This post is an excerpt from my unpublished book, Crossfire Canyon and the Landscape of Language. I published a shorter version of the chapter in 2007 on the blog Times and Seasons. I’ve added material and developed my thinking about the intersection of narrative and truth, posing questions about what our responsibility may be when we tell a story that deeply affects people–especially when the story isn’t strictly true, but people who read or hear it feel that it must be.
Early in the summer of 2007 I visited Blanding resident Winston Hurst, a longtime friend from my archeological field school days back in the 80s. Winston is an esteemed archeologist in the Southwest and a man of science. We were discussing Craig Childs, who was coming to Blanding’s Edge of the Cedars State Park to promote his book. I had met Craig in the 90s at a writing workshop he’d led in Torrey, Utah. The first time I read Craig’s work—it was The Secret Knowledge of Water—I thought, Here is a writer I can learn from. I’d taken the risk to travel to the workshop, even though leaving the household whose atmosphere depended on the state of my special needs daughter Teah and on the whims of toddler Val left husband Mark with his hands full.
The experience proved well worth the risks to my household’s teetering domestic balance. Craig told our little group—all women—that it was his first workshop. At one point we met in the wonderful stone house, still a work in progress, of a local resident. To make memorable his point that we should all carry writing journals when we’re out traipsing, Craig set a pile of his own journals in the middle of the floor and told us to each choose one and find a quiet place to read it. I happened to pick the one that contained dialogue that would later appear in his book, The Way Out: A True Story of Ruin and Survival. The dialogue occurred between Childs and his river guide friend, Dirk Vaughn, who used to be a cop. It involved Dirk’s statement that he’d killed a man. Craig had written the passage over and over in the journal, trying out the core revelation in different settings of words and phrases. Craig’s act of opening his journals to us impressed me spectacularly. After the workshop, I began carrying my own writing journals, usually tiny books that fit in the pockets of my jeans.
I asked Winston if he liked Craig’s work. He said he did. I told him that I did, too, and that I thought he was one of the better nature writers out there. Winston agreed then added, “Although I wonder if a lot of them aren’t actually writing fiction.”
Fiction isn’t exactly the word I would have used, but I knew what he meant. Many environmental nonfiction readers are familiar with the opening scene in Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. “I used to have a cat,” she wrote, “an old fighting tom.” The book’s first paragraph hooks the reader with a description of the cat’s habit of jumping through an open window at night and leaping onto her chest as she slept. “And some mornings I’d wake up in daylight to find my body covered with paw prints in blood; I looked as though I’d been painted in roses.”
A striking scene and a famous one. Only it isn’t true. That is, it’s true, but it didn’t happen. That is, it’s true, it happened, but it didn’t happen to Ms. Dillard. She admitted to “borrowing” the story from a graduate students after asking his permission.
When word of Dillard’s confession got out, some devotees felt betrayed. They thought the mirage Dillard created undermined the value of the whole book. Other readers said it was no big deal. A good story’s a good story, true or not.
Dillard’s appropriation of her student’s cat tale suggests two things. First, she was struck by the story. It got to her, like a bit of foreign stuff sometimes gets to an oyster and, rarely, a clam. Her imagination began reworking the tale, giving it nacre and her own striking form. In this way, she made it “her” story. This is something many of us do when we hear a story we like. We set it side by side with the story we’ve made of our own lives. We compare, we adapt, we adopt. Furthermore, among writers and storytellers that like each other, there’s bound to be some sharing of narrative and linguistic DNA, language being given to recombining as it is.
At another meeting, before he autographed my copy of House of Rain, Craig gave me a heads up. He said he had taken a bit from a narrative I’d written and read at his workshop in Torrey years ago and woven it into the end of a section in House of Rain. Surprised, I asked him if he might be mistaken. He opened the book right to the page and read it to me. Sure enough, it contained several obvious markers of the piece I’d written and read to the group years ago, only it had his own twists to it—his own take on an experience he had out in the desert and that my words, which he remembered, affected for him.
Here is the second realization that Dillard’s borrowing of the story suggests. This part of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and maybe other parts, slips out of the realm of what’s called realism in its broadest sense and into the domain of fantasy, or maybe into a kind of mysticism that makes everything over into its own fanciful image. There’s no use trying to hold such narratives to the same standard of truth as might be applied to other narrative traditions, like we do scientific records of events and the many-threaded stories that make up historical narratives. Right?
In my estimation, Dillard’s mirage—this one that we know of—moves her story more toward the kind of nature tale told in Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven”—a good story, though not likely true, as compared to, say, John Muir’s scripture on glaciers, which is not only more rooted in actual experience but has also proven more productive in its effects upon the environment.
