I promise I will stop talking about the NonfictioNOW one day very soon. But not quite yet. The first night of the conference, Joni Tevis, read from an essay about rafting through the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It’s a longish essay about science and magic and how there’s not a hillock available for privacy as Joni and her husband and their guide set up camp in the still-frigid June on the banks of the river in Alaska. Tevis tells us about how the raft got stuck on a rock and threatened to upend their boat and all their gear, and, in that cold of waters, maybe dunk them to death but that she and her husband and their guide used their paddles as winches and levers and cranes to pop themselves off the rock so they could float to their next near-freezing death experience. They ate from cans. They sang Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” They danced under the Northern Lights.
Tevis came to a part of the essay and looked up at the audience and said, in her slight southern accent, “I’m going to skip this part.” She chanted “Lichen, lichen, lichen.” as she skipped through the pages. I was glad and sad. As the host, I am grateful to her for keeping the reading short. As a writer, I wanted to know the lichen details.
The next day, at Brian Doyle’s keynote speech at noon, he preached to the audience. He said, every day, you are a witness. You are the listener. If you listen to every detail, you will be a writer. On Friday, during Tim Flannery’s keynote speech, when asked how did he write about something so big as global climate change, he said, he starts with the science, with the observable, with the little details. In his book, the Weathermakers, Flannery writes about global warming. Yes, he says, there may be more rainfall in some places but even if there is more rainfall in more places, it won’t come at the right time or the right season. For example, when it rains instead of snows in Alaska, the rain freezes. Normally, reindeer feed on lichen underneath the snow but the reindeer cannot break through the frozen ice. Their snouts were made for burrowing through snow to reach the lichen. Now, that it rains instead of snows, they starve.
Later at the conference, I was introducing my co-chair Robin Hemley who would introduce Ander Monson and Michael Martone. I had to fill some empty space as Ander and Robin played with the audio/visual equipment. As a notation for skipping through time, I recalled Joni Tevis’s reading and said, “Lichen, Lichen, Lichen.” But I misunderstood the point of Tevis’s lichen delay. Later, at a panel reading called “Unusual Foods and Edible Guests” Joni Tevis read the lichen part of her Alaska essay. She hadn’t been skipping over the details—she’d been waiting until she could better press them into service. She read this about lichen,
“So I find myself looking down, at things small enough to focus on, and discover lichen in amazing profusion. While David and Carl read, I go a-hunting for powdered sunshine, rippled rockfrog, and fairy puke. There’s elegant orange lichen splattered across a stone but no frog pelt nor rock tripe, nor pixie cups, a club lichen that looks like minute goblets.”
Dear Governor: Rock frog and Fairy Puke! These are the tiny details we have been waiting for! This is the science. This is the magic and the life.
I get it. You can’t busy yourself with every tiny detail of your constituents’ lives or their jobs. There are too many of us and we are too multiplex and varied. But perhaps, for example, on the one day you visited Puente de Hozho elementary school, you could have let the students who worked hard to prepare for your visit tell you about the bones they learned the names of in Spanish or, if when you visited NAU, you could come into the classroom to see how my students came together to help put the conference together by filming the sessions, writing about the panels, registering guests, and spreading the word about it, and how, in that same classroom, they came back burbling for new ideas for their own essays and how to teach essays, or if you went one day to see how my students sit in the hallway waiting for engineering students to come by to work not only on the mechanics of their papers but on the argument and evidence of those papers—on the details—well, then maybe you would see that what we do is worth the big, abstract idea and would do anything in your power to make sure that those details continue to get done.