Tag: regional

A New Place, a New Story

k lyn wurth great plains and western fiction

Announcing a New Place

Thanks for visiting my blog. This is a where I write at length about the research, references  and influences that inform my writing. This blog is a peek behind the curtain, but there’s a new place, a new story…

Find Your Place in a Story™

There’s a new trademark, too, giving greater emphasis to what I hope for my readers, that they will find their special place and a more meaningful life in the stories I tell.

To learn more about the purpose and heart of my writing, and my commitment to writing about the Great Plains and American West, I invite you to visit my new web site:

http://www.klynwurth.net.

horseshoe from klynwurth.net

Go West, my readers, go West, and Find your Place in a Story

find your place in a story trademark K. Lyn Wurth

Magpie and Ancestral Voices

Mr. Magpie photo by Keith Williams to be used on Seven Kinds of Rain book cover

In my upcoming novel, the title of which I will soon announce, Magpie and ancestral voices are inseparable. Magpie is a figure of myth and a real bird, but also the nickname for one of my central characters. In the story, Margaret Rose doesn’t choose that nickname for herself, but it is apt. She’s both dark and light, smart, vivacious and a bit of a thief. Like the bird, she’s smart, sensitive, loyal and eager to make use of what others leave behind.

I harbored some reservations about including magpies in my Nebraska stories. I wondered if they truly inhabited the Republican River valley, as I couldn’t remember seeing one when I was a child. I try to mind regional details, as well as historical ones, in my writing. As if to answer my concerns, when I drove along the Republican River last year for my research trip, a magpie flew low along the roadside where I traveled, showing me his white belly and glossy blue-black plumage. It seemed more than a random wildlife sighting, perhaps even a blessing on how I’m weaving the birds, the characters and the myths of Magpie into my novels.

Magpies, mystery, meaning and myths run through my writing, alongside what history would retell and science would prove. Margaret, my novel’s Magpie, loves both stories and science, as do her friends. In upcoming posts, I’ll discuss about other folktales, rhymes and mythical threads I’m weaving into the early 1900s characters, along with scientific theories and historical events.

The epigraph I’ve chosen for the book is a verse from Psalm 78. I claim no Biblical authority with these words, nor do I announce any religious theme or agenda for my little book. Rather, the quote expresses my belief that we should hold on to all the stories we receive from ancestors, and bring them to light for generations.

I will open my mouth in a parable, things we have known from of old, things our ancestors have told us.         Psalm 78

When we braid the old stories with our own, our lives become an extension of those who stood in this place before us. Even if the storytellers are not related to us by blood, their stories are one with this place, and their voices can deepen and amplify our own accounts.

No longer wandering alone in the midst of our facts, may we find ourselves illuminated by the multitude of ancestors, their presence, whimsy and wisdom. May our children and grandchildren, well-educated in science, consider also the light of history and myth.

(I’d like to give special thanks to Keith Williams, the photographer who captured this brilliant photo of Mr. Magpie, which I use as the featured image for this post. He kindly gave permission for me to use the image on the book cover of my upcoming novel…what a great guy, and an amazing photographer!)

Greeting a Magpie

My first childhood experience of greeting a magpie was in Estes Park, Colorado, in a parking lot. When I held a cracker or cookie or some other object overhead, a magpie would swoop down and take it. This interaction with people impressed me, as did the rushing, iridescent black feathers and sizzling white belly feathers on that swooping bird. Reading about magpies since, I find they have a reputation as highly intelligent thieves of shiny objects, especially in captivity.

Magpies are members of the corvid, or crow family, as are rooks, jays and nutcrackers. There are different magpie varieties, with the most widespread American bird being the type I met in Estes Park, the black-billed magpie, Pica hudsonia. Another variety with a yellow bill, Pica nuttalli, inhabits only woodland regions of central and southern California. The non-corvid Australian magpie, Cracticus tibicen, is a piebald bird. There’s also an entire genus of blue-green magpies in the Orient, Urocissa, and the azure-winged Cyanopica. A distant Corvidae relative, the black magpie Platysmurus leucoptyrus, is in fact a treepie and not a magpie. Take note, and thank you Wikipedia for sorting that out for us. We wouldn’t want to confuse our magpies and treepies!

