Eschewing Genre in Creative Nonfiction: Richard K. Nelson’s Make Prayers to the Raven

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Make Prayers to the Raven: A Koyukon View of the Northern Forest by Richard K. Nelson is a documentation of the plants and animals that frequent the forests of interior Alaska. It’s true that this book is about a place I am currently enthralled with. It’s also true that there’s a soft spot in my heart for any book about plants and wildlife. However, what makes this book really interesting is the ways in which Nelson eschews nonfiction genres to come up with something all his own.

This book could have been a narrative of his experiences living in a Koyukon village in the 1970s. It wasn’t. It doesn’t occur in chronological order and doesn’t have much of a narrative arch. Instead, the book is structured in chapters such as “The Birds” and “Ecological Patterns and Conservation Practices” with subheadings for individual species and phenomena. This sets the tone for the work feeling like a guidebook to the forest.

Instead of listing facts about animals and plants, however, Nelson draws on a multitude of sources in order to give a greater picture of how the Koyukon people view and interact with the world around them. He uses the research of anthropologists who have come before him, anecdotes from his experiences of living in the village, and excerpts from his own journal. The effects of these sources are interesting. What is structured and presented as a catalog of facts about the forest becomes a little less black-and-white. This is apropos given the nature of Koyukon beliefs and knowledge about the forest, which is up for interpretation and change based on personal experience. It is also appropriate given Nelson’s awareness of his own status as an outsider, which makes him wary of speaking for the Koyukon people. By using this variety of resources including his own experiences and journal entries, he can give his readers the same impressions that he had without putting words in other people’s mouths.

Nelson as the writer is interestingly placed in this book. For a book that uses anecdotal evidence and journal entries for much of its information, the narrator is surprisingly absent. This is because all of the personal writing and experience that Nelson uses is always about something other than himself. His journal is only used to further give information and rarely gives his own ideas or thoughts. Nelson very consciously positions himself as an outsider in the village and the culture about which he is writing, and he does a good job of keeping himself an outsider in the book that he writes.

The end result is that this book is not an anthropological study of the Koyukon people, or a wildlife guide to the forest of Interior Alaska, or a narrative about Nelson’s experiences there. Instead, there’s a melding of these possibilities. For me as a writer, it made me think a little more broadly about the ways that I can structure and inform my nonfiction. Nelson shows that the structure, the sources used, and the position of the I do not need to all line up to one traditional standard genre. Instead, using these things in unconventional ways can allow us as writers to come to greater truths than following convention alone.

 

*This post is part of a series on the craft of writing called Reading for Writers.  This series examines a variety of authors to ascertain the choices they’ve made in their writing and the effects of those choices so that we as writers can make better decisions in our own writing.

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Full Pink Moon

It’s the golden hour, and all the plants are glowing as I make my way up the hill.  The sky is shocking, pink and blue and purple, as if suddenly bruising from its collision with the earth.  I want to reach up and comfort its throbbing beauty.  The turning leaves soak up the last bits of sun and radiate as if they were autumnal lanterns.  They light my way as the air turns dark.

The turning of the season and my northern-hemisphere body are at odds.  It’s nearly Beltane.  My blood wants to dance around fires throwing the cozy scarves and mittens of hibernation wantonly to the wind.  My skin is expectant with the warmth of new beginnings, and yet the gusts here are becoming harsher.  I push on.  It’s not fall for me.

As the final rays of the day tuck themselves in behind clouds and hills, I reach the well.  The very sight of the clearing tugs at something inside me.  I finger the stones, making them melt and turn to sand, as if they were an old lover who’d been waiting for my touch.

In response, I remove my shoes and socks.  My toes dig into the dirt and rocks dig back into my soles.  The breeze lifts my shirt and grazes my belly.  It’s all the impetus I need.  The wind keeps nibbling at me, encouraging me, and so I tie my clothes to the hawthorn tree.

