When Nature Brings Up Everything Unlike Itself

In 2000, I was awarded a month-long fellowship to Norcroft, a women’s writing retreat on the North Shore of Minnesota. A few years later, when the retreat closed its doors, I was asked to contribute to an anthology about the Norcroft experience.

I set out to do it, but realized that whatever I wrote would be considered profane by most Norcroft adherents, who not only fit in with the nature-centered dynamic of the retreat, but who were also at a place where they truly felt righteous about any and all good that came their way – if, that is, they noticed the good at all.

Yet no one can accuse these poets and writers of not being gentle. Gentleness abounded at Norcroft, as did all those lush words that lull in the throats of the romantics – silky, majestic, sensual, mysterious, alluring, tempest. The guest books were filled with loving prose for water, sky, and forest. The fallen bark from birch trees became a palette for framed poetry, cooing with appreciation for wind, leaves, and wildflowers.

My focus – and my distraction – is all things human. Nature is exquisite, but simple. I believe poets write of nature because it is the easiest and most mutable subject of all. Simplicity leaves gaps in the pages, waiting to be colored in by human metaphor. Gentle waves kiss the sand, and lovers are newly born. The slope of a mountainside transmogrifies into the curve of a woman’s hip. A tall tree becomes an ancient mother, continuously giving life and watching it fall away.

I would have wanted to immerse myself in the Norcroft experience as so many others have. To stare full-on at the poetic paradise and be filled with the compatible, communal spirit of poetry-prose-mother nature, but instead, I became entranced with symbols of a different sort.

One of the first things I noticed at Norcroft was that the cupboards were fully stocked. Really, the cupboards just bewitched me. I opened each and every one and found not an inch wasted. I then opened the pantry, the refrigerator, and the freezer. Weirdly, the site of all those jars, bottles, cans and bags – all those fresh juices, fruits, and vegetables – made my throat turn raw and my eyes well with tears.

Many would look at me, a woman whose curves have turned to bulges, and not guess that much of my life was spent hungry, but I spent desperate years at the unforgettable bottom, making do with whatever I could find; soda crackers and ketchup soup, 10-cent packs of noodles, cheap white bread covered with margarine. In that state of hunger, my stories were driven by my very human fears and hopes.

Even after escaping poverty, I never gave much thought to poetic things like eternal skies or majestic seas, at least not as a main plot. I wanted, instead, to talk about children, justice, prevention, politics, human potential, the way it actually is, and the way it could be.

It was beyond my comprehension that the state of abundance at Norcroft could bring about a request for even more, but there was a blackboard on the kitchen wall where the writers were invited to request anything the caretaker failed to provide. Fresh mangoes. Black beans. Sweet corn. Cadbury chocolate bars.

The blackboard grated on me. Amy’s Enchiladas. (Peeled and deveined) shrimp. One-half pound of salted pecans. Granola without raisins. Nearly every day, one of my three housemates found something deficient in the copious riches, and felt called upon to fill the blackboard with more, more, more,which seemed to me both insulting and excessive.

After the first thirty minutes at Norcroft, I retreated to my room, and sat on the edge of the perfectly made bed. I viewed the hand-made quilt, the polished desk, and the profusion of perfectly-tended flowers outside the window. My first five silent words at Norcroft were: I do not belong here.

To assuage the feeling of not belonging, (which often passes after I settle into new situations), I busied myself with setting up my assigned writing shed. It took only a few minutes before the familiar triad of fingers, mind, and blank page intersected, but my thoughts were disorganized, running over with stupid questions that had nothing to do with why I was there. Who was the owner, and why did she do this? How much did all that food cost, and how long would it last? How did the caretaker feel about that blackboard? Wasn’t she glad when all the never-enough writers just went home and she had the place to herself again? Who were the other women I was sharing a home with? Who else has been in this shed, and what did they write?

I pulled out a postcard and wrote to my daughter. “It is beautiful here,” I said, and it was not a lie. “I am glad I came,” which was half-true. “I think I’ll get a lot done,” which I knew was bordering on a lie.

Days passed. In the silence of the sunlight hours, more postcards were written, several books were read, and I fumbled horribly, distracted by everything from clusters of black flies to a stack of personal notes left behind by another writer, a self-described woman of stone who was into the howls of lone wolves and ancient scarification rites.

