A Fertile Meadow Far From Town
I wished to dive into some deep stream
of thoughtful and devoted life, which
meandered through retired and fertile
meadows far from town. I wished…to
lurk in crystalline thought like the
trout under verdurous banks, where stray
mankind should only see my bubble come
to the surface. I wished to live, ah! As
far away as a man can think.
–H. D. Thoreau
It’s a long way from London in the 1920’s to a certain meadow in Oregon’s Rogue River wilderness today, but I can get you there. All it takes is a pen, which I have, and PEN, which I’ll explain.
In the bitter aftermath of the War to End All Wars, the Cornish novelist and poet C.A. Dawson Scott decided that if writers around the globe would stand together in peace, the nations of the globe might follow. Ms. Dawson Scott harnessed John Galsworthy into chairing a new organization known as PEN, an acronym for poets, playwrights, essayists, editors, novelists, and other writers and translators. Every prominent literary figure in Britain soon joined–even George Bernard Shaw, who had sworn “to avoid literary circles as plague areas.”
Today, though the nations have yet to beat their swords into plowshares (or into pens), PEN has made a significant mark in advancing, to quote its charter, “the principle of unhampered transmission of thought within each nation and between all nations.” More than ten thousand writers belong to International PEN, which has 130 centers on six continents. Representatives from those centers meet annually at an International Congress.
Almost one-third of the world membership belongs to the single largest national entity, PEN American Center. Founded in 1922, with Booth Tarkington as its first president, the center is headquartered now as then in New York City. Those active in PEN American Center over the decades have included W.H. Auden, Robert Frost, Marianne Moore, Hannah Arendt, Katherine Anne Porter, John Steinbeck, and James Baldwin.
PEN’s primary focus in recent years has been the principle of free expression. The American Center’s Freedom-to-Write Program, established in 1960, has brought national and international attention to the plight of such writers as Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Joseph Brodsky, Wole Soyinka, and most recently Salman Rushdie, who has lived for more than ten years in the shadow of a fatwa issued and maintained by the Iranian ayatollohs calling for his execution. Freedom-to-Write has also come to the aid of thousands of lesser-known writers who have struggled against censorship, imprisonment, torture, and the prospect of death for having dared to write. The program works through direct appeals, media campaigns, meetings with government officials, and international missions by prominent authors.
Domestically, PEN American Center works in various ways to advance the cause of literature and reading. It administers an array of substantial literary prizes to recognize excellence among American authors, editors, and publishers. Its Writers Fund and Fund for Writers and Editors with HIV/AIDS make small grants and loans to writers and editors in financial straits. The Children’s Book Authors Committee promotes quality in children’s literature, recognizing its crucial role in nurturing new generations of readers and writers. The Open Book Committee encourages racial and ethnic diversity in the publishing industry and the greater literary culture. The Readers and Writers Program fosters literacy among new and disadvantaged readers by bringing them into contact with books and authors at schools, community centers, and other venues in 38 states.
The American Center has five regional branches: PEN New England (Boston), PEN Midwest (Chicago), PEN South (New Orleans), PEN West (Berkeley), and–newest of the five–PEN Northwest (Eugene). (You thought I forgot our destination? Reader, I’m honing in.)
PEN Northwest coalesced ten years ago when several Portland writers, outraged at the fatwa against Rushdie, organized a rally at Pioneer Square. Among the early activists were Katherine Dunn, Sallie Tisdale, Elinor Langer, Carlos Reyes, Lisa Steinman, and Joel Weinstein. In 1991 the branch put on a festive fundraiser for the Old Town Reading Room, a library for the traditional derelict culture of the Burnside district. The program, titled “Sometimes a Geek Cave Bear,” was to have feature–you guessed–it Ken Kesey (Sometimes a Great Notion), Jean Auel (Clan of the Cave Bear, and Katherine Dunn (Geek Love). It was a ripping success marred only by the absence of Dunn, who had injured her throat as she practiced fire swallowing.
A prison writing project at the Oregon State Penitentiary, spearheaded by Sallie Tisdale, was another early initiative. Tisdale and other writers made regular visits to work with inmates interested in books and writing. The visits came to a clanging close in 1994, when the Bureau of Prisons, in its wisdom, decided that its charges didn’t deserve such amenities and banned clubs of all kinds.
