Note: This essay was originally commissioned by poet Kate Dougherty for a project she was working on in the wake of the 2016 presidential election. After the time that this essay was written in 2017, The Geography of Hope conference changed from an annual long weekend conference to more numerous and briefer events throughout the year, and then in 2020, the organization that produced Geography of Hope, Black Mountain Circle, announced a decision to dissolve their organization. More information about this can be found at blackmountaincircle.org/news/difficult-decision/
Geography of Hope: A Perspective on Poetics & the Land
Sunday, June 17, 2018 — Father’s Day
“It is a time of burning. It is a time of painful awakening. It is a time to acknowledge the secret source of culture, that we ourselves are the mechanisms of delight and this painful thing called change. Ravaged beauties, we wander in search of our homes and our communities, those elusive things that others take for granted. Now they have become necessary for our survival.”
Geography of Hope is a not-always-annual conference that takes place in the small community of Point Reyes Station in California’s Marin County. Inspired by the work of the American novelist and essayist Wallace Stegner, it brings together speakers on themes of culture and the land and arranges them around a long spring weekend in panel discussions, workshops, and field trips to surrounding small-scale farms and food producers, environmental restoration work sites, and places of natural beauty within the Point Reyes National Seashore and surrounding parklands.
Having grown up in Marin, Point Reyes Station is part of my childhood back yard. I spent many weekends and summertime holidays up through my teenage years at nearby beaches. The little town was a way station, a place to stop either on the way out to the beach or returning, a place to browse Point Reyes Books for their inspired selection of publications, enjoy a meal of raw, freshly shucked oysters, or stock up on fragrant local bread and cheeses and other picnic food for a day in the sand and dunes and waves.
The town is a rural epicenter, a lifeline for local ranches and farms, dairies and studios, who are in turn suppliers of the local produce and cheeses, oysters, fish, and art. The fact that its newspaper, The Point Reyes Light, was honored with a Pulitzer Prize in 1979 for its investigation of the local cult, Synanon, has only added to my fondness and pride. Living away from Marin for most of my adult life, I wasn’t aware of the conference that had been going on there since 2008 until my poet friend, Devreaux Baker of Mendocino, brought it to my attention. She was going to be volunteering there in 2017, and I decided to join her.
It was in the months following the election of Donald Trump as US President and I was in need of being involved in something that would help me grapple with the shock and fear and bafflement over how such an historical event could have come about, how it could have been possible, and what I could do so that I did not succumb either to cynicism or despair.
Like many others in my artist community, immediately after the election I instinctively began looking for something in which I could invest myself that was concrete and active, looking for ways to constructively channel my foreboding, fear, and anger in something that felt positive, and of deep value, something that represented the values I feared would be lost in this political backwash.
I saw a good many around me in my home county of Mendocino gearing up and organizing as activists to fight the anticipated assault on human rights and social programs for the disenfranchised and the poor. I was heartened by this development, knowing how vital and necessary it was going to be for all of us, but I could not find it in myself to go in that direction. I needed to be involved in something that was not in response to the menace, in reaction to people and institutions for which I had no respect. I did not want to tether myself into an relationship that relied on and took its definition from those things that felt malevolent and destructive. I felt a need to work in a positive direction, to be in support of those things I deeply believe in. To remain an active, practicing artist seemed to me to be the most subversive thing I could do to offset the new administration’s menacing agenda and to maintain sanity. But I needed to step it up.
It was an inconvenient time for me to be studying ways that would likely lead to more time volunteering. After years, decades, of organizing poetry events, I had just made the decision that I was done with the work of producing readings, managing a monthly online poetry calendar, hosting readings at my studio. Prior to the election, I felt I needed to be focusing on the writing itself, thinking somehow that it was a simple mathematical equation: if I stopped spending time on one type of activity I would have more time for the other. After the election that rationale fell apart.
The Geography of Hope Conference brought me face to face with the very reasons I have always done what I refer to as “poetry admin” work. The theme of the 2017 conference was “Ancestors and the Land,” and at one point over the course of the four days we were asked to consider what kind of ancestors we wanted to be, which was a wonderfully revealing exercise. Because, of course, “ancestors” is a very loaded and culturally heavy word. To suddenly pin it on my own person required relieving myself of all kinds of false modesty and facing myself in a more dispassionate way over a longer arc of time in which I was fairly insignificant. Over a year later, I am still working through the thought trails that spun out from that experience, both in my poetry and my life, my day-to-day poetics.
