In The River Swimmer (Grove Press, $25), Jim Harrison once again demonstrates why he is perhaps the best American writer working in the largely ignored novella form. In “The Land of Unlikeness,” the first of the two long stories that comprise the book, we meet Clive, a failed artist and divorcé in his mid-sixties who travels back to his Michigan home to drive his bird-crazed mother around the countryside, seduce boyhood flames, and rediscover his love for painting.
The superior title story centers on Thad, a Michigan farmboy with a deep love of rivers and girls, in that order. He has a somewhat supernatural talent for navigating waterways, once swimming from the farm, which is on an island in an unnamed river, to Chicago, his clothes in tow in a fanny pack. Growing up, Thad is befriended by “water babies”—infant water spirits who live in a pond on the island. Eventually, in France, he’s injured when a powerboat hits him, and while convalescing back home, he manages to slip into the water-baby pond, from which the little sea-monkey creatures egg him onward, to the mouth of the river and, eventually, Lake Michigan.
The River Swimmer probably won’t earn Harrison a new audience—loyal readers will find the well-worn characters and settings and the themes of wild love and regret as comfortable as a wine-stained flannel shirt. But you get the sense that the author doesn’t really care, and that’s exactly why you should.
When photographer Annie Leibovitz took her three young daughters to Niagara Falls in 2009, she wasn’t looking for inspiration. What she needed was a close-to-home family vacation that wouldn’t break the bank, and a time-out from her well-publicized financial woes. Yet what she witnessed on the brink of the 168-foot cascade would launch a two-year cross-country journey to photograph some of the most iconic landscapes and landmarks in America, from Walden Pond to Spiral Jetty, Yosemite to Yellowstone.
The photo she took that day is a moody, startling close and personal portrait of Niagara Falls. “It was not the best time in my life,” Leibovitz explained in Santa Fe last week. "I was sitting off to one side on a bench. Then I noticed the kids. They were mesmerized. They were just staring for a long time. So I got up and stood behind them to see what they were looking at. And then I took this picture. A lot of times I have to work for my photographs. They’re not always just there. But this was unusual because my children saw the picture first, and it was right in front of me on the walkway. Anyone could have taken it.”
The Niagara trip came on the heels of another fluky discovery. Leibovitz was in England for a family bar mitzvah when she decided to visit Virginia Woolf’s house. She snapped pictures of Woolf’s ink-stained writing desk, the willowy trees outside, and the lapping blue waves on the River Orse, where the writer drowned herself. “I was seduced,” she said. “I came home and made a crazy list of what I wanted to photograph.”
The result is Pilgrimage, a photography book and traveling exhibition that’s making the rounds at museums around the country, shadowing the artist’s own photo odyssey to a dozen places on her bucket list. Like Niagara Falls, many of the images were shot casually, with a digital Canon G10, during family trips. Some required more effort, like trying to elbow aside 40 tourists with cameras at the Yosemite Valley viewpoint that Ansel Adams made famous. All were the product of a single, clarifying mission: to photograph only those places and subjects that moved her personally. For an iconic photographer who has built her reputation on making high-profile celebrity portraits and shooting more than 140 magazine covers on assignment, this marked a major departure.
“After 40 years working for magazines, I didn’t know what I had left in me,” Leibovitz explained at the preview of Pilgrimage, which opened at the Georgia O’Keefe Museum in Santa Fe on February 15. “To think I could go out and take a picture with no agenda except that I was moved to take it. There was a deep well in me, and I dug it up.”
Some of Pilgrimage’s unexpected treasures: a TV with a bullet hole in it at Graceland, the bucolic gardens at Jefferson’s Monticello, and, of course, Georgia O’Keefe’s painting studio and summer home at Ghost Ranch, New Mexico. It’s an ambitious span of time and distance, but in person Leibovitz is anything but self-congratulatory. “What gumption did I have to think that I could photograph this?” she said, gesturing to a saturated picture of an adobe wall and doorway at O’Keefe’s place at Ghost Ranch, the same doorway that inspired the artist to settle in Abiquiu, and the one she painted repeatedly during the 37 years she lived there.