In 1992 PEN Northwest launched what has become its signature program, the Margery Davis Boyden Wilderness Writing Residency. The idea first arose out of the friendship between David James Duncan, author of The River Why, and Frank Boyden, a renowned ceramicist and sculptor who founded the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology at Cascade Head on the Oregon coast. Frank and his brother Bradley own an extraordinary property in the heart of the Rogue River’s deep and steep canyon through the Klamath Mountains in southwestern Oregon. Known as the Dutch Henry Homestead, it is a 95-acre inholding of meadow and forest surrounded by federally protected wilderness. The land hosts old-growth forest, abundant wildlife, and volumes of stillness marked only by birdsong, wind, and the murmur of the Rogue working its bedrock eight hundred feet below.
The Boydens’ parents, Allen and Margery, began visiting the Rogue Canyon in the 1940s for fishing and solitude, acquiring the Dutch Henry property in 1969. The family built two small houses, one for their visits and one for a caretaker. By the end of the 1980s they were spending less time at Dutch Henry and were enduring a string of unreliable and larcenous caretakers. Frank and Bradley, who inherited the place upon their father’s death, decided they couldn’t do any worse with artists than they had been doing with locals, and hatched the idea of an annual residency. In exchange for routine upkeep, a painter or sculptor who didn’t mind bears for neighbors would have use of the place to live and work.
That plan foundered on logistics–visual artists need more studio space than the little house could afford. Writers, on the other hand, need only a pen, a sheet of paper, and time to daydream. David Duncan, who has spent much time at Dutch Henry and is its honorary writer-in-residence in perpetuity, helped the Boydens work up plans for an annual writing residency, then joined PEN Northwest and persuaded its members–pretty easily–that the branch should administer the new creation.
Thus was born the only long-term backcountry writing residency in the nation. PEN Northwest chooses a writer or pair of writers through an annual national competition and pays him or her or them a modest stipend to help with the cost of groceries and such. The resident, in exchange for an hour a day of caretaking, lives at Dutch Henry and makes use of its unparalleled solitude during the months it is accessible, usually mid-April through October. Residents are chosen on the quality or promise of their work and on their suitability to the remote locale and absence of amenities. Self-reliance and an appetite for authentic solitude are paramount. The homestead is a slow, bouncy, and at times impossible two-hour drive from Roseburg or Grants Pass. The only human light visible after nightfall is an occasional satellite slipping inconspicuously across the starry sky.
To date, eleven writers have won and enjoyed the Boyden Writing Residency. All of them speak of the experience as uniquely valuable to their writing and to their sense of themselves. Jennifer Jackson, a fiction writer who spent 1997 at Dutch Henry, writes that the residency “has given me a deep feeling of expansiveness and calm that I can draw on any time and that I’ll always have with me.” She will also have with her the memory of catching her first fish: “I held him underwater so I could see his colors, and then I plucked the hook out of his mouth and let him go. The next day I caught eight in a row and gloated all evening.”
Jackson’s then-partner and now-husband, novelist David Reynolds, remembers visitors on the Fourth of July: “We had just opened the beer we had brewed when a sow bear brought her two wobbly cubs–half their bodies are head–around the corner of the house to show them humans.” Reynolds reports that his experience of sound and silence at Dutch Henry has influenced him deeply and found its way into his work. “When we live in a populated area, sound is background that we try to shut out. We shut ourselves down a bit so we can function. At Dutch Henry days went by when I could tell you every single sound I heard that day. You might hear only four or five separate noises in the course of a night.”
Judy Sobeloff, a 1995 resident, found a fruitful surprise in having to change her writing technology. There being no way to regularly power a computer at the homestead, she faced a manual typewriter each morning as she tried to get a novel started. The archaic machine proved not daunting but helpful. “I didn’t know how to write a novel,” Sobeloff recalls, “and somehow the typewriter helped me relax with that. It allowed me to be in the process of writing in a way my computer might not have.” She started fresh each day, never rewriting a previous day’s work, and in that way produced a pile of manuscript pages that she has since worked into a finished novel.
There’s much competition, but Sobeloff and co-resident Susie Freehafer may have the best bear story. One night early in their tenure, Sobeloff was in the sleeping loft and Freehafer in the bedroom underneath. Sobeloff heard sounds like furniture being banged around. “Susie?” she called. “Is that you?” Pause. “I thought it was you,” Susie called back. In an instant Susie was up in the loft and both women were trying to pull up the folding stairs behind them. The sound went on, now like heavy men stomping around in heavy boots. It was an uneasy night. In the morning they found the screened-in porch considerably remodeled, with tufts of fur and muddy paw prints everywhere. Some days later they came back from town to find that the bear had called again. This time he had inserted his head through the bedroom window, which had been closed at the time. That seemed to do it for the creature, who gave them no more trouble at close quarters.