I became a voracious seeker of magpie lore while researching my upcoming novel. Throughout North America, England, Germany, China, Korea and ancient Rome, the magpie appears in traditional stories and proverbs. On A Letter from the Netherlands, an expat British writer muses on how the superstition-laden magpie carries a bad reputation and is most often a bad omen in her tradition and family experience.

Reading about mythical magpies led me to reflect on the power and durability of myth, and how myths hold value for us today. In my next post, I’ll address this and greet Magpie as a mythic figure.

(Thanks to Christophe Libert for use of his magpie photo!)

 

 

Sacred Bundles Our Children Carry

With permission, I drew this sketch of a sacred bundle on display at the Pawnee Indian Museum State Historic Site near Republic, Kansas. Because of the bundle’s ongoing sanctity to the Pawnee people, on-site photographs are prohibited. The bundle appears to be made of some sort of hide, and tied with ribbon-like bands. A long smoking pipe, fragments of arrows, a fork tipped with bone and small American flags adorn the outside. The pipe appears to be carved of stone, with a stem of wood. A Kansas Historical web site reports that this particular bundle was once x-rayed, and contains stuffed bird bundles, hawk bells, counting sticks and a leather strip decorated with glass beads.

Sacred bundles like this were integral to Pawnee medicine ceremonies. Only a woman could possess a bundle, which usually hung on the west wall of a home or above an altar, while only men could utilize it in ceremonies.

A sign near this bundle reports that it originated near Loup, Nebraska. A young Pawnee girl named Sadie carried it away on horseback from the famous battle at Massacre Canyon near Trenton, Nebraska, in 1873. On that day, a thousand Sioux surprised 350 Pawnee men, women and children on their summer buffalo hunt, and approximately seventy Pawnee were killed. This is recorded as the last major battle between two Indian tribes in U.S. history. Sadie’s father entrusted the bundle to her at the battle, binding it to her back. He died that day, without having an opportunity to explain its ritual use. Sadie kept it safe as her family’s spiritual legacy, and her daughter entrusted it to the Kansas State Historical Society.

As I consider this object, I think about the manual labor and arts of preparing the skins and the pipe. I consider the meaning, now obscure, assigned to the arrows, the fork and the pipe. Who decorated that leather strip with beads? What are its colors and designs? How did the men handle the counting sticks in their rituals? The bones in those bird bundles once bore feathers high above the earth, with bright eyes looking down on prairie grasses, earth lodges and the twisting Republican River.

Time and memory. Meaning and mystery. Tragedy and hope. So much human experience, rolled up in leather and tied with ribbons and flags. The hope of a family, a legacy caught up in a crisis. A sign of enduring faith for a struggling people, suspended behind glass for this writer to sketch and ponder. Among all of my questions, one endures.

If I had to send my child running for survival today, with only seconds to decide, what bundle of meaning would I thrust into those young hands, to inspire my future generations?

Kent Haruf, a Benediction

Readers lost a great novelist, and Great Plains and Western writers like myself lost a mentor, on Sunday.

Colorado should be proud of, and surely grieves for, Kent Haruf, a resident of Salida, Colorado, who wrote about a fictional Colorado Eastern plains community in Plain Song, Eventide and Benediction. Just prior to his death, he finished the copy edits for his upcoming novel, scheduled for release next year.

His fiction resounds with thoughtful observations of ordinary people, the bonds and limitations of community life and a special appreciation for the sugar beet farming country of eastern Colorado. His characters run from infants to the aged, from unwed mothers to bachelor farmers. In portraying all, he shows the grace of compassion and an exquisite mercy. His language is simple and strong.