Viewing myself as a small mote in the stream of time gave me a different perspective of my own poetry community. I’ve long understood that Mendocino County has an unusually gifted population of poets. We may not be widely known outside of our county, and we may not be deeply and exhaustively published, but there are some strong and iconic voices here that I am privileged to know. This is partly due to the county’s relative isolation from urban cultural centers. We rely on each other to create our own local culture and in addition, as a group, we seem to be more self-motivated than the average. We flourish in this isolation, and sometimes flounder.
For over thirty years I have been devoted to these local artists and poets, to the creative souls around me. I find that we are mostly supportive of each other and care about each other’s welfare. I also know that we have our share of in-fighting, restless intrigue, and sometimes maddening gossip-mongering. Mendocino County being a place attractive historically to creative personalities, including cultural renegades and activists, we also have our fair share of artists who can be idiosyncratic, sometimes a bit more dysfunctional than the norm, but in ways that are neither sociopathic nor sadistic. Among this patchwork of poets are those who are likely to be as shy or socially clumsy as they are brilliant and talented and wise, and if any harm comes, it is often to themselves. Holding themselves back, lacking in confidence, sometimes simply lacking in perspective.
I have instinctively made community for these creative souls, helped to gather them, and feed them, food being a central role and key to my approach. “Feed the Poets,” is a mantra I have fulfilled at many of these open readings where poets, musicians, dancers, and artists from Mendocino County congregated in my various homes from Fort Bragg to Elk to Ukiah and in an array of local venues from bookstores and cafes to libraries and the local museum.
When I was asked at the conference to delve into my ancestors imaginatively, what came to mind when I considered the maternal side of my family—a mostly Democratic ranch family—was an unexpected empathy for everything I thought I was trying to shed. I stepped outside of my beleaguered and exhausted persona of recent years and found some of that down-to-earth pragmatic love. I was able to access a voice that spoke of things in a way that gave me my own context. I know how fond are you, my great great-grandmother wrote in a “letter” she dictated through my hand, of those renegades and misfits, the brilliant and independent thinkers, the creative ones. You make a place where they are honored, respected, and nourished.
From that perspective, giving up my self-imposed role of calling people together would be giving up a vital part of my own poetry. I realized I might have to find a new way to take care of this need in myself to nurture and support while I follow the deeper path where poetry seems to be leading me. In order to figure out what that new way might be, I would need to invoke a different kind of decision-making, a half-conscious, wild, poetic assessment using deep-brain problem-solving. I needed to approach it with all the care and the mischief of poem-making.
The path that led me to volunteering at Geography of Hope began with a related poetry event: Watershed Poetry, a concept and an event initiated by Robert Hass when he served as US Poet Laureate between 1995 and 1997. His idea was to bring together poets and environmentalists, scientists, artists, and activists, and to get them into conversation with each other. A new wild cross-breading of thought that could result in new and unexpected solutions for environmental issues.
The concept of Watershed Poetry had intrinsic appeal for me. As I understood it, the only way that we were going to solve some of the devastating ecological and social problems of our time would be to bring together the rational and the irrational, to acknowledge and bring out the creativity behind much science, and the rigor involved in poetry and to let them inspire each other in the service of a kind of life-saving operation for the earth and for ourselves.
Hass’ project lives on today in the annual Watershed Poetry Festival hosted in Berkeley each fall, now in its 23rd year. In 2008 and for a few years after that, Mendocino County held its own sibling festival—Watershed Poetry Mendocino—and the idea still percolates below the surface in spite of years of inactivity. In the time I have worked on this project with others in my community and also participated in the Berkeley festival, it continues to reinforce my sense of the fundamental nature of poetry itself.
I don’t think of myself as a poet interested in environmental and social issues. I have come to think of poetry as being at its core connected to and inseparable from the earth. The energy of inspiration is an earth energy that comes up through my toes, my feet and legs, past my womb and through my torso, only lastly pinging my delicate cranium.