It’s cloudy tonight and I know it’s no accident.  The moon is hiding in the shadow of the earth, tucked in the darkness of her cave as if in hibernation.  She’s just waiting for her moment.  It’s an up-side-down celebration here.  The leaves are beginning to saunter away from their branches.   The night is still pregnant with the potential of sprouts and seedlings, even as Antarctic winds raise mountain ranges of goose bumps on my skin.

I start a fire and I know you will be here soon.  I wonder how many logs and how much kindling we will need to last through the night.  The moon is flush and full.  Beneath my feet, the phlox creep further and further from the well.  The pink moss stretches its feelers toward unknown lands, testing whether those grounds hold lives that it can live.  The dainty flowers look up to the moon and howl, reflecting her full, surprised face back in their flushed cheeks.  They beam on a night like tonight.  They gather in such numbers and their blushing blazes so brightly that even the moon blushes back.

You come with logs for the fire and no words.  Before long we have our own sun flickering before us. “Ne’er cast a cloot ‘til Mey’s oot,” they warned us.  It’s not quite May, but it is time to cast our clothes.  The cold of the April wind nibbles at our skin and makes it blush, in brazen mimicry of the pink moon.  The light is deafening, and I am exposed, as are you.  The heat of the fire makes my frontside glow.  The cold of the April wind turns my backside pink.  I am round and glowing, a perfect salmon moon.

We dance in circles, falling into orbit around the fire.  I am drunk on the pollen wafting through the air, and red, yellow, and brown leaves swirl around me.  I can no longer tell whether I am surrounded by flames or trees or both.  Stars leap from the fire, embers fall from the sky.  I collapse into the embrace of the infinite.

Lost in space like this, there is no north and south, no spring or fall, only the endless expanse of new fires being lit.

 

 

Creative Commons love to phil dokas from flickr for the stunning photo!

Making Love to Clouds

I did not flinch when I saw her, though I knew she expected it.  My face did not mirror hers, eyes pulled wide, lips forced apart by the sharp intake of breath she could not control,  brow clenched upwards by a mind which could not believe.

A small breath of air made its way from my lungs, but my lips could not form her name.

Her eyes moved away from mine to the ground.  She did not want me to see her this way, I knew, and she would rather have never seen me at all than to meet me like this.

Her hair, which I had never seen down in all our years together, even through sleep and childbirth, fell in front of her face, intentionally hiding it.  In the darkness, it was hard to tell the two apart, now that the night of her straight hair had spread down the length of her body.  It was the blackness of her face from which I could not take my eyes.  Not the decay of her skin, crawling into strange formations as it fell from her flesh, nor the worms escaping from within her and being more eager to return to her to feast, but the pure tar of her face.  It had been one of her more powerful features, lighting the sky with its whiteness, its power making men run for cover.

“Do not look on me,” her words were loud, quick.  I wondered if she knew I had been chasing the young nymph which had just passed her, giggling melodically, curls and young breasts bouncing teasingly around the corner.  I wondered if it had been long enough since her death, or if it ever would be.

“I miss looking on you,” I offered.

She scoffed under her breath.  I could hear the tightening of her hard face through the darkness.  It was a sound I had not forgotten.

She crossed her arms, jagged elbows sending small bolts of lightning at the ground.  In the light, I could see a cockroach on the ground, near her dirty, bare feet.  It was the first time I understood her shame in being seen in the underworld.  Her usually tidy, glowing dress looked like what a peasant mortal would wear.  Instead of her usual shining shoes, her small, sharp feet, were caked in dirt, and being eaten.  I wondered if it was difficult for her to walk with the same poise that she had always carried.

“Please,” I said, knowing she would notice that my voice was not that of a god, but of a mole.  It did not happen often, but I knew she always noticed when I lost my composure.   “We will never see each other again.  We are lucky for just this moment.  Please, just look at me.”

“I-”  It was not often that she stuttered.  Her uneasiness grew to fill the small confines of the underground cave in which we stood.

