That Thing with Feathers: Hope and Literature in a Time of Upheaval
Part tribute to wilderness, part indictment against tyranny and greed, Air Mail: Letters of Politics, Pandemics, and Place by Pam Houston and Amy Irvine reveals the evolution of a friendship that galvanizes as it chronicles a strange new world. The following is an excerpt from Air Mail, which Kirkus Reviews calls “a testimony to the sustenance of friendship in frightening times.”
May Day, 2020
It’s Day 51 since we closed our front door to the outer world. It’s also May Day—which the naked, naughty pagans, who were tortured and killed for loving the natural world, called Beltane. It is also almost Mother’s Day, and as I mentioned, my mother sent lavender plants. In anticipation of their arrival, Devin and I drove to the nearest garden store, two river valleys away, for a nice blue pot and good soil, among other things. The marquis out front was inviting and said masks were required. (By the way, we finally got our antibody test results. All three of us were negative, although now there’s talk that either the testing’s not reliable, or antibodies don’t mean squat, so who knows.)
Like you Pam, I live in a red corner of Colorado—a place where folks post “Trump 2020” yard signs but there are a few “Trump Jr 2024” signs, too. Like you, there is some eye-rolling when we cover our faces at the market or post office, but for the most part, folks in our town are leaving everyone to their own choices. But the garden store staff—masked and gloved, and still so accessible and helpful—suffered worse. As we paid up and said thanks, one employee, with tears in her eyes, said, “Thank you for helping us stay healthy. And thank you for not verbally assaulting us. Someone comes in every twenty minutes or so and just screams at us, calls us names, says that because of the mask requirement, they’ll never shop here again. We are just trying to stay healthy, so we can keep our jobs, feed our families.”
“Mayday” is the call for ships and airplanes in distress. It derives from the French phrase m’aidez, or “help me.” Aidez nous is the plural form (you probably know that). I worry about our own protests, in these letters. There will be counterprotests—which is fine, that’s what democracy’s about. Until the men with guns march up the driveway. That’s the antithesis of democracy. I can barely breathe, trying to imagine how this ends. Enough of this country believes that storming a state capitol with assault weapons, carrying signs that say let the sick die so the economy might live, is American.
Perhaps one reason that Barr’s threat to punish the governors who have issued stricter stay-at-home orders most slays you is his departure from conservatives’ firm belief in states’ rights. How is it that Republicans are willing to forsake this cornerstone of their platform? If they don’t hold the line on this one, if they can’t see the delicate dance that values life as well as the dollar—if they can’t see that this is no either-or situation—then our beloved democracy is dead in the water. I’m all for protest, for dissent, but this angry, weaponized defiance has nothing to do with tea getting tossed in the Boston Harbor.
I dreamed last night that an ex had his hands around my throat—a man who in the waking world had done the same. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t breathe. I woke thinking, “They are gunning for a persistent chokehold.” Depress our oxygen levels so we aren’t clearheaded enough to locate the North Star when it’s hanging there in the inkwell of night sky, dazzling as ever. So we can’t take in air enough to walk toward it for as many miles as it takes, to arrive in a healthier, kinder world.
Like you, I am most afraid of living a life in which I cannot tell my story. I am most unwilling to live at the expense of less fortunate others—be they humans, Steller’s jays, junipers.
I see clearly now, where to go. But I have been so lost. Every time, it’s because I ignored my instincts and desires and followed some guy into his narrative: There’s the boyfriend I took the heat for when he rear-ended another car and, since his drivers’ license was suspended, begged me to switch seats before the cops got there. The boyfriend who told a teenage me to smoke “something cool,” which I did, without question, only to learn later that it was crack cocaine. There’s the therapist who told me to stop writing, because he thought I was “like Listerine,” too blistering, too angry. It’s inconceivable to me now that I obeyed.