My collaborations with other writers and artists often results in ideas that are more surprising and satisfying and profound than anything we as individuals could have come up with, and for this the only explanation I have been able to come up with is the earth that connects us with its palpable circuitry. I credit the seen and the unseen, the felt and the unregistered energy of the earth itself, the electrical force field sometimes perceived as Spirit. In this context, anything that threatens the earth impoverishes poetry and any attempt to practice poetry with anything less than honesty and beautiful irrational exuberant relevance is to debase this spirit, which is to say, disrespects and neglects the blood at the source of all keen things.
Wallace Stegner wrote that the wilderness areas of the American West, their establishment and preservation, constitute a “geography of hope” for human culture. Our thinking on wilderness has evolved since then—wilderness empty of humans except for those recreating and on “holiday” from “work” has come to seem a distortion in the spacetime continuum. But at the same time, the forces arrayed against the integrity of wilderness, of land, of sacred land, whether in the inner cities or the less populated mountain ranges, have increased.
Described by its founders as a literary festival, Geography of Hope, in my two-year experience, is not writer-centric in its programming in the same way that some writing conferences are. It is not a weekend devoted exclusively to writing practice nor to cultivating professional writing relationships geared at increasing a writer’s chances of publishing or other practical and domestic notions of writerly life. Instead, it promotes a confluence between poetics and the land. The entire weekend of the 2017 festival, in between my volunteer responsibilities, I felt an adrenalin surge as I encountered missing pieces of my internal puzzle.
Geography: written on the earth. Graphos, the underlying (undermining) notion of human expression and Geo, the earthly realm. Written in blood sometimes, the pen kept flowing by being dipped over and over into seminal liquids, into tears. The intimate connection between human culture and earthly elements. Following the passage of water as it is celebrated but also irradiated, stolen, used as a “pawn,” as one of our favorite clichés might phrase it. In the world view of chess, water is more of a sacred warrior or a bishop or a queen—an essential entity that has come to be wrestled within the grisly dynamics of power politics. Powerful, valuable, but also frighteningly dependent on us as advocates for its survival.
So, the premise is an event devoted to intersecting epiphanies about the relationship between culture and the land. A long weekend devoted to conversations whose goal is to interconnect the sense of what makes us human with dirt and water and mountains, trees and “wild” animals and domestic life. A moment taken out of the stream of time in which we can assess the sense of foreboding some of us have about the peril of the environment and balance it with a keen sense of pleasure in the miraculous and creative responses of people who have grappled with our world situation and proposed solutions, devoting their lives to their interdependent earthbound beliefs.
After the 2017 conference I knew I wanted to be further involved. I knew that this was kin to what I was seeking—a means to be actively and positively engaged with a spiraling network of vital information and activity.
But when the spring of 2018 came around, I found myself emerging from a time of exhaustion combined with a year of personal grief. I had lost my father and my younger sister in the interval between one conference and the next, along with a dear poetry friend, a woman of immense intellect and hardy practical cultural practice. It was more than I thought I could bear.
Yet in the midst of this, it seemed even more imperative that I participate, return, be involved. It was heartening to share the soul of poetry at this time with others and to witness how other people were taking their concerns and their personal grief and using their very vulnerability to transform their communities. Which is the soul of ourselves as citizens. Which is also threatened in obvious and insidious ways by this nearly-global series of events that is returning us to a dangerous political time.
I found I could only respond to all of it with my poetics, and the parts of my graphic design work that are motivated by projects that use the best of my graphic skill to bring out alignments with aspects of culture. It is what I want to be working on—projects that bring people together to create new systems for nourishing vital culture and new ways of apprehending knowledge. I look for models in systems that are complex, multi-leveled, and above all, true to the poetics, a rigorous realism that is not reductive, pessimistic, or mechanistic.
It’s a handful. And true to my nature, when the wind starts blowing, I have a tendency to duck my head and head into the wind. So I signed up again in 2018 for the Geography of Hope. And I went with grief in my pockets. I was swimming in a place outside of time in which there was a lot of still water and more absence than presence. I wasn’t sure how helpful I could be in this state, but again, I signed up to volunteer, out of gratitude and out of grief. I wanted to support these people, I wanted to bear witness.