Maybe she also feels as if it were my fault.

Perhaps she did not recall her last days, after the birth of the fire.  The way she screamed as the flames came forth from her womb burned my insides also.  The tears that sparked her electric face for days afterwards as she whimpered in pain each stung me as well. And I could no longer live forever when her immortality was taken away.

“I am not the same,” she said, her voice beginning to crack.  I knew she would not cry.  I struggled in the darkness to see better the prickly lines of her long body and face, the points of her nose, chin, and hips.

“I know,” I said.  I still missed looking on her.

   He did not know. 

            I could see his misty face, churning with emotions — for me!  If he knew, he would not be taking the time to steal a few moments with me before his return home.

            He moved towards me and I was within his arm’s reach.  I moved away.

            “I know,” he repeated, taking a small, determined step forward. 

            That was the moment when the memories flew past me and I was forced to turn and look at the decaying wall.  This gave my unruly mind free reign in recalling my memories, but at least I did not look at his face. 

            The tree came back to me first, but I knew that did not mean I loved him more.  The nights I had stolen away with the tree in a forced, hushed passion were just easiest to remember — there had been so few.  Always after dark.  Embracing without kissing.  A dainty removal of his own splinters.  All so the clouds could detect no signs when I returned home.  The splinters were my favorite part, even then.

            But there were more nights — since the beginning of time, in fact — with the clouds.  After all, what is lightning without clouds, or clouds without lightning?  The best nights were always the ones spent over tropical islands — hurricanes and our children, the thunder, the rain, and the tornado, were all conceived from the swirls of our passion on nights like those.

            So, when I first realized that I was having the fire child, I stopped seeing the tree.  I had no doubts about who fathered it.  But, then again, neither did the clouds.  Perhaps that was the most painful part of the ordeal:  the clouds trusted me so much that he was sure the child was his.

            “I am sorry,” he tried.  I knew he was fumbling for words, and it made me want him to hold me.

            “I am as well.”  But I stayed cold.  Who would want to hold a sack of maggots?

            “If I had known what would happen –“

            “You should not apologize.”

            “It was my fault,” he said.

            “It was not your fault,” I insisted, my voice rising with tension.

            “I should not have–” he stopped.

            I could hear him turn, his arm brushing chunks of dirt off the crumbling wall, and return the way he had come.

 

 

 

 

 

Creative Commons Love to Liamfm on flickr.  Thank you!

Fall(ing) Breeze (Colorado. Fall 2002.)

 

 

I

 

This autumn wind is gold tinted

from the dust, remains

of a dry summer floating

in the air, pulled

into my nostrils, and settling

(for) on windows that have not been

opened in months.

 

Or maybe the wind is

doing his own interpretation

of the yellow wilting leaves

of trees happily surrendering

to sleep, well-earned, long awaited;

for these aspens have not slept in months.

 

But it cannot be –

the wind does not sleep and

he does not happily surrender.

 

II

 

The leaves are tossed

in a migrating gust

letting go to dance in a breeze

that could take them anywhere.

Let go, for even the ground is better

than someone else’s limbs.

 

How can these fair-haired leaves

dance freely if someone else

is spinning them?

Say goodbye to your tree.

The restless wind is calling you.

 

 

 

Creative Commons love to http://www.flickr.com/photos/vbenedetti/ on flickr for the photo! Grazie!

Tamarind Trees (Thailand. Spring 2009.)

The tamarind trees lie in pieces outside my windows, broken by a sense of caution. Their fruit snake away from the branches ashamed and the leaves shrivel brown in the sun’s stare. The blue-crested lizards search for their limbs, but they are now bodies alone. From the checkered balcony even the ants shake their heads, knowing the sun has gone mad. The tendrils of passion vine convulse in the wind, praying for a mango sky. Yellowsweet and orangewet. Only then can the leaves stretch their fingers. Only then can the ants lift their loads. Only then can the tamarinds rest their heads.