M Train by Patti Smith
“How was your weekend?” a colleague asked. Hard to answer, but I mentioned reading this book by Patti Smith. “Oh, who is she? What’s it about?”
The short answer to the first question, to one not familiar with Smith, is musician, artist, writer. My first discovery of Smith was as a musician; I have delighted, in my later years, in discovering her as a writer.
What is M Train about? Nothing. Everything. And, as Smith has been told by a quirky recurring character, it’s not so easy writing about nothing.
One thing that M Train is, is a book about writing, by a writer. It doesn’t take many sentences to realize that Smith is foremost a writer and that that is how she sees herself. The book is a journey of writing, of the writing of this book, as if she herself did not know what it was about, where it would lead. Mystical and atmospheric, M Train is a portal, as good books are, into that self-absorbed and timeless place that we as readers and as writers are wont to go. Smith sets the mood in the beginning:
I sit before Zak’s peerless coffee. Overhead the fans spin, feigning the four directions of a traversing weather vane. High winds, cold rain, or the threat of rain; a looming continuum of calamitous skies that subtly permeate my entire being. Without noticing, I slip into a light yet lingering malaise. Not a depression, more like a fascination with melancholia, which I turn in my hand as if it were a blue planet, streaked in shadow, impossibly blue.
Smith, fueled by coffee, takes us along real and remembered journeys as she scribbles on napkins, creates messy lists, carries close her favorite notebooks and pens, and as she gets lost in lifelike dreams and dreamlike contemplations. Smith refers to the allure, the experience, of timelessness, of the tyranny of time and the escape from time that can be achieved through reading and writing. Smith has means beyond books to lose herself. She has favorite TV shows, detective shows that she uses as distractions and as sources of musings. “It kills me to say it, but I don’t think (I would have been a good detective). My eyes seem to roll within.” It is her inward turning that propels the narrative. Smith unravels her own story even as she knits it together.
Despite her past successes, National Book Award-winning author Smith reveals the vulnerability and the self-doubt that haunt a writer. “All writers are bums”, she murmurs to two favorite dead authors. “May I be counted among you one day.” Smith reveals her many deep relationships with other writers, living and dead, and their work; but she also writes with a direct connection to her reader. One relates to her total immersion in reading and in writing even as one is swept up by her words, absorbed in her travels and her musings.
Smith refers often to her photography; her camera is with her almost as much as her notebook. She speaks of exceptional pictures and unexceptional, but which “contained the mission itself”. This book not only contains the author’s mission, it does so quite artfully. Smith leads the reader as well as herself into a lighter atmosphere towards the end of the book, letting go of the “fascination with melancholia” that began the mission. The mission was the process and act of writing, and through that process to experience acceptance and closure. For Smith has real sorrows, as anyone who has lived will, but is not “overcome with sorrow- more a sense of wonder”.
As Smith has been told, it’s not so easy writing about nothing. She manages to do it eloquently and engagingly, but not effortlessly; Smith is a writer who works at her craft. This is a remarkable, timeless narrative that reveals the work that went into the weaving of M Train, a beautiful tapestry of the nothing and the everything of a reflective life. The reader doesn’t finish the book so much as emerges from it, refreshed and inspired as from a dreamful sleep.
Songs of the North; A Sigurd Olson Reader
Songs of the North; A Sigurd Olson Reader is a sampling of the many essays by teacher, wilderness guide, nature writer, and preservationist Sigurd F. Olson. The twenty essays in the collection, selected and introduced by Howard Frank Mosher, are from six of the nine books written by Olson. I agree with Mosher when he states that “the vast majority of (Olson’s) work far transcends the genre of conventional nature writing”. If you have not yet read this great twentieth century naturalist-philosopher, this collection may be the place to start.
For Olson, paddling his beloved wilderness was a link to history as well as to nature, and his books now serve as a link for us. His essays are first person accounts of the Quetico-Superior border territory of the twenties and thirties, a place then still wild and untamed. He recounts meetings and travels with old time woodsmen, Indians, prospectors, and other characters both human and animal. As Olson writes of the watery trails and the portages that he personally experienced, he also shares his knowledge of those canoeists who first plied the waterways that he explored throughout his lifetime, the voyageurs. Boldly going where no Europeans had gone before, these hardy adventurers were only able to do what they did because of that iconic Native American technology, the canoe. In Olson’s time, decades after the time of the voyageurs, a canoe was still the most practical means of traversing a vast land etched and imprinted by water. Beyond practical transportation, Olson found canoe camping to be enriching on many levels. The wilderness routes of Indians and traders that Olson paddled became his route to an increasingly cohesive and well articulated philosophy of better living and of preservation.
Whether reminiscing about his own canoe trips into the Quetico-Superior region and northern territories of Canada, discoursing on the history of the voyageurs, or reflecting on the power of paddling the wilderness, Olson’s themes are of timelessness and of ancient rhythms. He writes of wilderness experiences as an antidote for what ails us, as individuals as well as society as a whole. “Beyond the Ranges”, is much more than a memoir about his becoming a guide. Those years in the woods and on the water informed and inspired Olson’s teaching, as well as his own maturity and humanity, and led him to share his insights with others. In “The Maker of Dreams”, Olson describes his development as a nature writer. “I have discovered I am not alone in my listening, that almost everyone is listening for something, that the search for places where the singing may be heard goes on everywhere. It is part of the hunger all of us have for a time when we were closer to nature than we are today. Should we actually hear the singing wilderness, cities and their confusion become places of quiet, speed and turmoil are slowed to the pace of the seasons, and tensions are replaced by calm.” While not overtly about preserving wilderness areas, Olson’s writings are imbued with the idea that wilderness is necessary to our own preservation.
Olson wrote of his experiences and observations, trusting that there were others who would respond to his simply eloquent evocations and philosophic musings. You will relish his writings if your kayak, like his canoe, “gives a sense of unbounded range and freedom, unlimited movements and exploration such as larger craft never know”, that it “is part of the medium through which it floats, the sky, the water, the shores”; if you too, in your small craft on the water feel “There is magic in the feel of a paddle and the movement of a canoe, a magic compounded of distance, adventure, solitude, and peace. The way of a canoe is the way of the wilderness, and of a freedom almost forgotten. It is an antidote to insecurity, the open door to waterways of ages past and a way of life with profound and abiding satisfactions. When a man is part of his canoe, he is part of all that canoes have ever known.” (“The Way of a Canoe”)
Read Songs of the North; A Sigurd Olson Reader , a Penguin Nature Library book, if you are unfamiliar with Sigurd F. Olson’s writing. The selection of essays is representative of his style and themes. In it Olson writes about all the reasons we paddle; adventure and exploration, recreation, and also solitude and introspection. Drift along on his lyrical prose and be buoyed by the quiet strength of his writing. If you explore Olson’s writing more fully beyond this Reader, you will notice recurring themes and revised ideas as Olson continuously refined his thoughts. You will enjoy that further exploration, just as you enjoy paddling a favorite area again and again, always discovering something new.
Find out more about Sigurd F. Olson at http://listeningpointfoundation.org/sig-olson/.