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  Kim Barnes: Why I Wrote In the Wilderness

It wasn't until the spring of 1993 that I came to some kind of awareness of my connection--my true connection--to what I was writing. I was spading our garden spot, turning over this dark moist soil, and looking out over the landscape I have known all my life--the Clearwater Valley--when something settled, came to rest, inside of me. It had to do with the earth in my hands, the river below me, and a sudden, primeval sense of history and connectedness. I thought of my mother and grandmothers, women who worked their own small patches of land in order to feed their families, or to simply have something that was theirs. I thought of a distant relative, whose husband would not allow her a garden because he feared the attention she would give it: each spring she'd plant, and each spring he'd go out and with his bare hands pull the same plants up by their roots. There was something in that dirt, in the way a woman could nurture the soil in the coldest or driest weather and bring forth life, that threatened him. And I thought of my presence there and all that had happened to keep me so close to my birthplace--how I had ignored or rejected my connection to the place, the land and its people. As I turned the shovel and knelt to break the rooted clods, I had a sudden image of my mother doing the same, and her mother and grandmother before her, and I became intensely aware of our lives being stitched together by a common thread--our relationship with the land. Whether in the cotton fields and broom corn patches of Oklahoma or the logging camps and river canyons of Idaho, the women in my family have always found solace and intimacy in working the soil.

There is no doubt that men in the West have loved the land--sometimes to death. But we see in women whatever creative impulse it is that causes us to seed and reseed, give rest to what is exhausted, nurture and husband so that the land will serve us in kind. Perhaps this is a generalization, but I believe, at least in my family, there is something to it: while the men harvested trees, giving not a thought to replanting, leaving the earth scraped and burned to nothing more than sterile ash, the women watered and fed, harvested the seeds to use the next year, and rotated their few crops so as not to exhaust the soil's nutrients, thereby ensuring the land's--and their own--survival.

All of this is a side issue--a tangent--to my memoir, of course. But it's all connected--the logging, the gardening, the religion, the migration of my family from one kind of isolation to another--and I want to trace all the streams that feed into the river that is my physical, emotional and spiritual existence.

I want to reach back into my family's history so that I may better understand the forces that brought us to Idaho, to the woods, to fundamentalist religion. I want to find my father and mother in me and see myself through them. I think about those moments in my life when I have come to an awareness of what lay beyond the shack, the trees, the mountains, and I hope to make the connection between being in the literal wilderness and the wilderness that was something other than physical: the wilderness brought on by physical isolation; the wilderness that is the sexuality of a girl coming of age in such an isolated environment; and the wilderness of our souls, from which our church helped to save us.

I turned 37 this year. I've been married to Robert Wrigley, a poet and college professor, for twelve years. I have a 1 6-year-old stepson, a five-year-old daughter, and a three-year-old son. I teach English at the college level, and I have published a number of poems and short stories. I live in the world, and sometimes I'm still surprised by it all.

People ask, "How did you get from there to here." It has been easy to answer with a shrug, but what I believe now is that I have not escaped, that, in fact, I do not want to escape. If I now find that my life is good, if I am happy, creative, a good mother and companion, perhaps it is because, not in spite of, those things I would forget. This does not mean I'm without resentment and bitterness. It does mean I've come to see how nothing is simple, how a damned river reeks its own havoc.

The night of high school graduation, I went against my father's wishes. I asked to attend an adult-supervised graduation party, and even though he knew that I and my friends did not drink or smoke, he said no. All the emotions I had felt in earlier years, all the resentment and frustration settled into my chest in a hard knot of bitterness. "I'm 18. What if I go anyway," I asked, and my father answered, "You take your things and don't come back." I packed one bag, a few books, walked past my mother quietly crying in the kitchen, and left.

Perhaps I still have not forgiven my parents their sins. Perhaps, at 37, I still feel abandoned, left to the demons. Perhaps the reason I can now write this is because I believe I can live in the wilderness and outside of it, that I can embrace the whole.

The chronology of my life is the easy part, although a good enough story in itself. But I want to make a quilt, to piece the blocks together from scraps of family history, personal memory and whatever thread it is that connects it all. I want to trace my own journey as I remember and remake my past.
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Copyright © 1997 Kim Barnes.