I own my part here. But what staggers is how many men have put me in jeopardy, have used me as a rung on a ladder to get to high ground, and did so without ever asking how I felt about it. I’m not sure that any of them noticed—after all, it’s marbled into cells, psyches, society. Just as it’s ingrained for women who grow up with a father who pats your fifteen-year-old ass and tells you that the most important class you’ll take in high school is typing—not so you can write books, but so you can get a good secretarial job. But only, he adds, if you keep the weight off those thunderous skier thighs.
There are bad guys out there who will read this and say terrible things about us. There will be threats, dismissals, or worse. Certainly there will be those who won’t consider this real writing. But even a lot of the good guys out there will read this and bristle, push back, and dismiss the fact that sexism is a condition of maleness just as racism is a condition of whiteness—something we should be looking out for, apologizing for, and making amends for the rest of our lives. Those with the wealth and entitlement inherited from forefathers who built fortunes using enslaved Black people, who acquired land by killing the Native people, turned around and built the factory farms, the ski and golf resorts, the Amazon warehouses, the coal-fired power plants, the hunting safaris, the gated communities. But they also founded the environmental movement, and in the process they defended an idea of wilderness romanticized and chauvinized by John Wayne, Cormac McCarthy, and Edward Abbey. And until we come clean about that, until my liberal environmentalist friends stop trying to take me down at the Thanksgiving table by telling me that the story I want to write is irrelevant, uninteresting, and incapable of changing the world, their hands also grip our throats.
Last night I reread Cowboys Are My Weakness. It is such a sabre, slicing through the story that all is well between women and men, that we are enlightened enough to meet one another in bed, in the wilderness, in the halls of Congress, in a dark alleyway, or in the driveway, on equal ground. Sadly it’s as relevant several decades later. Now I see why I first threw the book against the wall—because I envied that at that young age you had enough of yourself to push back against the lone white male narrative. During those years, I was leading hard climbs, running rescues, and guiding my squad out of wildfires that had turned on us, but I was lost in a story that wasn’t my story. It would be several decades before I found my own. And then, when I finally told it, the backlash was swift and severe.
That’s okay. It’s better than living my life trapped in someone else’s narrative, a narrative that requires that I either die by a man or be saved by a man. No, I only want a life in which I find my own way, before I die wizened and worn-out from a life that nearly burst at the end, so full it was with opportunities to speak, ride, dance, wander, teach, learn, love.
When Ruby was young, I stole away for a ski on the mountain that presides over our mesa—just the dogs and me. I meant to follow a large, open draw but a herd of mostly pregnant elk cows had bedded down in my path. I skirted them by plunging into thick timber.
While I was in the forest, the sky clouded. The wind picked up and covered my tracks and I got totally turned around.
It grew late, and there wasn’t a landmark to aim for—not even the slant of the sun. The dogs paced in circles, staring at me, expectant. I wished then for a guy—father, spouse, bishop, therapist—to show me the way out. The wish was a fleeting one—a kind of flash fiction, and an insane one—because what else do you call it when you hand over your agency, your fate, to another person?
Men may not ask for directions (and that is another way I’ve been lost with them), but this is when I looked at Pablo and Ursa, my two crazy cow dogs, and said, “Go load up!” They spun around and headed off in the last direction I would have chosen, but I skied after them knowing they would obey my command to head for the car and launch themselves through the open hatchback. It was a race in the twilight, but sure enough, we found the vehicle.
In dreams, there are not only monsters who want to strangle you, there are dogs who listen when you speak. Jung called them psychopomps—beings that, if you are lost and ask for help, will lead you to God.
Dogs listen in the woods, too. And they’ll lead you to safety every time. If home proves to be a place you cannot breathe, the dogs will follow you when you leave that story. So will those velvety herds of elk cows, and the forests—the elders and saplings and every tree in between.
If the guns come for us, Pam, grab your pen and notebook, your bivy sack, your flint and steel. Climb above tree line, on your side of the Great Divide—which is the only thing that should separate our nation during this pandemic. Hell, even if they don’t come, head up anyway. I’ll meet you there with compass, envelopes, string. We won’t go alone. We’ll have the dogs. We’ll have mentors, students, daughters. We’ll have a few good men who are willing to walk with us, willing perhaps, to play supporting characters for a while, in the stories that need telling. And we’ll have every other good creature, flanking us on all sides.