“These photographs form a kind of notebook,” Leibovitz continued. “They’re peripheral vision, things you see on the side of the road, and think you know, but you don’t.” Like the chalky outline of Spiral Jetty rising once again out of the Great Salt Lake and the rusty springs of Thoreau’s creaky old bed. “I always thought that Thoreau must have slept outside, on the ground, or on a bed of nails. But the thing you find out about Walden Pond is that it’s an idea, not a place. It’s about being in nature.”
The same could be said of Pilgrimage: This is a record of being awake in the world, of seeing things with your eyes and your heart, as her own children did at Niagara Falls. “You have to do what you feel moved to,” instructed Leibovitz. “You should all make a list. It’s endless.”
For the past month, I’ve been thick of old anxiety. It starts in my ear, with that shrill, now-familiar ringing and seeps into every cell: brain, fingers, toes, feet, elbows. Being in it feels like swimming against a riptide or wrestling a boa constrictor. If I stop fighting, I’ll be swallowed whole, but struggling—like swimming against the riptide—only carries me farther out to sea. So I tread water, looking for an opening. What will save me this time? Acupuncture, camping, running, meditation, sitting on a plane out of Phoenix with my four-year-old’s head on my lap and the blackest of deserts far below?
I first started following Emily’s story in late 2010, after our mutual writer friend, Rob, introduced us on Facebook. She taught creative writing and had a new baby and loved to hike, he told me. We should get together with our kids, he said. We should be friends.
But my father was dying, and I was preoccupied with grieving and traveling—specifically, grieving and traveling with my five-month-old daughter in tow. By the time I got around to following up on Rob’s introduction, it was January. My father had died, and Emily’s Facebook page had a worrisome tone. I scanned back a few days, weeks and then forward, trying to make sense of what I was reading. There were mentions of doctor appointments and missed milestones, encouraging comments from concerned friends. Then, in plain black type, came the diagnosis: Tay-Sachs. Shocking that something so shattering could be laid bare on the screen, seemingly innocuous and unadorned.
I sat at my computer on that Saturday morning, as the world outside frosted over, feeling stunned. I didn’t know Emily. I didn’t know her son, Ronan, but I knew this terrible, final, irrevocable thing about her. I felt as though I ought to know her better, now that I held this terrible news, even while I knew with unequivocal certainty that we would not go hiking or go out for tea afterwards and talk about our favorite writers or new books we loved. Our friendship was over before it began. But what I didn’t know is that I would think of Emily nearly every single day since then, and marvel at her strength and bravery as a mother and weep for her dark-haired one-year-old son who might not live to be three.
But many days when I thought of her, it was with despair and fear for my own children, for their fragility and mine. How is it possible to keep them safe, to keep us all safe? Last fall when my father was dying, I saw for the first time how life hangs in a delicate balance, a spider web of hope, good health, and possibility strung from the ceiling, tenuous and easily swept away. Every irrational fear that could worm its way into my brain did, lodged there like an unwelcome, intractable houseguest. I spent many months in a deep state of anxiety. I had known, of course, that everyone eventually dies. But I hadn’t really known it. And now that I did, I couldn’t stop thinking about it, worrying about it, dreading it. Emily’s story haunted me, a devastating reminder that it happens to anyone, everyone, all the time: to fathers who are not so very old and children who are far too young and to mothers who love them madly.
All winter and spring, I read her essays and blog posts, and watched as she grappled with Ronan’s illness and her own unscripted role as a mother of, as she wrote, “a child with no future.” Her writing was full of love, unflinching. Reading her stories, I could tell that the act of writing was essential to her, a way to save her own life even if she couldn’t save Ronan’s. There was nothing extraneous—every deliberate word seemed to propel her forward into a new uncertain world, her world, like hands fumbling for a light switch in a darkened room. One step, and then another—words on the page a lifeline from this moment to the next. I felt this, viscerally, absolutely, and was filled with awe.
And guilt. How could I write about running or eating peaches or teaching my four-year-old to ski or my one-year-old to sit still in a raft like a seasoned river baby, when another mother, whose baby will never grow to ride a bike, was wrestling with the biggest question of all: How do I help my child live and die with grace and dignity? If I really thought about it, it seemed possible, and perhaps preferable, to stop writing altogether.
But I didn’t. Emily inspired me. I kept muddling through, even when the hollowness of my own stories, the seeming irrelevance of them, felt like a deliberate slap in the face to this mother whom I didn’t know but who had been generous and open enough to let me feel as though I did.