Again I was aware of a potent urgency and yearning to have some kind of validation and rescue for my sense of emergency about the potential loss of basic human freedoms, things I had taken for granted growing up in California in the 60s and 70s, which now apparently are up for grabs. Power grabs. Money grabs. So much had happened that had been said was impossible. I had lost what little faith I had in liberal politics but I was not attracted to anarchy. I was deeply angry with the Democratic party and with the left-wing media. My poetry was choking on a macabre sense of doom.
I have been paying attention to those people who inspire me in the ways they put their passion into action, in the ways they stand for their beliefs. As part of this I reconnected with poet Kate Dougherty, who is creating a life boat for impassioned reason in the form of a series of writings maintained as a blog to codify and document issues of truth and the usurpation of unwarranted power by the cynical and insidious manipulation of truth.
I saw how Kate in her quest was also groping her way forward, planting a flag on the continent of truth and daring with her utmost humility to parse through the encroaching erosion of democratic rights and freedoms. She understands that survival and freedom and passion and poetics have to come alive in a new way, and that it will not be convenient and it will not be, most of it, pleasant. Hard truths, angular truths, dying truths that need to be claimed or they will be lost. A new adamant insistence that we articulate our sense of justice and act on it each in our own way. To start with, we both felt the need to defy the seemingly overwhelming tide of greed threatening the democratic process.
So I gathered up the death of my sister and my father and my friend, Becca Smith, and wrapped them up and wound them around my neck with a scarf and drove from Mendocino County to Point Reyes Station and showed up to help set up tables and chairs.
I kept Kate’s words with me in my pockets as well, part of a little back and forth we had been having via electronic mail, “… pain does not destroy us,” she wrote, “especially when we come to see it is love which is at the root of it all. No love; no pain. But the heart can bear it all. And where would you be without opening…?”
Yes, Kate, the heart can bear it all and in fact feels more alive and nuanced, but I’m finding that things are different. I alternate between feeling flat and somewhat grim and then involved in this long loose waltz with grief in a grand ballroom I have always heard about but never visited.
I find passages in books I have known all my life but now re-read and understand differently. Or never understood how to take in, or didn’t realize I could let it take me to different places. The way in which I understand, the field of comprehension itself, is different, having become a much larger net that can be cast.
I have been spending more time reading and being quiet, craving sleep and not being as social. Not that I have been by any means a “party animal” or one of highly social persons, preferring one-on-one interactions, but now even more so. When I have a tough day I find that I have no ground under my feet and I can slip quite easily into despair; it’s nearly like pre-menstrual moodiness. This sense of disquiet feels hormonal rather than structural or attainable to or supported by reason. A deeper disquiet, one that borders new territory. Missing my father a factor of hormones? Or hormones triggered by grief. It takes me longer to recover from mental as well as physical effort. I find myself appreciating the quiet of the end of the night before dawn, and my long, loose writing sessions that spiral out of that darkness as it is fading to light.
And then sometimes just a shock of tears that reminds me, reminds me. Life is this thing that keeps changing and shifting in my fingers. It was not what we supposed, much richer.
At the conference I stood in the back of the Point Reyes Dance Palace, enjoying my role as volunteer, present as a unifying maternal or sisterly force to gather loose ends and nourish and allow. Poised to do small tasks, fitting to my need to be involved and to help, but also soothing to the helplessness I had brought with me. Not hopelessness: helplessness. That is a key distinction.
Trying not to let it be known how desperate I actually felt, how much I needed the thoughtful sustenance, the need to have someone touch my shoulder and say comforting things, confirm that everything I have thought and felt and worked for can now coming to rest, that great pause and gather before taking flight. And the danger, the risk, the sense of impending attack that comes from the outer environment, the country, the world, the menace I feel so palpably coming from a place that until now had represented shifts between Republican and Democratic ideologies and now seems so far gone that at each juncture when everyone says, “that can’t possibly happen,” and then it does, it leaves me wondering how much further it will go.
It is a time of burning. It is a time of painful wakening. It is a time to acknowledge the secret source of culture, that we ourselves are the mechanisms of delight and of this painful thing called change. Ravaged beauties, we wander in search of our homes and our communities, those elusive things that others take for granted. Now they have become necessary for our survival.
