I Plan to be There too.
By Margaret Pettis
Our guest, Margaret Pettis lives in northern Utah. She co-founded the Utah Wilderness Association and the High Uintas Preservation Council, working for decades to protect Utah wilderness and important wildlife habitat. Margaret now spends her time writing about and illustrating wild places she explored on foot, raft and horseback. Margaret taught freshman English for 40 years. She was named Utah English teacher of the Year in 1988 and Utah Poet of the Year for her book of poetry, Chokecherry Rain, Her book of poetry, In the Temple of the Stars, and three novels in the Marti Bruhn series are available now on amazon.com: The Turquoise Bear, Wyoming Gold, and The Crimson Trail. To learn more about upcoming books, see www.pettispoetry.com.
As the pandemic persists, I have heard about people who have re-focused on feeding birds, expanding their life list from chicken and pheasant to junco and grosbeak. Others have made loaf after loaf of ever more exotic bread. Some have cleaned their houses until they wore out their tools. Anything to bide the time, to escape what has cruelly claimed the lives of so many around us. For me, I merely had to open the drawer of my grandmother’s antique secretary, pull from the bottom drawer the five manuscripts tucked under topo maps and art supplies, and begin again the long process I had resigned myself to most likely never complete. If you are a writer and have suffered the angst of the demeaning game of presenting your work in pathetically truncated form to agent after faceless agent who has established him- or herself at the dragon gate of a shrinking kingdom of publishing companies, you understand the emotional roller-coaster. My manuscripts had traveled from copy center to home desk to bank deposit box (fear of fire) to off-site external hard drive (fear of digital corruption) back home, where they were set in that lovely cherry wood coffin. I had not expected to rediscover the excitement- and labor- in their revival. During the year’s shortest days, the arrival of the viral variant, and hourly political shock, three of my five novels in the Marti Bruhn series appeared on Amazon in December, with the next two to be released in January and February. After working so long in solitude and anonymity, I was elated to hear from readers, some of whom were very familiar with the elusive manuscripts I had long sworn would someday become tangible paperbacks. . Their history is simple: I wrote the books fifteen years ago, having mentally brewed the characters and core tale over the past forty-five, then turned them into paperbacks in the past month, thanks to the ease of Amazon. To retirement, pandemic isolation, and a sense of urgency that my lifespan is narrowing I credit such closure. Weaving a mystery entails deliberating events that, if they don’t flat-out defy real life, twist and slide their way through the lives of people who are not real. It is an act of obsession and fuel for insomnia. I could swear it off and liberate my days and nights from self-imposed conflict. But why? The act of writing fiction also provides solace and sneaky life lessons, some appearing on quiet wings and others arriving with a splash.
An ice-skimming early winter paddle on the Great Salt Lake. Photo by Margaret Pettis
My childhood was not animated by an imaginary friend. However, I did have a horse, a pack of golden retrievers, two sisters, and lots of time, freedom and space to roam on horseback through the orchards and fields of the Feather River country of northern California. As a working soul, I taught high school in Utah, daily escorting my 165 students through great literature and our own writing practice. I tried my hand as a volunteer English teacher of state prison inmates. Now, in blessed retirement, I find it intriguing to have all that time, freedom and space once again to pursue, plot, and people my fictional worlds with invisible companions whose every action is at my whim. Is it only writers who excuse this illusion as ‘normal?’
Stilling the mind, learning from nature.
Not surprisingly, absorbing what is right in front of me, observing its gentle or bright or unexpected behavior, sharpens my attention to the relevance of Now. Be it a marmot on a promontory just beyond my kayak, busily tipping branches laden with red berries, or a goshawk glaring down from her spruce branch as I hike through a silent High Uintas forest— all teach focus, slowing of breathing, and shedding of the world’s darker realities that can pull us into near paralysis. Becoming small in the larger natural world leads me to the gratitude I feel in its beauty. Becoming small takes the ugly spotlight off our own woes and casts it broadly on the greater world ‘out there,’ the setting in which our characters thrive—and sometimes die.
Hope and longevity.
My characters have survived incredible fear, pain and hardship. Sculpting each scene can’t help but add a bit of perspective to my own, much less challenged orb. Of course, that comparison may be debatable, since the threats the characters faced were right there on horseback, river raft, or a cliff ledge above the pounding Pacific, rather than a virus. But the fact that Marti Bruhn only exists in my head does not diminish the fact that she survived a crisis of heart and uncommon danger with tenacity; that gives me the hope for a longevity I had come to take for granted. I will do what it takes to make that hope real for myself and those around me, to be part of the community of good and good sense. I will take the hatred in my neighbors as a lesson, recalling that during our annual reading of To Kill a Mockingbird, I made a point to share with my students that my racist grandfather unwittingly gave me the greatest lesson: how NOT to be in the world of humanity.
The ethics of our behavior.
While my books may not be earth-shattering tomes, and do not inspire like those who stood up to the ugliness of narcissistic power this past year, they highlight human perseverance and the desperate message that a human-centered world is not a sacred text. Whether the subject is the atrocity of bear poaching, canned hunts of cougars, capturing endangered wolves, or smuggling threatened birds from tropical forests, my characters make ethical choices that, by example, inform and instruct the readers.
The herons whose rookery full of gangly chicks was loud and busy and glorious in sunshine is now empty above the frozen lake where I paddled in early summer. But the big birds will return in spring. Gliding silently beneath them, hopeful and in good company, I plan to be there too.
LITURGY FOR EARTH
In this juniper,
born of a seed on a mesa in the sun,
shelter of jays and mountain lion, is the word.
In this rock,
ancient as the vesper wind caressing
every crevice, every cleft, is the altar.
In this cirque,
comber of clouds and midwife
of the dawn, is the homily.
In this stream,
filling granite fonts with golden offering
of aspen leaves and cutthroat trout, is the hymn.
In this goshawk,
who, with stroke and gesture of wingtip,
slices through wind and cloud, is the way.
In my heart,
where deep love for this world
wraps itself about each tiny thing, is hope.
Margaret was recently interviewed on Utah Public Radio.