Like most writers, I write to make sense of the world, and my own life. Sometimes when I’m very lucky, the world and my little slice of it overlap in serendipitous ways, and I remember again how important it is to always keep my heart and eyes open, that inspiration comes from remarkable places, and that everything leads us to a new place. When this happens, it feels as though we are pieces in a larger puzzle that is slowly forming, fitting itself together, revealing itself gradually, in increments, until we can see a new picture in its entirety. This is how it has felt reading Emily: heart-wrenching, tragic, humbling, inspiring.
On this day, I see my fear and anxiety in a new light, with more patience, acceptance, and compassion. “Parenting, I’ve come to understand, is about loving my child today,” Emily wrote in The New York Times. “Now. In fact, for any parent, anywhere, that’s all there is.” These words are a gift, and consolation, to us all, but at such an unbearable cost.
Ronan died at 3:30 this morning, surrounded by family and friends. It was the blackest of nights, but there was light all around—Ronan’s and Emily’s and everyone who knew him and loved him or didn’t know him and loved him still. Death is life, I realized today, as I ran up a mountain trail and stood at the top, facing south, to where Ronan and Emily were. Even at the end, there is so much fullness, so much light. It’s unending.
So I will keep skiing with Pippa. I will teach Maisy to swim. I will take them camping and stroke their blonde hair when they fall asleep in my arms on an airplane after an eternity of whining for a new Dora coloring book. And I will keep writing, about raising my daughters to be fiercely alive, outdoors, in the wind and the sun, crashing their bikes and getting back on again. This is OK. This is more than OK. This is my way out. This is what I do today. This is how I live now. This is all there is.
If you forgive the sluggish first hundred pages, which veer into everything from Buddhist mythology to Nepal’s civil war, Buried in the Sky (W.W. Norton, $27), published last June, is easily the most riveting and important mountaineering book of the past decade.
Its topic—the August 2008 disaster on K2 that killed 11 climbers—has already inspired five books and three films, none of which, we now know, come close to reporting the whole story. Cousins and co-authors Peter Zuckerman, a former newspaperman for the Oregonian, and Amanda Padoan, an ExplorersWeb blogger, take the point of view of Nepalese Sherpas Chhiring Dorje and Pasang Lama and Pakistani high-altitude porter Shaheen Baig for most of the book. But it’s not their perspective so much as their exhaustive reporting and elegant delivery that gives the book its rich texture.
While Western climbers such as “irritable Dutchman” Wilco van Rooijen and American publicity hound Nick Rice squabble “like tweens,” and members of the ill-fated Korean Flying Jump expedition shamble off the summit “like lushes leaving a bar—reveling, swearing, and puking on their boots,” the Sherpas and Pakistanis operate in a parallel world that exists on every expedition-style Himalayan climb but usually goes unseen, even by the mountaineers in camp. Unlike so many climbing yarns, the hired help in Buried in the Sky come off as real and sometimes abused people with aspirations and loved ones anxiously awaiting them at home.
Jared Diamond’s classic Guns, Germs and Steel, about why some societies and not others gained wealth and power, is a book that many thinking Americans display but fewer have actually read. That often leads to erroneous-allusion syndrome—the justification of half-baked theories with the phrase “...as Diamond pointed out in Guns, Germs and Steel.” Just ask Mitt Romney, who bungled a Diamond talking point about natural resources back in July and earned a rebuke from the author. To save you similar embarrassment, Bruce Barcott synopsizes key lessons from Diamond’s new book, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?, which identifies old-time practices that can still benefit us.
WE SHOULD: Exercise, eat slowly, talk with friends—these features of tribal life kept people healthy and happy.
WE SHOULDN’T: Romanticize tribal culture, which wasn’t always groovy. Ritual widow strangling, once practiced by the Kaulong of New Guinea, did not, thankfully, survive the tribe’s transition to modernity.
WE SHOULD: Raise multilingual children. This “brings long-term benefits to their thinking, as well as enriching their lives.”
WE SHOULDN’T: Enforce mandatory retirement. In oral cultures, older people are “society’s encyclopedias and libraries.” They remember things like where to find food when times get tough. Or why we passed the Glass-Steagall Act in the first place.