Let’s bring our ballots, too. Let’s fill them out and tie them to the tails of ravens passing through. Let’s climb the ridgelines with the letters we have written and cast them into the clear blue sky. Then let’s toss that compass into some deep icy ravine that never sees the light of day because already we know exactly where we’re headed.
In fierce and loving sisterhood,
PS You have proved to be another one of my favorite animals—and we’ve yet to meet in person.
May 7, 2020
Your letter made me think of one of my favorite short stories, Ursula Le Guin’s “Sur.” I wonder if you know it. The story, published in 1982, set in 1909, chronicles a successful all-women expedition to the South Pole, during which, among other things, one of the explorers delivers a baby. The story stays with me because after the women overcome every hardship to finally reach the pole on December 22, 1909, and discuss leaving some kind of “mark or monument, a snow cairn, a tent pole or flag,” they decide against it because “there seemed no particular reason to do so,” because anything they were was “insignificant” in the face of that great landscape.
As they get ready to leave the Pole and head back to basecamp, one woman asks, “which way,” and another answers, “north.” The narrator tells us she is glad they are leaving no marker, “for some man longing to be the first might come some day and find it, and know then what a fool he had been, and break his heart.”
I love this passage, not only because it explains my whole life to me, in the world of wilderness guiding, in the world of publishing, but also for the humor in that one-word answer. If there was an all-women expedition that got to the South Pole before Amundsen’s team (and this is the magic of Le Guin, the way she adds the Sur Expedition to the annals of an alternate history), I bet they laughed a lot along the way.
What I always used to say about my years as a river and hunting and backpacking guide was this: “I never wanted to be better than the men at the outdoors, I just wanted to be good enough that they would invite me along, good enough that I could keep up. Ideally,” I’d continue, “they would forget I was even there.”
I’m not sure what to even say about this now, given all our letters have covered.
Way back in graduate school, in the heyday of deconstruction, I wrote a paper on Jacques Lacan’s assertion that women, by virtue of not having a dick (or phallus, as he would have said), understand, far better than men, the truth of nonpossession. The man who taught the class told me, during office hours, I wasn’t smart enough to write that paper, proving, more or less, Lacan’s point. I went ahead and wrote the paper and got an A, a thing that professor was famous for not giving.
The same man, after Cowboys Are My Weakness came out, told me I was “glorifying an archaic form of masculinity.” I noted, internally only, he was an archaic form of masculinity himself.
“Sur” is a story that is precisely about women understanding the truth of nonpossession. The environmental movement, in its purest and most effective form, must be about the same.
One more thing about me: when things are going relatively well in the world and in my life, I can fall down a disaster wormhole like nobody’s business.
But when the shit hits the fan for real, what I realize I cannot live without is hope.
Last night, as I worked on this letter, a video was leaked of the two white men who hunted down a young black jogger (Ahmaud Arbery) in a suburban neighborhood and killed him in cold blood, two men, who as of this writing, have faced no consequences for their actions. Even as I write these words, the current administration is trying, in the middle of this pandemic, to take health care away from millions. Yesterday the president called another female reporter a dog, and meant it as an insult! (As if…) Last night he called George Conway, whose mother is Filipino, Moonface, called the men with AR15s strapped to them breathing their COVID breaths onto security guards very good people.
“Your silence will not protect you,” Audre Lorde says from the front of a T-shirt I have worn until it is threadbare, when I am not wearing the other one with a quote from Lidia Yuknavitch: “I am not the story you made of me.”
Two days after my mother gave birth to me by caesarian, she wanted to go to a party. She was still in the hospital, but a little invasive surgery never kept my mother from a good time. She wheeled herself down to the maternity ward bulletin board and got Martha Washington’s name off the list dedicated to newborn babysitting. Martha came to the hospital and watched me that night, miraculously fell in love with me, and didn’t really leave until she died when I was twenty.