Langdon Cook, a Seattle fiction writer now with amazon.com, had the privilege of watching a cougar lounge in the meadow one fall morning while he sipped coffee on the deck. An encounter with a non-feline species proved more tense. As Cook and Frank Boyden were driving out of the homestead one summer day, a camouflaged man with a rifle jumped into the road and held them at gunpoint, demanding to know who they were and where they were going, all the while refusing to identify himself. Slowly–a bit too slowly to suit Boyden and Cook–it emerged that they had happened into a local agricultural dispute. A well-hidden marijuana plot in the near vicinity was under raid by various authorities. One cultivator had been caught and tied to a tree, his prosecution already begun by mosquitoes. Another had fled into the Rogue Canyon, and once there probably hiked forty miles to his freedom.
Hal Espen and Caroline Fraser, the 1996 residents, abandoned writing and editorial positions with The New Yorker to light out for the Rogue River country. Fraser did early work there on her recently published God’s Perfect Child, an authoritative account and expose’ of the Christian Science religion. She writes in her acknowledgments: “Dutch Henry has provided me and many others a retreat into a world with its own unique distractions, away from phones and fax machines, where thinking can be done.” And reading. Espen’s senior editorial work with The New Yorker had robbed him of all time to read, a deficit he erased at Dutch Henry by working his way through a stack of seventy books. He came off the binge renewed and invigorated.
The Boyden Residency enabled Fraser and Espen to vacate the hurly-burly of New York and return to the West, where both had grown up. They now live in Santa Fe, where Espen is editor of Outside magazine.
Another easterner-come-west–from Cambridge, Massachusetts–is Jennifer Cailin Oakes, the 1999 Dutch Henry resident, whose stay is just ending at this writing. I raised her on the radio telephone and asked her to jot down a few thoughts on her six months in the Oregon wild. She responded: “I’ve learned to tie flies according to the hunger of fish, forgotten to use my voice for days at a time, and beaten the bears to enough blackberries to make some pie. Here I pursue my curiosity, follow my obsessions, without the constraints of accommodating to people or time. I know how night enters and when it will let loose its crickets and stars. Somehow this all adds up to how my poems exploded into the fierce creatures that completed one manuscript and began another. The poems are dangerous with teeth but lovely with fur. Far more of nature than about it.”
The propagation of furred and toothed poems may or may not have pleased Ms. C.A. Dawson Scott and her London literary crowd, but is exactly what the Boyden brothers and David Duncan and PEN Northwest had in mind when they teamed up eight years ago, and it also pleases the lively woman who had given her name and a portion of her resources to the residency program. Margery Davis Boyden, mother of Bradley and Frank, has been coming to the Rogue River Canyon every year for more than half a century. She knows the Dutch Henry landscape and lore better than anyone alive. The place has given much to her and her family, and they, in the homesteading tradition, have given much to it.
Margery Boyden sees the writing residency as a positive continuation of that tradition. When she heard it characterized by a friend as a “retreat,” she objected that it should not be a passive withdrawal but an active joining. She offered a challenge to all writing resident past and future: “This is a rare opportunity to participate in the seasonal drama of a magnificent place in which human beings play an essentially insignificant role. Its grandeur is soul-inspiring. You, the writer, must determine what you make of your total immersion in the power of this place.”
To which there is nothing to add but the answers to two questions that may have occurred to you, dear reader.
One. Dutch Henry was a muleskinner who supplied the Rogue River mining camps in the 1890s and originally homesteaded what is now the Boyden property. He is said to have murdered two men but was never convicted. He is buried somewhere on the homestead. Not even Margery Boyden is sure where.
Two. Reader, I will not tell you how to get there. But if you are a writer of hermitic bent, or know of one, you can send for an application at:
23030 W. Sheffler Road
Elmira, OR 97437
Margery Boyden Writing Residency
Margery Davis Boyden Wilderness Writing Residents
|New York state
|Ann Arbor, MI
|Ann Arbor, MI
|Charlie Eliza Buck
|Virginia City, NV
|Jennifer Cailin Oakes
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