Up on critter creek…

My digital turntable is spinning.  I have flipped on the magical Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, by Ralph Vaughan Williams.  Rob Young, writing in his marvelous new survey of Britain’s “visionary music” of the last one hundred years, Electric Eden, calls the piece, “magisterial…gliding out of the dock like a gigantic galleon.”  This gorgeous orchestral poem has been a favorite of mine for decades and it doesn’t take much prompting for me to turn it up loud, allowing the music’s alchemy air to breathe.

My mental turntable is spinning.  Segueing from the romantic gloom and feminist valor of Jane Eyre, now I am immersed in the romantic gloom of Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native.  Like Jane Eyre, Hardy’s novel is firmly planted in the earth, under heavy horses plodding over tracks high in the bracken of the moors, the roll and yaw of misty meadows and sun-spackled greenwoods that breathe and communicate deeply not only with the reader but with its author and his characters.  Hardy’s mythical Egdon Heath, remote, sparsely populated and moody, is a character in itself:

“The place became full of a watchful intentness now; for when other things sank brooding to sleep the heath appeared slowly to awake and listen. Every night, its Titanic form seemed to await something; but it had waited thus, unmoved during so many centuries, through the crises of so many things, that it could only be imagined to await one last crisis—the final overthrow.”

Writers don’t do this very often.  Certainly place can be critical in fiction, when vividly described it is a delight and becomes part of the fabric of a story, but it is rare when the landscape listens or waits.  An organic being. Faulkner comes to mind.  Flannery O’Connor.


Advancing the clock ahead to mid-20th century England and following Electric Eden’s beautifully written road over the hills and far away, I come to the tragic story of Nick Drake, a Keatsian Romantic with a guitar in 60’s/70’s London. Pink Moon, his third and final album, released in 1972, is a spare, brooding and influential masterpiece, even among young hipsters today. Young writes, “it is possible to hear the Blakean attempt to ‘Hold infinity in your hand/And Eternity in an Hour.’”


Dying early and leaving behind a small musical body of work, like a hippie Chatterton or Shelley, Drake’s music depicts a paradise, lost to all things Modern that might be found again if:

“…we all abandoned the calendar of industry, fashion and routine, slowed down to the magical time, stepped far beyond the chime of a city clock, took more time to hear what the trees whisper, what the sea sings and the moon brings, dusted by oak, ash and thorn, we might yet be granted a glimpse of Paradise.”

With that, I remember Robert Plant wistfully asking the LA Forum audience in ‘73, “Remember laughter?” as the band launched into Going to California, a magical landscape, the Golden State.

Don’t scorn the happy, hippie sentiment. We could use a bit of that these days.

William Blake, in 1810, wrote:

“The Nature of my Work is Visionary or Imaginative;

It is an Endeavour to Restore what the Ancients called the

Golden Age.”

Quickly, I acquire Pink Moon from iTunes, and Drake’s words and music haunts my darkened garret in summertime Wisconsin, fireflies blink a strange semaphore under the ancient trees and cicadas sing a buzzing chorus, reveling in the midsummer Midwestern heat.

Forgive me. I am working on my Blakean ear.  It’s not there, yet.

Writers—how about you?

Breathing landscapes, whispering trees. Winking moons. Chorusing cicadas. Do they speak to you?  I mean, do they really speak to you?

Let’s take this a step further.

May I ask, when was the last time some bird on a fence spoke to you, philosophizing, grinning, puffing on a stogie?  What did she say?  Did you write it down? Has it gone into your work?  Or how about last Sunday, did the mob on Monkey Island at the Bronx Zoo offer inappropriate, insulting commentary on your presence?   Were they making a valiant stab at interspecies communication?

This is nothing new.  Homer, Shakespeare, Milton, Dickinson, Melville, Kipling, Thomas Pynchon, Jane Smiley have all done it—a focus on an unexpectedly sentient character, from Scylla and Charybdis, to Pynchon’s Learned English Dog to Ahab’s white whale.

Early drafts of my novel, Pepperland, included talking crows, rhyming parrots, smart-alecky teddy bears, wise-guy roaches and lobsters hurling fastballs in a Chinese restaurant. In the end, only the teddy bear survived.  Call it evolution, the survival of the fittest.  Or maybe I came to my senses.  Or it was just sensible editing.  Or maybe I was still discovering the story. But, still, it was all there and it seemed right, at the time.  Maybe it was.

Readers may know that I’m fiction editor of Hunger Mountain, a Journal of the Arts based in Montpelier, Vermont. What you may not know is that our forthcoming print issue has got a theme going on—the menagerie of the imagination.  We’re featuring out-of-left field writing that dives deep into a menagerie of the imagination, or, in other words—a trip up critter creek.  Cats and dogs, dogs and cats, bats, spiders, pufferfish, haints, lions and tigers and bears—oh my!  Wonderful stories by wonderful writers, exploring this strange world of critter creek.

Don’t worry—you won’t need a paddle, up on critter creek.  You won’t spring a leak.

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