Some writers go even further in forging narrative takes, tossing “truth” to the wind where they say it lives anyway. Paul Watson, captain of the Sea Shepherd, wrote in his book, Earthforce! An Earth Warrior’s Guide to Strategy,
The nature of the mass media today is such that the truth is irrelevant. What is true and what is right to the general public is what is defined as true and right by the mass media. Ronald Reagan understood that the facts are not relevant. The media reported what he said as fact. Follow-up investigation was “old news.” A headline comment on Monday’s newspaper far outweighs the revelation of inaccuracy revealed in a small box inside the paper on Tuesday or Wednesday.
Very slick. In Ocean Warrior, Watson fine-tuned his narrative on the irrelevance of truth more neatly, giving to it a high “ends justifies the means” polish: “Survival in a media culture meant developing the skills to understand and manipulate media to achieve strategic objectives.” The assumption, of course, is that the ends he has in mind—protecting whales from hunting and the eventual ban of all slaughter of these fantastic creatures by humankind, for any purpose—is a necessary and defensible goal, however it may be achieved.
It seems an inarguable and noble purpose. Who doesn’t find whales impressive (at the very least), mysterious, spectacular, and well worthy of human protection from fellow humans?
Clearly, Watson, defender of these gods of the deep, is using language as a tool to achieve his ends. But what if language isn’t a tool, or isn’t only a tool? What if it proves to be something much more—an environment, like the one that whales inhabit and wherein they have developed their own language? What if, like the sea, language is an instigator of evolutionary developments? (Hint: it is.) What if manipulating what people believe in order to support your own narrative take on What Is turns out to be another form of strip mining—commonplace exploitation of a “natural resource”—hence another form of the opportunistic and overbearing behavior we’ve been fighting to turn around for decades?
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There are ways in which any narrative, no matter how supported by evidence, straddles the fence between what we call fiction (totally made up stuff) and absolute truth (a.k.a the whole truth). Today’s scientific facts and the most ingenious narratives (many of which are actually models) about how the world works that they support will be built upon, added to, adjusted, cross-referenced, and increased by more functional and informed observations and stories, just as the bastions of modern scientific inquiry have built past the Parthenon’s official storyline. “Myth” is a complicated word, but one definition is “a fiction or half-truth, especially one that forms part of an ideology”. Contemporary science, if its analytically-inclined yarn spinners weave perceptive enough narrative tapestries, could be tomorrow’s The Odyssey or Metamorphosis, especially if there are literary nature and science writers telling the tale as they experience it, rendering mathematics physical and contemporary psychology a matter of erupting intelligence with all its attendant problems. This may be the case especially if scientific narratives make the belief in and search for consummation with the divine or ascension to deeper relationship, human to human, and human with the world at large then beyond, a fully involved effort.
At the workshop, Craig admonished us to tell the truth as it happened. If we didn’t, he said, readers would hear the wrong tones and false notes. You’ll lose them, he said. That doesn’t seem to be wholly true of Dillard’s readers, which suggests curious things about truth. Nor does it seem quite true when measuring the effectiveness of the “fake news” campaigns during the 2016 election drama. One water-holding implication seems to be that if we like what we hear or experience a story in a way that affects us deeply or that alters us, then we’re willing to accept a storyline as truth and celebrate, elevate, and defend it as such.
It was kind of funny, Winston’s commenting on the narrative aspect of nature writing as he did, because when I attended Craig’s book promotion in 2007, he presented a stunning slideshow of archaeological features he’d come across in his wanders, commenting on archaeology’s nature and purpose. He said, “Anybody telling a story about archaeology is telling their own story.”
This sentiment echoes a similar statement referencing a statement archeologist Elizabeth Brumfiel made in Current Anthropolgy. I stumbled across this nugget of insight in John D. Niles’ Homo Narrans: The Poetics and Anthropology of Oral Literature, published in 1999. Niles said, “It has been said that archaeology, for example, is a ‘story we tell ourselves about ourselves through meditation upon the archaeological record.’”
A mutual co-discovery, or an especially successful recombinant codon that, once it entered the rhetorical gene bank, attached itself to receptive narratives that found the language attractive and expressive and gave their own existence a bit more life?
Patricia Karamesines is a poet, essayist, novelist, caregiver who is (currently) living with her three kids, two dogs, two cats, and various wild critters that find her yard at the edge of the desert in the Four Corners region interesting. She also works as a writing tutor at Utah State University-Eastern Blanding Campus. She has won several awards for her writing. She hopes to complete a draft of her WIP tentatively titled Crossfire Canyon and the Landscape of Language … soon.