I’m a writerholic. I wake up in the morning–which is to wake again to a global pandemic and political turmoil–and find meaning in the act of writing. I look out to my bird feeders–mourning doves, cardinals, house finches–and find meaning in them, too, in the natural world. Then I go back to typing on my computer.
I have finished a solid draft of a new book tentatively called The Desert Dreams of Flying to the Moon. You might call this a resurrection, of a particular kind of joyfulness and courage, in a particular time and place. Wars and science play their part as I follow the lives of three men: Glen Edwards, Milburn Grant Apt, and Neil Armstrong. My childhood threads their stories, although this is less my memoir than my father’s, those halcyon years of the 1940s and 1950s, cloudscapes and rocket planes. I wrote this out of something that happened to me which I have long thought unusual but which I now see as common, manifested in many forms.
People live inside us. Sometimes they live in the darkness of the body with its opaque interior, synapses and nerves, and their emergence is from that darkness. Sometimes they appear in hallucinatory color, as if on another planet or dimension, walking under a cerulean sky. For as long as I can remember, my father has lived inside me, a short man, slight, bald, with a shy smile. We never spoke to each other, except for once when I was middle-aged—and that proved to be a misunderstanding. For most of my life, he has been a presence more than a personality. I am writing now out of that presence and, if you are willing to go a little deeper into the mythology we shape into a life, I am writing this out of the animate desert, where I was born and where I live today, out of the curiosity we have for the world and the world for us.
In a new development, I am also talking to my father now, and he to me, and that includes conversations about what has happened on this Earth in the 64 years since he died. These are the conversations that interest me the most.
See below for Chapter One
My most recent nonfiction, Within Our Grasp: Childhood Malnutrition Worldwide and the Revolution Taking Place to End It, will be published by Pantheon this next April, 2021. The extended publication date has given me time to incorporate the global pandemic of 2020. A quarter of the world’s children are stunted physically and mentally due to a lack of food or nutrients. Within Our Grasp is about successful approaches to ending childhood malnutrition, with the emphasis that this is an environmental as well as a humanitarian concern.
A related Letter to America in terrain.org series….
I remain so pleased that Diary of a Citizen Scientist: Chasing Tiger Beetles and Other New Ways of Engaging with the World (Oregon State University Press, 2014) was given the 2016 John Burroughs Medal for Distinguished Nature Writing.
From the announcement: “The John Burroughs Medal was created in 1924 to recognize the best in nature writing and to honor the literary legacy of naturalist John Burroughs. The Medal has been awarded annually to a distinguished book of nature writing that combines scientific accuracy, firsthand fieldwork, and excellent natural history writing. This year’s winner was selected by a review committee of Medal recipients. Past Burroughs Medalists include Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, Joseph Wood Krutch, Loren Eiseley, Roger Tory Peterson, John Hay, Peter Matthiessen, John McPhee, Ann Zwinger, Barry Lopez, Gary Nabhan, Robert Michael Pyle, Richard Nelson, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Franklin Burroughs, Edward Hoagland, Kathleen Jamie, and Sherry Simpson.”
Well, to be in such a list.
Chapter One of The Desert Dreams of Flying to the Moon:
I am watching a YouTube video of my father’s death. The film was made by the United States Air Force in 1956 and declassified more than fifty years later so I can see it now on my computer screen at home. The heavy B-50 flies alone through the gray-toned sky before releasing the small experimental X-2, designed to glide until its rocket engines power, explode, and push the plane forward. Silently, without music or narration, the X-2 flashes into the distance, sleek with pointed nose and swept-back wings, faster, faster, over three times the speed of sound, faster than any human being has flown before. At the end of this test flight, the X-2 is meant to glide again, landing on a dry lakebed at Edwards Air Force Base in southern California. My father is the pilot. I stare at the vanishing plane with a frisson of knowledge, holding on to the moment before loss, and wanting to warn: Don’t go so fast today. I play with time, wanting to change time and knowing I would be changing myself, something I cannot really imagine. What would I be without a dead father?
