About Field Books and Journals
Last week, I wrote about the need to clean up the clutter in my office and mused on what writers have in their space (last week’s post HERE). My friend and colleague Constance Brewer commented that one good thing about clutter is the way books and bits of writing sometimes get rediscovered.
And that’s why today’s post is all her fault. Okay, not her fault really – but certainly I thought of her when, as I was digging around for something else, I found my copy of The Wheeling Year by Ted Kooser (University of Nebraska Press, 2014), U.S. Poet Laureate from 2004-2006. This book has been on my bookshelf for a few years. I know I began to read it because I also rediscovered a leather bookmark from my 2014 visit to Lindisfarne Priory, but I have no memory of it.
It is both a curse and a delight to own enough books that I forget about a few. I decided on the spot that I needed to read The Wheeling Year right now. I did not want to forget about it again.
You know how sometimes books appear exactly when you need them? That is how I felt as I opened up The Wheeling Year and began to read. The book is set up as a journal, as what Kooser calls a poet’s field book, described in his preface as, “…sketches and landscape studies made out of words, and …. a few observations about life.” (p. vii) It follows the calendar year, starting in January and ending in December. Rediscovering this book so close to the beginning of the year felt just right. As I sunk into Kooser’s short entries about a year in his life set in Nebraska, with his deep connection to surrounding nature and people, I also thought about the purpose of journals in general.
Many writers keep journals, myself included. I used to be religious about my journal until I became involved in enough writing projects that a daily journal no longer felt urgent. Kooser’s words reminded me that journals are about a lot more than an urgent need to document daily life. They are also the way we might preserve moments of beauty, snippets of love. In Kooser’s poetic hands, this journal/field book offers observations winnowed to their essence. No detail is too small to consider as everything connects to a larger picture of life on this planet.
Here is one of my favorite excerpts, about heat lightning:
Heat lightning: at the horizon, July in heavy boots paces the hot floor of the darkness. A bulb in a wobbly lamp jiggles. Or is that you, my friend, approaching across the firefly hills, swinging a sloshing pail of moonlight? (p. 43)
I admired Kooser’s tightly written descriptions of plants, animals, weather, and people, loved his examinations of that which we carry through our lives. And suddenly I couldn’t help but think about the first field journal I ever owned which also had descriptions of beautiful things. Yes, it’s a stretch, but I found myself thinking about my old field book, Rocks and Minerals. I loved that book when I was a kid, spent much time looking at pictures of diamonds and mica and agates and granite and sulphur and all manner of earthy bits that I thought were gorgeous, that made up the ground upon which we all stand. Kooser’s nuggets of creative nonfiction are an entirely different sort of writing, and yet for me he offers something similar: a pure love of that which holds us up, that which lights our lives.
Here is another favorite excerpt that shows exactly what I mean:
We see only the moon’s fixed face, as you know. It never turns aside in pain, in anger or disgust. It is thus the good parent, holding the earth at arm’s length, gripping its shoulders with cool white hands, turning and turning around it as if it were saying goodbye, as if it were taking one last long look. But the moon with its homely, familiar face, has been wishing that we fare well every evening for millions of years, fully knowing that we would be there in the morning, ready to try. (p. 30-31)
Field books hold observations, classifications. Journals set down memories, process emotions, turn over stones. Kooser’s The Wheeling Year does all of that in language that never stops pulling the reader to another connection, another twist of thought. I loved it as much as my old rock book. And now I’m going to dig around for my old journals, see if I have some blank pages waiting.
…What record do we poets leave? Not on stone tablets, but in books like leaves that have matted together under the snows of indifference. That we were fretful, mostly, but that now and then we looked up and glimpsed something wonderful passing away. – Ted Kooser, The Wheeling Year (p. 19)
P.S. I found my old rock book, too.