In the evening, I gathered around the fireplace with other women for readings, and tried my best to curb my facial expressions, which are always spontaneous, and almost always totally transparent.

Of the writers there, one told a story that really resonated with me. Her words were strong and truthful, and outside of a few minor dips into sappy territory, her story powerful. Later, she would inform me that the story I liked had been rejected by over 40 literary publications. Two other women, whose words struck me as overripe and overly styled, were the most widely published. They were, of course, academics. Academia provides a prolific and unabashedly incestuous network, where editors frequently publish the works of their students, friends and colleagues, without much regard for talent or story.

Years ago, a friend shared the line of a poem with me, (from Marianne Williamson I think), that says “love brings up everything unlike itself.” I recalled that line in 2000, as I sat on a plush couch, in front of a crackling fireplace, watching women – real women, who lived real lives – roll their eyes at anything approaching realism, while exuberantly and passionately scribbling the poetry of pale gold moons and sensual riptides.

In the mystical space of Norcroft, in the midst of abundance and excessive generosity, among women who were more moved by birch trees than by even their own human experience, I felt more disconnected, more alone, and spiritually poorer than I had ever felt.

When approached about the anthology, I knew that writing about my Norcroft experience would be like punching an iron fist through a precious bedtime story. My hard-wired attachment to all the human things would run roughshod over the fawning adjectives others reserved for nature. I suspected that if my submission were included, it would be a black stain in an otherwise sunlit book.

Not wanting to cast a pall over other people’s euphoria, I set the request aside.

The other night, while at a restaurant, a fellow Norcroft alumni found me and literally bounded over to my table, her Burberry scarf flying, her bangles jingling. She spoke with a hyperbolic kind of happiness, like there should be multiple exclamation points after each long, vividly detailed sentence.

In contrast, by way of comparison, I felt like a real bitch. I had no words heady enough to match her enthusiasm for our common experience so many years ago.

If love brings up everything unlike itself, then certainly nature does, too.

I still find it odd, though, that under the bluest of skies, among the loftiest of pines – in the center of God’s most perfectly drawn universe – some will run from their own natural or realistic place in the schematic. Instead of studying human nature in raw form, they will metamorphose the ancient and unchangeable nature of everything else. They will choose, instead of self-examination, to reinvent the nature of trees.

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  1. your words really touched me. i so get this. my mind also fumbles to organize anything back to you. partly because i am currently sick and on cold medicine and partly because i do not want to wax poetic. as an artist i find this to be true repeatedly. i remember the first time i submitted to one particular national magazine at a live juried event. the publisher and editor talked about how they were looking for things that were beautiful and elegant. i almost snorted. while i can enjoy something elegant to wear on my anniversary it surely isn’t what inspires me in my artwork. i don’t do elegant. my inspiration can come from something deeper, guttural even, less obvious, and quite possibly contradictory. i respect and understand your feelings to pass on the submission. it could be misunderstood…or published. i know i certainly enjoyed this piece of reflection and introspection very much. kudos.

  2. Oh Jane, what an exciting piece of writing!
    Who knows but that you were inspired in other deeper ways that weren’t apparent at the time.
    We take in all experiences.
    I can relate to your food part of the story. Although not in the sense that you suffered.I am so sorry you had to go through that, and I am so glad you came through it.
    My parents were both depression kids from very humble homes. My Dad kept our fridge, freezer, cupboards, and pantry totally full of everything imaginable at all times. We were never out of anything! As I grew up and heard stories about how poor my dad’s family was, I came to understand his obsession with keeping all the food around.
    Whatever your muse is, or whatever your inspiration, I am glad we get to reap the benefits!
    And finally, Thanks for posting the photo!
    Peace in 09…

  3. I know I am supposed to comment on the beautiful words I just read but I can’t because I am too busy trying to figure out how a picture of ME ended up on YOUR blog.

    So funny, half-pint, though, I think I look more like Lee. No petite cuteness here. So…my diabolical plan to be adopted into the Goldberg clan is working, isn’t it? One more vote and I think I’ll have a quorum. – Jane :-)

  4. Hi Jane,

    I posted last night, but my post must have got caught in spam? Hopefully this one makes it thru.

    Your words “They will choose, instead of self-examination, to reinvent the nature of trees,” are so true and so powerful. Illusions are chosen over reality everyday, and draw people into that eye rolling apathy you speak of. Politics? Boring. Child Abuse? So yesterday. Justice? Let me care for thirty seconds, but then let’s move on.