Abruptly, the video shows footage from inside the cockpit, a camera there positioned to view the instrument panel. Here is the back of my father’s head. He is wearing a helmet, which moves jerkily across the screen as the X-2 becomes unstable, rolls, gyrates, spins. No one knew this would happen. That’s why someone had to test the plane. Part of the screen, now half the screen, is a bright white light, irregular shapes of light fraught with meaning like an abstract piece of art. Everything on that canvas is significant, emotional, ineluctable. My father is being thrown about this tiny space filled with light. In seconds, he is jettisoning the cone of the plane which also serves as an escape capsule.
That’s the last I see of him. Rectangles, bright light, the back of a head. For the next twenty minutes of this video, the Air Force forensic team examine the debris on the ground. They pan over pieces of metal, a broken wing, the wreckage of the capsule. We see its dark interior. Thankfully, we don’t see much. Men take photographs. They stand around in groups of three, four, eight. These men are everywhere on the dry lakebed, some wearing white shirts and ties, some in uniforms, some carrying guns. They all seem somber, puzzled, peering at crumpled metal, reaching in, pulling out wires. A boxy helicopter kicks up dust. Other helicopters come and go. The film records the departure of an ambulance-sized vehicle. Perhaps my father’s remains are being taken away. More men trudge through sand, stare, murmur, pick up something.
The Mojave Desert dwarfs this scene of busy hapless men. The filmmakers seemed to want to show that, too, these undulations of hills and mountains, layers of cinnamon-brown and chocolate-brown, sweeps of monotonous light-green creosote. This is the beauty of absence. The unadorned lift of granite and basalt. The empty sky, the empty desert.
Only you and I know better. We know how the sky fills with high cirrus clouds, virga of moisture evaporating as it falls, great anvils of cumulonimbus. We know the scorpion and grasshopper mouse, the dove, the owl, the tortoise. We know better because we are in love with this sky and with this land. Even now, from the distance of another century, I can feel the sun’s heat on my arm. I can smell creosote, a mix of turpentine and lemon. I was two years old when my father crashed in the escape capsule of the X-2. I am sixty-six years old now. That span of time is nothing. A rustle of leaves. A flash of light in the corner of your eye.
My father was a Kansas farm boy. The dry lakebed and bony horizon must have seemed as alien as the moon. In the end, he also grew to love the desert, something I learned only recently. I have always known, of course, that he loved the sky. In home movies of flying, as a passenger in a cargo transport or in a nifty two-seater fighter plane, we see many images of the sky, those high clouds, that cerulean blue. In other movies of family vacations—the jerky, blurred quality of 8-millimeter film—he pauses at the figures of his wife and two little girls, the wife looking so happy, the little girls like all little girls. Then he moves on to the sky, the architecture of a storm over Yellowstone National Park, the canyons of space at the Grand Canyon.
We see him most clearly in these choices. We see him pulling on his pressurized flight suit made for high altitude. “You’ve got this hacked, dad,” his chase pilot says in the slang of the day. Two chase planes will follow the experimental flight, offering advice by radio, monitoring parts of the X-2 that its pilot cannot see. By now, 9 a.m., the little white research plane has been rolled under the belly of the B-50 and fitted into place. The most advanced aircraft of her day, the X-2 is small and looks friendly, only 44 feet long, with a wingspan of 34 feet. So often, my father has leaned his shoulder against a wing, patted her flank, posed beside her. She looks lived in, scuffed from a few bumpy landings on the dry lakebed, paint peeling on metal contracted by the fuel of liquid oxygen.
Up in the air, at 35,000 feet, in the cockpit of the B-50, we see him say goodbye to the pilot and co-pilot and start the crawl through the tunnel that runs above the plane’s bomb bay. We see him descend a ladder into the cockpit of the X-2, his shoulders wedged into this cramped space. His face is covered by the helmet and oxygen mask, so that all we see now are his blue-green eyes. We see him buckle his seatbelt. Someone in the B-50 closes the canopy over his head.
