Veronica's Garden

Rachel Creager Ireland on writing, living, the Flint Hills, and the Post Rock Limestone Caryatids

Tag: story

Costa Rica Diary: Hanging Bridges in the Matrix of Life

The Monteverde area has many more ecotourism parks and reserves than it did twelve years ago. Andrea at La Colina Lodge recommended Selvatura Park for a zip line tour, but they have much more to do there than that. We took a walk in the bridges hanging in the cloud forest before our zip line adventure. It might sound pedestrian (no pun intended), but I’d rank it among my favorites of all the wonderful activities we did in Costa Rica.

It’s an understatement to say that it’s wet in the cloud forest. It’s not like the ethereal fog we have infrequently in Kansas. It’s like the air is hypersaturated with moisture. You get thoroughly wet just being in it. We couldn’t quite decide if it was sprinkling or not, and half of us put up the hoods on our rain jackets, half did not. Though there were other people around, we let them walk past us, and lingered in the quiet. We saw a slate-throated redstart and emerald toucanets, and other birds that I wasn’t able to identify.

Epiphytes grow everywhere. Wherever a seed or spore can land, it can grow. Trunks of trees are covered in shades of green, from so many kinds of plants that they would defy counting. The hanging bridges connect the steep sides of the mountains, so we walked among the clouds, wisps of which swirled silently among the trees. Looking down, I’d see a fern with leaves longer than my arms; when I’d crossed the bridge and come down the slope a bit, I could see that huge fern was growing from a crook in a tree, twenty feet off the ground. With so much water, who needs soil to grow in?

In my beloved tallgrass prairie, soil is the source from which springs everything that lives. There are insects and animals in the grass, and in the sky, and in the rivers and ponds; but the grass that anchors it all comes from the soil. It’s a thin but incredibly rich source of nutrients and moisture and the microorganisms that make other life forms possible. Old gardeners will tell you that the key to gardening is to feed the soil. Poets and scientists speak of soil in reverent tones. Soil is the matrix of life.

Monteverde cloud forest is so saturated with water everywhere, that the entire ecosystem itself is that matrix, from the soil up through the underbrush, and on up, two hundred feet into the tops of the trees. Many of the forest’s creatures rarely or never even touch the earth. If the prairie’s soil is a two-dimensional plane, the cloud forest is life exploding into three dimensions.

Amidst this fecundity, my Costa Rica story began to conceive itself. My character would have to journey from San Jose to the cloud forest. (There would be similarities to Maeve’s journey to the prairie, don’t you think?) I told Kevin about this as we walked, and he suggested mixing in some study of botanical medicines. Yes, I thought, she would be sick, seeking healing that couldn’t be found in civilization. What kind of illness? What sickness can only cloud forest heal? Forests are the lungs of the earth, so it would be a lung ailment, one which becomes more prevalent as the forests are inexorably razed. Somehow that led to the question of to what extent plot is necessary. Some authors (myself not included) excel at plot; I find myself moved more by other elements, as a reader and writer. Some books I’ve loved didn’t have much plot. We thought of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road as an example of a story with not a lot of plot, but a journey.

If I were to make my story a heroic journey, then the heroine would have eventually to go back to her home, to bring newly acquired wisdom to share with her people. What form would that take? What wisdom will she find, and how will she share it?

I’d thought, I can’t write about this place without being here for a while, living in Costa Rica for months, learning the language and studying the culture. I’ll put this story on the back burner. But once I start talking about a story with Kevin, it takes on a life of its own. The story has no regard for my timelines and preferences. The story does not care that I don’t belong here, that I have deep roots and commitments elsewhere, that my eyes haven’t yet learned how to see this place. The story wills itself to being through me, its vessel. The story has magical power I cannot constrain, especially in this fertile matrix of life.

Conversation and the Long Story

What does your family do when you get together? Our old standby would be a movie, but you could watch a movie a year with a person for twenty years and never learn a thing about her or him, or have a real conversation. I love a good conversation, but I’m not great at it, especially in groups, especially starting one up. I don’t see my birth mom Barb and her husband Ron often, so I wanted to make the most of the time we’d be together.

