Wednesday, October 8, 2014


first-grade red-eared slider on the rock to the right

boojum tree

“My fight for sculpture uses up all of my time and strength, and even then I lose.”

Monday I made a field trip to the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, 45 minutes east of downtown LA. I aimed to write a column on the garden for The Tidings (which I'll work up separately).

My "process"--as is true, I'd wager, for any writer--or painter or composer or sculptor--is a mystery, perhaps most of all to myself. This much I am realizing: an almost ridiculous amount of energy and effort go into the column each week.

First, I prepare myself emotionally and spiritually, building to a kind of trembling excitement. In this case, I didn't want to know too much in advance. I'd been to the garden before. But I'm not going to write a "review," or an informational piece, or a guide to the garden. I'm going to go to the garden and have an experience.

That's where the excitement comes in, because I can't force or create the experience--but if I don't have an experience, I can't write the piece. To write a straight, bloodless, fact piece--by, for instance, simply visiting the website and embellishing a bit--would be the equivalent for me of taking a job in a munitions factory. You have to give way, way more. You have to incarnate the garden. You have to see the whole thing as a sacred obligation.

The morning of my field trip I packed everything but a passport: a sweater, though it was sweltering, an extra pair of shoes, reading material, an iced tea AND an iced coffee (don't ask). I'd debated internally for two or three days in advance as to when to leave so as to avoid rush hour, then finally, fervid with angst, set off at the peak hour of 8:30. Miraculously, the 10 East (heading the "right" way, i.e. out of town) was smooth sailing.  En route, I listened to Bach 2 and 3 Part Inventions (Andras Schiff). The music's important, too.

The garden comprises 86 acres of California native plants: gorgeous, even in Southern California's current full-on drought. There's Fay's Wildflower Garden, and the Cultivar Garden, and the Indian Hill Mesa and the Magnificent Oak.

But what you do, I figured out after an hour or so,  is you go beyond. You keep walking and you’ll find a mile-long trail that on a 100-degree weekday noon is completely deserted. Chaparral, junipers, lowish-lying scrub, blue blue sky and in the distance to the north, the mountains. Gnarled tree branches against the sky, many in their death throes that, even in their dry, parched state, had a beauty and dignity.

I have never mastered the art of packing. My mind skips over what might actually be needed into some other realm and thus I will leave the snacks in the car and instead bring E. H. Gombrich's The Story of Art which even in paperback, weighs around five pounds. This, too, is part of the process. I just feel safe with a book. I don't necessarily have to read it, but I need to carry it. I need to have it near.

So I was slogging along in the boiling sun: starving, carrying a pack that some would call needlessly heavy, but quite happy nonetheless.

And in the midst of this sere but somehow lush landscape was a little clearing; a little happening I almost missed (and maybe the heavy pack slowed me down just enough so I didn't miss it?).

You have to walk off the main path to reach it which in the heat of full noon was not my first inclination.

But I did, and came upon a laminated card, tacked to a wooden post and faded to almost invisible by the sun. “Cedar Point: The Opening Gateway," it read. "Calocedrus decurrens, site-specific rocks, by Joshua Kreutzer."

The card continued:

“I saw the intense, dramatic lean of the existing cedar, and how the path found itself meandering just underneath the tall spike. It triggered memory of two nearby fallen cedars discovered earlier. I envisioned tall spikes, opposing each other, and the pathway winding between them, almost as if within a vaulted cathedral. ...I wanted the tall spikes to appear free standing, as if nothing was holding them up. The deciduous Quercus Garryana [Oregon White Oak] will bloom and lose their leaves seasonally, which will periodically alter the appearance and experience for the everyday visitor. As you enter “Cedar Point,” observe the crossing spikes become an opening gateway.”

Hunh? I thought. And then I walked along this path that was barely a path and started to see what the guy meant. There were five spires, three on one side and two on the other, and they did form a kind of arch. And Kreutzer (who I later googled, and could find nothing) had sort of beautifully, randomly but lovingly piled rocks--six- to eight-inch rounded, weather-beaten, brown, gray, ocher, and speckled rocks--around the bottom of the trunks of three of the cedars and along part of the path.

Just walking along you'd hardly notice the cedars, and the cathedral-like arch they formed--but he had.