After first reading his novels this year, I’d hoped someday to meet this national treasure and warm human being. An acquaintance from the Women Writing the West Conference, Susan Tweit, wrote an engaging post about her relationship with Haruf, her neighbor. Her words make me even more sorry I’ll never have the chance to know him, but his work inspires me to write clear, heartfelt stories about the Great Plains and West, focusing as he did on broken, yet redeemable, hearts and relationships.

I encourage you to feed your hearts and minds on Kent Haruf’s fiction. You may soon share my gratitude that his words live on. May he rest in the peace he shared in writing with all of us.

Learning Happened Here

Nine years ago this winter, newlyweds Dave and I stood in the middle of a relative’s field and decided to build a sort of nest here, a home on some land outside of town. Farmers in this area generally alternate between soybean and corn crops, and 2005 was a corn year on this particular Wurth property, so we stood in the softening brown rows of recently-harvested stubble and imagined a home. I still have an ear of corn that the combine missed that season. It’s propped in a corner of a downstairs windowsill, to remind me of what was here before me.

We weren’t the first builders on this site. A local historian, also a Wurth relative, told us that in the early Twentieth Century,  a one-room country school stood on this very corner. Constructed on every southeast square-mile corner down this main road, Amherst Township country schools, like most, had to be accessible for walking children.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, and I’m thankful for many things. One of them is that education has always been one of the first priorities for settlers on the Great Plains and the West, a legacy of which I am a happy beneficiary. In most homesteading communities, once shelter was erected for people and animals and crops were planted, even far-flung neighbors gathered to discuss their children’s education. Even before it was compulsory, education was a dream American settlers claimed for their children.

So, learning happened here, long before we built our dreams. Down in this ground, there may be chips of slate, rusting nails or broken toys. Maybe crumbling bits of a schoolhouse foundation and broken glass. Around where I sit at my desk, children gathered when a school bell rang, for study and play, reciting lessons, expanding their thoughts and becoming citizens of the wider world. A coal stove belched smoke and glowed to keep out the winter chill. Chalk dust hovered in the air and a water bucket with a dipper probably stood in the corner.  Books fell on the floor. Inkwells spilled. Feet scraped on hardwood floors. I wonder where the outhouse stood? There’s a thought. No wonder this soil is so fertile, and my flowers so bright every summer!

Considering the old school that stood on these corner acres, I’m even more grateful to live in this place. Thank you, children, for being an invisible but real part of my history. Thank you, teachers, for all you gave. You still provide joy, as I remember.

For those of us who take comfortable, well-equipped schools, computers and information for granted in this digital age, let’s put our energies into teaching our children what’s most important. Let’s teach them to be grateful for the people who were first in their places, and the richness of history that surrounds them.

Let’s teach them how to think and how to learn, before they leave our nest.

In This Place

Wherever you are, so much has happened in this place.

Page Lambert said at the Women Writing the West conference in October, “For each of us, and with each new story, Place will be different. At its heart will be everything that has ever been born, lived in, or died in that place, everything in the past, everything in the present, all energy— every sound, smell, ray of sun, every shadow, every sorrow, every joy.”

I considered these words deeply during my return to Colorado, where I grew up. As I sat on a boulder beside the St. Vrain River, I listened to the river rushing and delighted in the golden aspen leaves overhead. I considered the many times I’d been there as a child, with various friends and family, some now deceased. I thought, too, about the flood rearranged much of the valley’s beauty in September of 2013, and how that place must have seemed very different during those disastrous days. I could see the marks of that flood in the road repair signs, as well as the sand deposits and detritus lining the river

Personal, geographic and climate events are just a few dimensions of the place where you find yourself, right now.

Picture the changes that cycle through your current location. Remember or imagine, too, the people who lived, loved and died there. Recall the conquerors and the conquered who fought over and for the territory you occupy, who longed for the place you call home.

Imagine their sounds and shadows, their sorrows and joys. Imagine the richness of your place.