    Your commitment to the realistic issues always astonishes me, in part because you’re ALSO a highly creative and imaginative person. You write poetry and politics with the same kind of intense passion. You’re not by chance a Gemini, are you? Because there seems to be twin Jane Devins. One who loves humanity, yet one who loves solitude. One who loves peace and quiet, and another who will wage a fierce battle to protect another person’s rights. One who can cut to the heart of what really matters, and another who can explain everything going on outside whatever story she’s writing.

    You do not reinvent the trees, but you do speak to all things human and in a very powerful way.

    I admire you and your work so much. You really are my hero.


  5. Jane, I just love when I come to your page and you have written something.

  6. Beautifully written, Jane! It sounds like retreat life is definitely not for you, although that “small cabin on the lake with two dogs and a maple desk” is probably sounding better & better, huh?

  7. It was like the mix of abundance and ingratitude, (best of) nature and (worst of) human nature, reality and the sureal, was all in one place, but your stories have so many layers Jane that I’ll read this a dozen comes and walk away with something new each time. I mean that in a good way!

    Thank you too for the pic. I love your expression, which is also a mix of things. Sad, happy, and wistful.

    We have a family cabin on Lake Superior, but in Michigan. Usually we take turns using it and I almost always go by myself. The silence is healing.

  8. Ya, I knew yyou sucked when I read your article on Camille Paglia, who has more brains and class in her little finger than you have in that hulking fat thing you call a body. You and your pathetic blog suck major dick and have no talent!

  9. Jane – I read through twice and what especially caught my attention is the title “When nature brings up everything unlike itself”. I am not a writer by any stretch of the imagination, although I am one who appreciates. Your experience at the writing retreat reminded me of my recent encounter with nature at its best vs. human nature.

    I had the good fortune to look over a Hawaiian Monk Seal for 26 days in January. He landed himself on a beach in a very residential area. What I found most interesting is this animal basically laid on the beach sleeping while he molted his skin, basically peaceful and unaware. Just his presence brought out a multitude of behaviors, the best and worse in people. Had I known I would have kept a journal especially as days grew into weeks. Everyone wants a sense of ownership… their experience, what happened when they were there and how they were affected by him, everything from being inspired to annoyed.

    In the end, the seal returned to deeper waters with his new fur coat and we the volunteers are trying to catch up with our lives. And if I had to do it again I would choose to spend the time with the seal.

    ** RE: Camille – Sorry you are so angry. If you don’t like Jane then there should be no reason to come here. Many of us like it here and those that don’t always agree are able to disagree respectably. I would think twice the next time you speak about someone not having any class.

  10. Well, not for about twenty years, Camille, but I still remember what one looks like and wow, the resemblance is uncanny.

    Dee, thanks for your post and taking up for the posters here, who with one recent exception are intelligent, well-spoken people. So, I’m curious. What was the bad behavior people exhibited towards seeing the monk seal?

  11. Hi Jane

    The Hawaiian Monk Seal is extremely endangered… only 1100 left in existence. When they come up on the beach its recommended people stay at least 100 ft. away. For all purposes the “line” we posted around him was maybe 30 ft.

    Some people felt walking that extra 30′ around was an inconvenience and would cross the line. Folks who walk their dogs off leash and there is a leash law… would yell at me for asking them to leash the dog. There were several evenings in the dark of the night people come into the barrier and try to get him to move, or to get up close to take a photo. Parents not keeping an eye on the kids or trying to get too close for a photo op.

    The lack of understanding this is a wild animal weighing in at 400+ pounds seem to escape them.

    There really was never any physical threat to the animal…. for which I am grateful. I think what surprised me was some people (not a lot, but enough) saw him as an intrusion to their daily routine. I saw it as a gift a wonderful opportunity to experience him in his natural habitat. We are the intrusion.

    The other side of this story is…. there were some wonderful friendships made. A group of volunteers, that never met prior to his arrival and knew nothing about Hawaiian Monks Seals learned very quickly and organized so he had 7×24 coverage. A community came together to keep him safe. I am mostly grateful for all the good that came from this and I think there will be more done for them in the near future.

    Thank you, D. What a wonderful opportunity to see up-close something that isn’t often seen, and I would have felt exactly as you did. As for those who saw him as an intrusion, I’ve never understood people like that, but always find them rankling. – JD

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