There is a long list of things to do—check pump number eleven, open drain switch, retract air scoops—and then the countdown. Five, four, three, two, one, drop away. There are years of training and the possibility they will all end now. Test pilots died at the rate of one a week in the heyday 1950s. The motto of those test pilots was Ad explorata, into the unknown. In the drumbeat of preparing the X-2 for flight, humming along with the precision and professionalism of the crew, there is always that. The pursuit of revelation. Into the unknown.
As for the people my father left behind, we will fashion our own beauty and meaning from those accumulated moments. Kiss your wife goodbye, climb into the cockpit, fly over the Earth faster than any human being has flown before, eject the escape capsule, hit the ground. My sister dreams that he returns to her a few days later. Sitting on her bed that night, he tells her everything will be okay. Okay is what the five-year-old hears. In my crib nearby, I am dreaming, too. Outside our window, the desert is dreaming. In the small trim houses and dormitories and hospital at Edwards Air Force Base, the soldiers and pilots and mechanics and administrators and doctors and nurses and their families are dreaming. All of us, dreaming and flying.
New word for writers: vlogging. Before I went on the YouTube SciShow, I didn’t know that my host was a famously successful vlogger. I hadn’t even heard that term before. But Hank Green is the brother of well-known author John Green (The Fault is in Our Stars), with whom he partners for various media events. Hank is also an environmental entrepreneur who graduated from the Environmental Studies Program, where I was teaching in Missoula, Montana in the winter of 2016. There in lovely Missoula, Hank oversees his vlog empire, which sounds evil but actually employs over 40 people doing good work telling people about science and the environment. In this episode, I talk about citizen science and then we are joined by a biologist with a tarantula named Fluffy.
My most recent fiction is an eco-sci-fi called Knocking on Heaven’s Door, which won the 2016 New Mexico/Arizona Book Award in the category of science fiction, as well as the 2016 Arizona Authors Association Award in Fiction. Early reviewers have been generous, including this reviewer at Geeks of Doom, which makes me smile. Not many people know me as a geek of doom. I embrace the complexity of my personality. The book is also an audiobook.
Another recent fiction is Teresa of the New World, a Young Adult novel selected as a finalist in the May Sarton Awards (Story Circle Network) and the 2016 WILLA Awards (Women Writing the West). Teresa of the New World also won the 2015 Arizona Authors Association’s Award for Best Children’s Literature and was a 2015 Finalist for the New Mexico/Arizona Book Awards.
It’s fair to wonder why I range so widely in my writerly interests. I think of John Muir’s quote that everything in the universe is hitched to everything else. Finding some of those connections is a pleasure and a satisfaction. Reminiscent, perhaps, of that alpha state achieved while doing a good jigsaw puzzle.
Excerpt from Diary of a Citizen Scientist
“I have always wanted to be a field biologist. I imagine Zen-like moments watching a leaf, hours and days that pass like a dream, sun-kissed, plant-besotted. I imagine, like so many others before me, a kind of rapture in nature and loss of ego. John Burroughs, an early American naturalist, wrote that he went to the woods “to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in tune.” In my own walks through the rural West, this echoes my experience exactly. I enlarge in nature. I calm down. The beauty of the world is a tangible solace—that such harmony exists, such elegance, the changing colors of sky, the lift and roll of land, a riverbank, and now a beetle flashing in the sun, an entrance into its perfect world. I am soothed, I am thrilled, and at the same time, eventually I get bored. Eventually I go home because my work (my writing, my students, my laundry) is elsewhere.
But what if that employment, my engagement with the world, was right there, in the largeness and calm of nature itself? ‘Blessed is the man,” Burroughs continued, “who has some congenial occupation in which he can put his whole heart, and which affords a complete outlet to all the forces there are in him.'”
And what if the opportunity to become a field biologist or a lepidopterist or a geologist was right now and quite real? The world of citizen science is one in which hundreds of thousands of people are following their bliss counting stars for NASA, tracking the migration of birds, cataloging galaxies, and excavating mastodons. This is revolution in how research gets done and in what kind of research gets done. This is also renaissance. This is also transformation.