Martha taught me to swim, read, ride a bike, to hold open doors for my elders. She taught me generosity is its own reward, always, and that the failure of imagination has caused a scourge upon the Earth. Most importantly, she taught me to always, always, say yes to the world.
This morning on the dog walk I realized the thing I am afraid of far more than I am afraid of dying a breathless COVID death, far more than being shot in the face by a camo-wearing MAGA dude, is becoming a person who says no to the world. Becoming a person who doesn’t go out, or hike out, or speak out, because prudence and my survival instinct tells me I should not. That would be the bad guys winning. That would be the bad guys winning most of all.
I can’t say yes right now to a trek in Bhutan, or teaching a Writing in the Wild World class on a raft trip down the Dolores, or a march to protect women’s access to contraception. But I can say yes to the tiny mountain ball cactus blooming near my clothesline. I can say yes to Lime Creek running over its banks (too early, too quickly) but braiding itself elegantly and generously quenching my pasture. I can say yes to my students, who I only see via Zoom these days, but who are still writing their stories like their lives depend on it, because if we don’t know by now they do, we are definitely not paying attention. I can say yes to a horse named Ben, a thoroughbred/paint cross, a big boy, 16-3 and broad as a boat, dark bay with a shoulder that looks like someone threw a bucket of white paint at it. Ben needs a new home and I need something to say yes to, so he will arrive on the first of June. I can say yes to these letters, which are sustaining beyond all reason, except the reason we keep sending them across these mountains, these mountains that belong to everybody, and nobody, and mostly to themselves.
This administration can take so many things away from us. Our safety, our health care, our independence, our contraceptives, our freedom of movement, our livelihoods, our clean air and water, and inevitably, probably sooner than later, our right to speak. But it cannot keep us from saying yes to the world.
Whether this pandemic lasts for one year or three or a decade, we will emerge knowing far better what we need to survive. Even now, I can see the pencil scratching through item after item: airplane travel, hipster coffee, Wilco concert, baseball. What remains: air, water, horses, elk cows, ravens, and dogs. I have always put my faith in the concrete nouns of the world, but realize this list will have to include abstractions: community, trust, direct action, urgency, courage, sacrifice, love.
We have not one single thing to lose by believing, even now, that we can build the world we want to live in, and we must, because time is short and inaction is death.
Fighting for the Earth and each other will be the only way to feel how alive we still are.
So let’s save the post office. Let’s win the election. Let’s win all the elections. Let’s downshift and tap into the power I know you know we have, the strength we feel when we put our feet on hard dirt, or words on these pages. Let’s tend to the weary, the grieving, the hungry, to all those the systemis rigged against. The Earth is our ally. She always has been. She understands the truth of nonpossession. In fact, she wrote the book on it.
Thank you for these letters, Amy. I hope there will be a thousand more. I will walk, now, to the back of my property, where the wetland is overflowing, breathe the clean air, and wait with a piece of string and this letter. Here I am now, my eyes trained on the ridgeline to the west.
In everlasting sisterhood.
Pam Houston is the author of the memoir, Deep Creek: Finding Hope In The High Country, as well as two novels, Contents May Have Shifted and Sight Hound, two collections of short stories, Cowboys Are My Weakness and Waltzing the Cat, and a collection of essays, A Little More About Me. She teaches in the Low Rez MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts, is Professor of English at UC Davis, and cofounder and creative director of the literary nonprofit Writing By Writers. She lives at nine thousand feet above sea level near the headwaters of the Rio Grande.
Amy Irvine is a sixth-generation Utahn and long-time public lands activist. She is the author of Desert Cabal: A New Season in the Wilderness. Her memoir, Trespass: Living at the Edge of the Promised Land, received the Orion Book Award, the Ellen Meloy Desert Writers Award, and the Colorado Book Award. Irvine teaches in the MFA program of Southern New Hampshire University. She lives and writes off the grid in southwest Colorado, just spitting distance from her Utah homeland.
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