I really started writing poetry at a fire lookout. I’d written before, but it was there that I learned the working aspect of writing; setting a time, adding free writes, reading more, editing better. The square building was perched 8,054 feet above sea level, and although no seas were in sight from the middle of the Bob Marshall Wilderness, I could see the prairie of eastern Montana from where I sat, which was right next to the Continental Divide. Still, there were no lights in my viewshed, and when the sun plunged behind the mountains every night at sunset, it was easy enough to imagine I was on a boat in the sea.
I spent four months living alone in that lookout without access to phones, email, or any other humans for days at a time. Somedays, I felt like I was watching a movie of everyone else’s lives, because although I couldn’t see them, I knew what they were doing. Driving to the lake for a picnic. Sitting on the porch of the ranch house watching the cattle graze. Floating the river on inner tubes. Not one of those imagined others could have heard me if I’d shouted. The closest road was 21 miles away; it was a long walk to get to the cabin perched on a cliff.
The lookout is the place where my writing took hold; of me, of the lookout, of the view and the wild lands around me. I’ve never been able to let this experience out of my work. The immensity of that solitude and the overwhelming power of nature manifest in many ways, and I have learned that those qualities can be invisible to those who do not know of them.
Out of the woods and back in academia—an MFA program where I was surrounded by brilliant writers and receiving incredible feedback, I realized that while my classmates were skilled at helping me craft my work, they may have never known how to experience nature in the way that I have. I received feedback that occasionally said, “Try writing about something else…nature poetry is overdone.” I tried. I saw the truth in this, how I was writing about what had often been written about, and how I wasn’t pushing any boundary or challenging anyone’s understanding of identity. Or maybe I was. Maybe identity is the actual challenge in my work—the blurring line between natural object or force and human skin. The loss of ego. If I could convey moments of immense alone-ness or the dim thrill of complete solitude unaccompanied by fear; then, it might come alive to them.
I pursued this throughout graduate school. At the end of two years, leading up to my thesis reading, I didn’t feel like I’d come to any new discoveries about how to share this feeling of nature. I was, however, preparing for my thesis reading, which my entire family would be attending. My family was nervous about my work and I was a little unsure about them listening to it (our thesis readings are large parties with extended family and friends that come from far away). At a previous reading, by a fiction writer, my dad let his head sag toward the table in boredom, while my mom left to watch the Olympics. I briefed them in a manner typical for my family. “DON’T get up and leave. DON’T groan and say you just don’t get it. DON’T laugh.” I was worried about them saying it didn’t make sense, that they were bored, or that they had no idea what any of it meant or “was about.”
At the reading, I offered the works that had been edited carefully with the assistance of my peers and my professors. My entire family sat in the front row. I hid my nerves and felt accomplished at the end of the reading. I only wavered when I looked at my parents as I read about how all my grandparents had passed away.
Later, as we all sprawled on the floor of my living room, my sister (a high school English teacher) organized a little powwow about the reading. She’d had everyone write on a Congratulations card one thing that they liked about the poetry. As I read the notes, it sparked a conversation. My family, most of whom had visited me at the lookout, mentioned how they liked the poem that had a description of packing up the lookout at the end of the season, or the one about the endless, strong wind on the cliff. My dad liked when I listed tree species and the regeneration that occurs after a large, stand-replacing fire passes through. My sister liked the one about the larches.
They knew. Although they weren’t my poetry-fluent peers who could restructure a poem for publication, my family knew what I was talking about. They knew what alpenglow was, understood a re-burn. They followed the species names, the cloud names, the dense silences. And despite their feelings of confusion around poetry, I felt so lucky to have an audience there that finally knew the origin of the work; the power of the wild. That power is difficult to understand without having lived in it, but I’m going to keep trying, keep exploring how to share that force with the world. And maybe there is something comforting about knowing there isn’t an end to that journey, in the same way I’ll probably never run out of wilderness to explore. Poetry is another kind of wildland offering another kind of boundless exploration.
Allison Linville’s poem, “Den” will be published in TLR issue 5, due out December 1.
Photo credit: Gary Halvorson, Oregon State Archives