At this year’s Geography of Hope conference, I heard a story about salmon, how they are born orphans, all of them, their parents having spawned and died, leaving them on their own. And they begin their life like that generation after generation, or did it, past tense, in some rivers that no longer have direct access to the sea.
And at some point the salmon respond to an impulse to leave. Even though no other creatures in the stream are leaving, not the trout, not the frogs, the minnows, the sucker fish, only the salmon begin to edge downstream. They go and go, continue leaving. It takes a long time; they don’t know why or where. Something drives them. Chief Caleen Sisk tells us it is Creator.
And when they get far enough, having gone farther than their world could have shown them, they encounter brackish water. They are freshwater fish. And they do not say, “Boy, did we make a mistake; this obviously isn’t for us; it must be toxic; it is too strange.” They do not turn back.
This same urge, this same instinct that caused them to leave without role models. They stay there in the estuary; they hang out, and they adapt. Their body undergoes a change; they begin to tolerate salt water. They move out to where the water expands in all directions around them and becomes pure salt water, a place of dangers they could never have imagined as river fish. They spend anywhere from four to eight years in the immense ocean.
Somewhere inside of me a fissure appeared. This sounded familiar. Although I was not born an orphan, at some point I left like that. I left the place of my childhood. I left the path that was set out for me. I left in spite of common sense. I needed to leave. I did not have a role model for leaving. I felt ashamed of it, thinking I was incapable of staying the course. I went out into the world. It was known as being gypsy, bohemian, both of which I realize are European constructs. I called it poetry when I thought it through, but it was against the pressure to conform, so I also called it failure, dropping out, rebellion.
I stood in the back of the room while the speakers were introduced and felt tears aching in my throat and along my spine. I leaned back against the wall behind me. The divide opened. My sister was with me who had just died a few weeks prior; she was more real to me than the room I was in. Between me and the nearest person in that room there was a fire extinguisher housed in glass and metal on the wall. I wanted to reach over around this glassed-in votive object and touch this stranger with a reassuring gesture, palm curved.
The circus. My instinctive attraction to the circus from my first encounter. My father taking me to the circus as a girl, in Vallejo where it was still in a Big Top tent and still included a side show. I was fascinated and felt a liberating exhilaration. I had encountered something that was unknown yet seemed incredibly familiar, something I had always sensed existed and in which I felt I belonged and felt more real. What other people called magic or illusion. Tawdry, cheap effects intended for show, and behind it the life of traveling people, people who had their own culture as a family of disparate creative roles. Artists.
When I went out into the world after a year of college, I traveled to Europe, the first member of my immediate family to do so. And I found things there that triggered that same circus response. Recognizing myself in Europe. Being recognized. Traveling in Europe being a homecoming for me: France, Spain, the Balearic Islands. Eventually Greece and Egypt and Turkey, Portugal, Morocco. Places where poetry is intrinsic, it matters, it is considered a role of tremendous responsibility. It is a role that often comes with pain and suffering. I learned of poets who are understood in the context of openly repressive political regimes; the ways in which poets are often among the first to be silenced. How people also look to them for truth, and for the articulation of new experience. Seeing a new edition of the poetry of Cavafy proudly exhibited in the window of a Greek hardware store. How different from California where being a poet is considered somehow charming or innocuous, a childlike endeavor, irrelevant to almost everything. Not practical. Certainly not something a plumber or construction worker would actually consider reading or memorizing or reciting to their friends.
I came back from Europe and put into practice what I found in my travels. I dropped further and further away from the mainstream. I worked at the craft of printing. I disabled any tendency to become professional or finish my formal education. I made myself at home among the misfits and the renegades and the counter-culture.
Return of the Salmon
And then, Caleen says, at some point, the salmon, who have been living in the open ocean for years, they begin to return. At first it is simply moving in a consecutive direction, toward the land, away from the open water. They return to the bay, they return to the mouth of the river, the brackish water. They are now adapted to salt water. They encounter the sweet.
And they do not say, “Oh that is not for me any longer. I prefer the open ocean where there’s so much more room, so many exciting things, adventures. Who would want to go back to that provincial suburb where everyone is expected to stay the same?” Instead, they go on. They continue returning. And their jaws undergo an actual physical change of shape. The color of their flesh and scales changes.