A couple years ago they gave us this great game for Christmas. Storymatic is a set of cards with characters and themes on them, and, like all the best games, there are a number of ways to play it, and it’s truly a game that spans ages. The one we chose this time was a variation on the old parlor game in which everyone writes one sentence (more or less) of a story, then passes the page to the next person to write the next sentence. As we go, we fold the page down, so no one can see more than one sentence previous.

As it turns out, we have some highly imaginative people in our family, so the game was even more fun than I’d expected. At the end, the kids requested that I be the one to read the stories aloud, because, according to them, I am particularly good at reading with feeling. But the conclusion of this story in particular had me laughing too hard to breathe, much less read aloud. Moreover, not only is it funny, it’s kind of like a conversation, albeit one in which no one knows what was spoken previously. Still, you can hear themes and meanings spoken across generations. Sort of reminds me of Thornton Wilder’s The Long Christmas Dinner.

Call me self-indulgent, but I thought I’d share it with you all. I’ve got others, too. Will post them if you want more.

Character: long-lost relative
Setting: in the future
Theme: snowman

Old Uncle Joseph loved to garden, and one day he took a trip into the future, and found some seeds that when planted, produced corn stalks on the following day, in the winter time, right next to a snowman.

As the stalks grew they lifted the snowman high into the air, and below we found the remains of what would have been my future second cousin thrice removed.

Oh bittersweet day, my wedding as well as the funeral for a long-lost relative.

Her name was Spice Stiller and she was my great-aunt.

When she heard her Aunt Spice would be coming to see her, she panicked, trying to get the house ready for a visitor. If only she knew that appearances did not matter, it was what was inside that counted.

To her what was “inside” meant what was inside the house such as her furniture, doors and windows. She had no conception of such insides as the furniture of her moral fiber, the doors of her perception or the window of her soul. Her lack of insight would be fatal. The End.

Next time you get together with your family, be sure to do something that will draw everyone out to interact with each other. Happy New Year, friends.

Imagine a snowman in those clouds . . .

Imagine a snowman in those clouds . . .

What’s Your Story?

I read in the literary magazine The Sun that the German romantics saw a person as defined by what s/he longs for, in contrast to the contemporary western view that we are what we do. And that’s how we get to know a person, by asking, “What do you do?”

I’ve always hated that question, though I can’t say I’m not guilty of having asked it. Other times I’ve asked a new acquaintance, “What’s your story?” Job is routine, but story is about movement and change, which is much more interesting. Where did you come from, and how did you get to be where you are now?

My own story is in flux, and I’m not sure what I’ll settle on. It used to be about pleasing other people, then it was about rebellion, doing what I wanted to do, and clinging desperately to an imaginary freedom. For a while my story was about being a victim, then fighting back, then choosing reconciliation over fighting. Then I changed it to having thought I’d been a victim, but eventually discovering that my greatest lessons had been learned through intense difficulty, which I’d mistaken for injury, which realization transformed my bitterness to profound gratitude. Another version of my story was about self-medication and eventual healing.

My dear friend Marva Weigelt proposes that, because of the non-linearity of time, the past is ultimately no more determined than the future. I had already come to the same conclusion logically, though I don’t have much practical experience with past-changing. It’s worth noting, though, that this is not about simply changing one’s perceptions; it’s about altering reality (assuming there is a distinction to be made between perception and reality -but that’s a discussion I’m not prepared to take up tonight). I’m thinking now that I might change my past, my story, to something I haven’t done before. It might be something about having been exactly where I was meant to be, every step of the way. I might like to throw in more playfulness, lightness, and joy. Perhaps I’ll say that I experimented a lot, that I wanted to experience every possible permutation of emotion and passion within the perceived limitations of the physical body, the dark as well as the light; and that I dove head first into that experiment and relished every moment of it. I’m liking this story already. The more I think about it, the truer it sounds. Isn’t that just what I did? You who’ve known me a long time, tell me it’s not true.

And what about you? What’s your story? I’d love to hear it.

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