into me.

In a recent blog entry, I wrote:

Rituals are comforting. It feels good to do something familiar. My body can relax into it because it knows, instinctively what to do—downward dog or stretching pizza dough or whatever the movement may be—and so my mind can relax too. There is no thinking about the action, only doing it, and this frees me up to dream or imagine or simply let go.

But rituals also facilitate discovery. Because I run along the same river trail day in and day out, I notice when a tree has fallen or a fox has been by or the ice flow on the river has shifted. I can hone in on tiny new details because I am not taking in the entire landscape in that sweeping, wide-angle way I do when I am in it for the first or even second or third time. Rituals strengthen that observation muscle.

The dual-layered practice of paying close attention to my landscape and writing about it bi-monthly at Kissing The Earth, has, of course, informed my writing. It has opened me up to the rich details that are all around me waiting to be internalized and then recalled when the just-right moment arises in my works-in-progress. On a hike up Mount Mansfield, for example, I noticed for the first time that the rock at the very top of the mountain is striated with white, grey and silver. Just like a marble. And—lo and behold!—my novel that centers around a marble includes a hike up Mansfield. You can bet I wove that perfect, metaphoric detail into the manuscript. I write with more specificity as a result of my flaneur practice. When my main character is wrestling with a particular feeling, such as grief or joy, bits and pieces of my landscape (and my correlating feelings) rise to the surface of my consciousness. I can use these details to express my character’s feelings.

For me, landscape is often a metaphor. It can be used to enhance a pivotal plot point, or describe a character’s state of mind, or mirror her strong emotion. And making a daily practice of observing the landscape that surrounds me has transformed what used to be a haphazard method of writing into a solid, well-crafted tool. One that is readily available to me. The study of landscape allows for much more than that, though. Yes, I have found a tool—or a language—with which I can view, talk about, and write about the world. Studying my landscape has given smell and shape and sound to the musings and wonderings and ideas in my head—the ones that make their way into my work. But I also have come to truly view the elements of landscape as characters unto themselves. The foxes on the trail are a metaphor for resilience and cunning, and they are also real foxes! With hearts and bones and fur; with struggles and instincts and journeys. The trees bending over the path are a metaphor for home and safety, and they are also real trees!  With roots digging deep into the earth and branches reaching high into the sky and so old they have bore witness to multiple human lifetimes of events. When the metaphor and the real are woven together in a story—this is when alchemy happens. This is magic.

Kissing the Earth has also opened me up to landscapes other than my own.  I eagerly await Sharry’s posts every other week, excited to learn about yet another wondrous corner of San Francisco. I talk about landscape much more than I used to, so I am constantly gaining new bits of information about all sorts of places, from the road between my sister’s hotel and her yoga studio in India, to my friend’s son’s preschool in the middle of the woods in Germany, to my mother’s walk up the road on my childhood farm’s property.

I am also more acutely aware of the role landscape plays in other authors’ stories. Just as Sharry tries to weave the craft of writing into her blog posts, I try to weave a book I have recently read into mine. Often it is a book that has reminded me of an intimate landscape, such as Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls, which prompted me to write about my sister’s cancer recovery on the North Shore of Boston, or Lane Smith’s Grandpa Green, which evoked my own landscape-of-origin (the family farm). Sometimes it works in reverse, and my own observations remind me of books I have read, such as Kathi Appelt’s The Underneath, which was conjured deeply by the snake-like vines that entwine with the trees along my river trail.

That blog entry is one of the ways I have woven together landscape and books, but there are more. An exciting new development at Kissing the Earth is our author interviews. We, of course, focus on what role landscape plays in the author’s novel, as well as the details of that landscape and where the landscape is personal and intimate to the author.  The process of discussing books with their authors has been a joyful and enlightening endeavor, and we believe the interviews that come from these conversations are a unique entrée into a book, a different way to get to know an author. We plan to add more of these this year and make it a regular feature of Kissing the Earth.

But for now—in this very minute—I am going to press the command and S keys on my computer, get up from my desk, go downstairs, and head out. Out onto my street, across the park, down to the river, and I’ll see what happens from there….

Out the door for a run. Kara and I weren’t going to be deterred by the weather. We donned our yak-traks and headed out onto the trail. Sheer and total ice. Kara and I had to run along the side of the trail. Any step on it would have resulted in both of us on our tails. I know this because the dogs did slip and really fell on theirs. And even the sides of the trail were icy. I had to keep my eyes on my feet the entire time I was running.

I initially felt that fear that I always feel when I’m worrying about falling; when I am sure, at any moment, I am going to lose control. But as I ran—as I continued to focus on my feet, and as the unusual silence between Kara and me opened itself up to the sound of ice cracking on the river, the clicking of the dogs’ toes on the frozen ground and the rush of the wind—I began to get into a rhythm. My feet, my breathing, and my head all came together in a sort of running meditation. I was fully in the moment, fully in my body, and not afraid at all.

The first thing Kara said to me when we finished the run was, “That was hard but it was kind of like a meditation and I began to love it…” How amazing that we had shared the same experience without ever communicating during it. Did one of us inspire it in the other? Did the landscape inspire it in both of us?

Whoever it was that helped me transform my fear into joy, I thank you…latest Running | Shop: Nike

Categorized as Craft

By Miciah Bay Gault

Miciah Bay Gault is the editor of Hunger Mountain at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She's also a writer, and her fiction and essays have appeared in Tin House, The Sun Magazine, The Southern Review, and other fine journals. She lives in Montpelier, Vermont with her husband and children.