Someone had noticed these California Incense Cedars, whose sun-bleached, leafless spires against the blue sky, now appeared to be dead. Someone had thought to pile rocks around their trunks.

There was no-one out here now. The air wafted the fragrance of sweetgrass, warm pine needles, sage. A desiccated leaf spiraled from the branch of a tree to the ground. I thought of the nine-year-old girl I recently read about who, shunned by her family, was dying from Ebola alone on the side of the road in Liberia. I thought of the immigrants who die trying to cross over from Mexico. I thought of how incredibly lucky I was to be able to walk through a garden on a Monday. on any day, and of how because I am so lucky, I don’t mind suffering a teeny bit. It was good to be hungry, and to walk through the far reaches of the garden in the hot sun, and to be carrying a book that if I had any "sense" I wouldn't be carrying.

I want to be worthy to write about what I love and what's important to me.

In the garden, I took pictures, tape-recorded my thoughts, shot a (really bad) video of the Cedar Gateway. I was there almost four hours. I drank it in. I talked out loud to myself. I prayed. I cried.

On the way home I stopped at JTYH in Rosemead or scallion pancakes and knife-cut noodles with seafood. Cause let's never forget, the food's important, too.

I won't write about Cedar Point, or this particular facet of my field trip for The Tidings, if for no other reason than the 800-word max. I get so excited before actually sitting down to write a piece for which I've gathered information, conducted an interview, had an "experience," that my heart is in my throat. I'll take several more hours to sift through the brochures, to transcribe the tapes, to "descend" as I call it, into the material.

Five minutes after I've submitted the piece, I'll start the process all over again; I'll begin mulling the following week's piece.

There's nothing "efficient" about the way I work. It requires a huge amount of solitude. It requires getting very quiet.  It requires drawing upon everything that's in me: everything I've read, heard, thought, felt, suffered. It makes me extremely impatient with distractions, interruptions, noise, small talk. It's probably ruined me to be any kind of consistent companion to another.

Last Sunday's LA Times carried an obituary of Nati Cano, born in 1933, "whose famed Los Angeles-based group Mariachi los Camperos de Nati Cano played top concert venues around the world."

"The mariachi plays kind of imperfect," Cano was quoted as saying, "and for a musician not used to it, it is difficult because it is imperfect. If you just write it on a sheet, it is impossible to interpret, because it comes from a style way back. You almost have to be born with it. I'm not sure you can learn it at a university."

That's how I feel about my writing.


  1. Chapparal and junipers. Sweetgrass and sage. Scallion pancakes and knife-cut noodles!

    These are little litanies of the vital!

    Your process, whatever it is, and however it happens, WORKS! This is a beautiful post. And yes, how I can empathize with always needing to have a book nearby. I took The Colossus by Sylvia Plath to a cousin's wedding. I take Caryll Houselander to the Red Hat. Not that I'll be reading them! But they're sort of apotropaic, dead-tree guardian angels!

    I imagine that there is this tension in your process between activity (write, research, study, learn, go out and see!) and passivity (making oneself available to the voice, or whatever one wants to call it, carving out the quiet time and quiet space that makes the writing possible).

    I smile at the iced tea and iced coffee -- but I know that I can't write a line of verse without that half-pot of coffee nearby! The routine, the ritual, the structure. The certain time and place (usually, for me, right here in the apartment at 3.30 am!). It is salvific.

  2. The 9 year old girl in Liberia whose mother died of Ebola is Mercy Kennedy. The photo of her alone holding onto a tree is the most heartbreaking I have ever seen. I had a prayer for her at Mass on Sunday. This post is one of your best.

  3. "But what you do, I figured out after an hour or so, is you go beyond..."

    Maybe a little metaphor for how you write. Yes, I sense sometimes the ridiculous amount of energy you put into a piece you write... I try to honor that by not speed reading through it - this post is a perfect example - I read it slowly and enjoyed the experience - not just of the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden - but the experience of you experiencing the Garden - you have such a gift for putting your inner experience, complete with angst, hunger, thirst, and the internal debates and dialogue (in this case, about when to leave to miss rush hour), into your descriptions of your external reality. And it often resonates with thoughts and feelings I've known, but not bothered to label or describe. So then I experience a connection to your experience as well as what you so skillfully describe as you walk through the Garden. So I'm sort of in the picture myself, walking with a book, hot, hungry and yet glad I came. As I most always am, when I stop by to get caught up with your posts.

  4. Okay, can I just say I LOVE you people! Thank you so much for getting my meandering, seemingly tangential thoughts...As I wrote to another friend who liked the piece, "Of course the three or four MORE hours it took to write about my "process" was itself part of the process"...And I wouldn't have it any other way." I got to chat briefly yesterday with April Garbat, who does PR for the garden, and she had all these great thoughts about helping to re-shape people's aesthetic of what is beautiful...The garden in lush spring bloom is one kind of beauty, and in a severe early-fall drought, it's another kind of beauty...

    Here's to iced tea AND iced coffee. Caffeine and gardens rule.

  5. Great article Heather! I was thrilled to read about your writing "process" even though as you say it is still somewhat of a mystery. It reminded me of something I wrote in my journal, a quote by Gene Fowler (I don't have a clue who he is, but I will) that I thought was quite good, "Writing is easy: all you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead." And that to me sounds like what you do when you write. You pour so much of yourself into your writing and it goes out to places far and near and it effects the reader. You have to be courageous to allow such vulnerability in sharing your innermost thoughts I think. Like another reader said, "I read it slowly and enjoyed the experience" and then for me I took it with me (in my head) when I went for my walk and paid more attention to my surroundings, the jacaranda trees, the ivy crawling up the walls, the star jasmine creeping along white fencing, the tiny lizards scurrying across my dirt path and my prayers then came tumbling out effortlessly.
    This piece is extra special to me because I can connect with it in so many ways. I have a hard time packing as well and my packing sounds similar to yours, the sweater even when it's hot, the extra pair of shoes, the books, the snacks and the BOOK (did I already say that?)! Oh and over the past few years I have developed a need to drag a scarf with me wherever I go, regardless the weather. Thank you for writing. Peace and all good, bren R.

    1. Omg, Philothea, the scarf! Maybe there is a word for this condition: fear of being without a scarf. I sometimes wear two at once! The ONLY reason I didn't have one that day was as I said it was about 105 degrees. Now I am KNITTING my own scarves. Like I'm seriously frightened of running out.
      Anyway, I'm so glad you liked/got the piece. In a way, I like it better than the "official" one I wrote for The Tidings, though I like that one, too. One of these days I am going to write a whole book about the writing life, or my writing life. Yes, sweating tears of blood, like Christ in the Garden at Gethsemane. And at the same time, there is not one thing and noplace on earth I would rather be...Thanks for this.

  6. Thank you, Heather, for a lovely and thought-provoking piece of writing. I can identify with the effort exerted in your anticipation of writing. It is a holy activity, an extension of Creation, as is the production of any form of art or craft.

    After reading, I continued to think about the circle of stones left by Kreutzer at the "archway". You noted that you thought about Kreutzer and how he had seen what you were then viewing. Having witnessed the five "spires", he also felt the need to communicate that to other people, unknown to him.

    I find it interesting that rocks have been used by different kinds of people as markers of various kinds. Andy Goldsworthy came to mind, as did the innukshuks of the Innuits, and also rock cairns left by hikers. The rocks can be signs pointing the way, or noting something important to one who will follow (like water or shelter), or they can have a spiritual message: the need to bear witness, to share oneness, express joy or thankfulness.

    Thanks again.

    1. Susan, thanks for these lovely thoughts and links, which I hope to check out when I can, on the fascinating subject of rocks! I wrote a piece several years ago on the Goldsworthy documentary Rivers and Tides. Just beautiful. The need to "communicate with people, unknown to us"...yes.

  7. Thanks for sharing your process. I can identify with the seemingly random essential elements, along with your ritualistic approach to writing that reverences the process, allowing it to unfold in ways that are unexpected and almost always nonlinear, but somehow sacred.
    Thanks, too, for offering your insight this week at the "Conversations around Faith in Contemporary Culture". My friend, Ann, and I both enjoyed the interesting panel and the discussion. As we were out walking Friday, I commented to her that it was a "Bluebird" day. She totally got it! Thanks for the reference and for giving voice to what's beautiful and meaningful in the world. I appreciate your work.


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