They become again fish that can live in fresh water. They swim upstream. And the salmon from the McCloud River, where Caleen’s people are from, they do not turn off at the first branch of the river. They do not say, “I am old and tired, and I deserve rest. I’m sure there’s plenty of room for me here and these other fish won’t mind; I’ll just peel off and find a little shoal to spawn in.” Instead, they continue swimming up the main river. They do not turn off at the American River, or the Feather River. They keep going.
And before the existence of the Shasta Dam, they would go and go, and then they would come to the mountain. Mount Shasta. In order to keep going they would need to climb 6,000 feet. And the fish would climb the mountain.
My own urge that began a few years ago to spend more time in the county I grew up in, to return almost against my own advice, to the hills and the beaches and the woods of Marin, my childhood backyard. This urge is partly what lead me to this conference, combining poetics and land but also completing a private circle. How I came to be standing in a room of strangers who were speaking up about things that struck them as odd and surprising and true. In my own childhood’s backyard. People it took six decades to gather in common cause, six decades for me to find.
The fish of the McCloud River have been bred in captivity on fish farms ever since the Shasta Dam was built during the Second World War. Some of these hatchery fish were even shipped to New Zealand where they became naturalized as Rakaia River salmon. I wondered how they would know where to migrate and how their metabolism would have been disrupted, how Creator urges them, reminds them. Did they recognize their new home and feel the same urgency in returning to a headwaters that wasn’t genetically encoded? And, what is genetic encoding, anyway? Is it separate from existence, “hard coded” as it is sometimes expressed, as if it were immutable when everything we know about DNA is that it is in flux and constantly, slowly changing? How many generations would it take before they could be said to truly adapt?
And now decades after the fish have been barred from their spawning grounds, without even fish ladders to lead them around the Shasta Dam, their descendants are with the Maori. Caleen has visited the Maori and performed ceremonies acknowledging her ancestral fish. And the Maori have visited her on Mt. Shasta to perform ceremony at the mountain they consider one of the primary sources of energy for the planet. They are speaking to one another, the Winnamem Wintu and the Maori, about repatriating the fish that used to spawn in the McCloud River.
Chief Caleen Sisk is working with US federal fish biologists to return the fish to their home. Being scientists as well as bureaucrats the US fish biologists require scientific proof. Caleen is confident that when the DNA of the Chinook Salmon now living in New Zealand is formally tested, the origin of these fish of Mt. Shasta will be confirmed. The Winnamem Wintu already have the permission needed from the New Zealand Fish and Game officials and from the Maori to bring their fish home. Now they’re working in our northern California neighborhood for that same permission, during a time when environmental restoration work is being savaged by the current administration. Her work is made more complicated by other forces opposed to the life of salmon. There is a proposal to raise the level of the Shasta Dam, something that would further threaten native fish and plant and wildlife species.
Sources & References
Theresa Whitehill is a poet and graphic designer living in Ukiah and St. Helena, California where she has her graphic design business, Colored Horse Studios. She served as Poet Laureate for the city of Ukiah from 2009 to 2011, and has several publications of her poetry and writings, including Mill Town (Pygmy Forest Press, 1993), Stags’ Leap Winery: Portrait of a Community (Stags’ Leap Winery, 1998), Saudades (Stags’ Leap Winery 2003) and Grammar of Longing (Pygmy Forest Press, 2009), along with her letterpress poetry broadsides, many of which are in the collections of national archives such as The Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley, The Getty Center for the Arts, The New York Public Library, Brown University’s John Hay Collection, and Mills College Special Collections. https://www.coloredhorse.com/
Wallace Stegner, “Wilderness Letter,” from The Sound of Mountain Water, Doubleday, 1969; originally written in 1960 as a letter to the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission
“…. What I want to speak for is not so much the wilderness uses, valuable as those are, but the wilderness idea, which is a resource in itself. Being an intangible and spiritual resource, it will seem mystical to the practical minded—but then anything that cannot be moved by a bulldozer is likely to seem mystical to them…. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.”
Watershed Poetry Festival, Berkeley
Geography of Hope Conference
Black Mountain Circle, founders & presenters of Geography of Hope
The Salmon Story as told by Chief Caleen Sisk, speaker at the 2018 Geography of Hope Conference:
More on the Winnemem Wintu of the McCloud River and salmon: