Ruth Rudner
Ruth Rudner

David Muench's National Parks


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At the start of 2010, I’ll substitute a sporadic blog for this monthly article.  The blog will focus on the connection – the personal connection -- between nature and writing. Other subjects may jump in, although I really think the two categories contain virtually every  subject. Nothing human-made (this includes war, politics, dance, music, hiking boots, cowboy boots, windmills, literature, photography, fences, space ships, painting and 40 trillion other things) does not come out of our nature as part of Ecosystem Earth.  We are as natural as mountains and rivers.  Like dogs, trees, lions and rivers, we act according to nature’s gifts to us.  (I do have to wonder, though, how it is that dogs, trees, lions and rivers rarely behave idiotically.  Is it that our imaginations are greater?  Or our fears?)

That said, after rereading this month’s article, and considering discarding it because it was not a Christmas story, I decided to keep it because it is about nature and writing.  In that way, it is an appropriate segue into the blog. 

So here you have a story begun last summer, finished yesterday.    

                        Not Crossing the Stream When You Come To It

The question of what to do when you get stuck often comes up in writing workshops.  As an instructor I say, “Just write.  Anything.  Forget whatever project isn’t working.  Just write.  Don’t think.  Write.” 


Now that I’m stuck, I need to revise that.  Give up writing.  Go back to school for a Ph.d in archeoastronomy.  Or raptor biology.  Or  cello performance.  Or something else easy.  Forget writing.  Nobody reads anymore anyway. 

Does this sound like a writer with a problem?

I expected to spend most of the past summer working on a novel.  I spent days researching the early part of the 20th century in Montana’s Madison County.  (The family I’m writing about travels from Belarus to Madison County in 1913.)  Madison County became more interesting, but I got no closer to the book.  I stared at the creek a lot, marked the progress of young robins just out of the nest under the roof, looked for the twin fawns driving their mother to distraction, watched for bluebirds.   

Early on, when the high mountains were still snow-covered, David wanted to hike to several lower-elevation waterfalls, the drama of spring run-off pouring over the falls irresistible to a photographer.

I expected hiking to open the veins necessary to write.  It always has in the past.  A good mountain can fix many writing problems for me.  Or could.  It is, possibly, time to give up the past.  According to much of what I read, there is only the present anyway.  Even I  have written (in PARTINGS AND OTHER BEGINNINGS) that to cling to the past is to cling to something already gone. 

Or, maybe we just chose the wrong waterfall for our first hike of the summer.  Mill Creek in the Paradise Valley had about as propitious a beginning as work on the novel.

Crossing streams is often problematical for me.  Even after a lifetime of crossings, I rarely do them with ease. In the middle of a hike, when there is no choice, I just do it.  But the Mill Creek hike begins with a crossing.  You step off a hummock of packed gray earth onto a log balanced over violently foaming water.  A couple of steps brings you within reach of a wooden handrail bolted to the log, but the handrail is loose and slants backward.  Meanwhile, below you,  the wild, white fury of water rages.  It dizzied me as I looked down into it.      

“Don’t look down,” David shouted over the roar of the stream. 

I know that.  Just cross.  Look straight ahead.  Just walk.  (Same as writing.  Just write.)  Don’t bother with fear.  Fear is useless.  Fear stops you.  Unable – unwilling – to move across the log, I stepped – backward – to the packed dirt and down to the forest floor.

“I’ll go first,” David said.  Crossing easily, he waited on the far side for me.  I started again.  This time my legs were shaking. 

Like a cartoon character. 

Twenty years ago a New York friend came to Montana to backpack with me.  Our trail led across a scree slope.  Although there was a defined path crossing the grey, rocky slope, she – used to eastern mountains where scree rarely forms – was frightened.  The slope seemed too exposed to her, too unstable, too foreign. 

“My knees are shaking,” she shouted to me, already on the far side of the traverse. 

”Just come,” I shouted back.

“But will you tell my mother if something happens?” She asked.

“I promise,” I said, knowing perfectly well she would be fine if she could just force herself to start.

So this is a thing I know.  Just start.  Only begin.  The first step is the hardest.  All the clichés are true, whether the subject is hiking, climbing, or writing.

I could not begin.  Would I have started if there had been anybody but David there?  Is there a difference between ‘losing face” in front of your partner, and refusing to lose face around other people? Or if you are alone?  But fear isn’t about losing face.  It is about who you are and how you deal with the things that scare you.

Shouting to David to go on, I walked up the closed (to vehicles) graded road along the creek.  On my left, high jagged rock cliffs; on my right, the creek pouring down its bed as white and roiling as below the log bridge.  I was given the beauty of the stream, of the country, but I had backed out of adventure.  A simple thing and I could not – would not – do it.  How often have I turned back, unwilling to risk, even when I know the thing is simple, the risk slight?  How much of my life have I missed?

It was not a good day.  I couldn’t cross a stream, and I seemed to be proving to myself I couldn’t write a book.  As I waited for David to return, my notebook open on my lap, the two things became more and more the same thing. 

Yet, now, from the distance of seasons (not to mention not standing on the stream bank), I begin to let go the stream I didn’t cross. 

Why carry with me into a new year what I did not do?  Why, in fact, carry anything  into the New Year?  Why not enter without baggage?

                        Man possesses nothing but that which he will not lose in a shipwreck.                                                                                                 Rumi

My failures are experiences as much as my successes, but none of it is baggage to carry with me. 

Copyright © 2009 Ruth Rudner