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Me and Harry. Photo by Lyn Groome.

Harry Groome is a writer and conservationist. When I first met him 20 years ago, Harry was also a board member of The Nature Conservancy.

I came to Philadelphia from Alaska, where I lived and worked with the Conservancy, to interview for a role with the organization’s Pennsylvania chapter.

Harry had recently retired as chairman of a large health care-pharmaceutical-consumer products company. In that meeting, I learned we shared three passions in addition to conservation: fly-fishing, ice hockey, and writing.

Harry told me he’d always wanted to be a writer, but he put writing aside when he took a job with the company where he spent his entire career. Upon retirement, he took it up again, writing short stories, getting an MFA from Vermont College, and eventually writing four novels.

But Harry’s most famous piece of writing—for which I once informed him he had more readers than Stephen King—was his “Letter to Hal.” Hal is his first grandson and the letter explained why Harry was giving Hal’s inheritance away to The Nature Conservancy. You can see a short film the Conservancy made of the letter here. (But get your tissues out—you’ll need ‘em!)

A few years later, when I was offered a month-long residency at the Millay Colony and took a sabbatical from the Conservancy to pursue it, Harry said to me, “Someday you’re going to have to choose. You can’t do both—you can’t be both a successful writer and a successful executive.”

Me being who I am, I said, “No, I can do both,” and proceeded to try to prove it for the next decade and a half. (I never liked being told what I could and couldn’t do.)

I made a pretty good run of it, too, but over the past nine months since I left my last “corporate” job with EY, I’ve been on a different journey. I started writing again, in earnest, and with a passion that I thought I’d lost. Poetry, as always, but also, increasingly prose—essays and memoir.

During this time, I’ve done some consulting, and even looked at some longer-term executive positions, but I haven’t found a role that gets me excited enough to go back into full-time work in such a capacity. I’ve lost interest in climbing a corporate ladder and playing in other people’s sandboxes.

Then something my wife Samantha said to me struck a nerve: “You’re happiest when you’re writing.” It’s true. And, while I did a fair amount of writing all during my working life over the past 30 years, including launching and writing my blog The Green Skeptic for a decade and publishing two books, over 100 poems, and a bunch of essays and reviews, I never fully committed myself to being a writer—not fully. There was always a part of me that wanted to be “successful” in work outside of writing—really, what I wanted was to be in charge, to run the show. (And I guess part of me still wanted to prove Harry wrong.)

But lately, and by this, I mean within the past couple of months, I’ve been thinking perhaps Harry and Samantha were right. And the universe seems to be sending me messages to this effect as well: First, in January a publisher wrote to me saying she wanted to bring out my book, Dwelling: an ecopoem, which I wrote on that long-ago residency at Millay. The book will be published this Fall. (Not a coincidence, I believe.)

Second, an idea I’d been working on—to trace the story of part of my family’s roots in Portugal’s Azores—started to take off. I landed a residency on São Miguel island for part of the upcoming summer, just a few miles down the road from the village where my great-grandparents came from and where that part of my family lived since at least the 1600s. I ran a book idea past my agent and now I’m working up a proposal and sample chapter, so she can try to sell the book later this Spring.

This is just to say that, now, some 16 years after Harry gave me that advice, I’m ready to make the leap and commit myself fully to being a writer. And, I’ve also started to think that perhaps it’s through my writing—and not by being an executive—that I can best contribute to the community now that I’m a “free agent.” Perhaps I don’t have to lead an organization to help them reach their goals.

With that in mind, I’m looking for ways to help organizations working on climate change, biodiversity conservation, and the sustainable use of our natural resources that allow me to keep up my focus on my writing. This could include working on major gift development, storytelling, or strategic projects for which organizations need expertise they don’t have in-house. I’m also looking to contribute to publications that have a need for my expertise in conservation, energy, and the environment. Reach out to me at greenskeptic[at]gmail[dot]com if you have any leads.

So, perhaps Harry was right, and it’s taken all this time for the writer in me to rise to the surface enough from the life-stream to get used to the air—to emerge and make the choice evident. Here is my poem, “Surfacing,” from Dwelling: an ecopoem:

 

Surfacing

 

“If this were the beginning of a poem, he would have called the thing he felt inside him the silence of snow.” Orhan Pamuk

 

The sound of the stream as it fills and flows

—under a full moon and stars—with melting snow.

 

The sound of your breathing as it fills and furls

in early winter air beneath the pines.

 

Say that the flow of a stream is surfacing a langscape,

surfacing the stream: shushing shushing susurrus

 

within you responding—

 

The way a crow responds to another,

as it dreams of road kill over the ridge.

 

The way deer browse for succulent shoots

or a dream of deer, hooving under surface.

 

Say that air flows around objects as a stream around rock,

surfacing the stream: leaves plastering color to surface

 

of a half-submerged stone—

 

—Scott Edward Anderson

(“Surfacing” first appeared The Wayfarer and is part of my sequence Dwelling: an ecopoem, which will be published in the Fall or 2018 by Shanti Arts.)


Postscript: Not long after I drafted this week’s mailing I got an email in response to my post of Ross Gay’s Philadelphia poem from Harry Groome himself—another sign—and we got together for coffee last week, where his lovely wife Lyn took the photo that accompanies this post on my blog.

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São Miguel, Azores, Portugal

“I don’t write to say what I think. I write to find out what I’m thinking,” said the poet Gary Snyder. To that I might add, I write to understand who I am.

Lately, I’ve been working on a project—a kind of enhanced memoir—that explores my Portuguese family history. As part of this project, I’ll be going to the Island of São Miguel in the Azores this summer, where two of my maternal great-grandparents came from, for a residency hosted by DISQUIET International, which brings together Portuguese and Portuguese-American writers.

I first started researching my Portuguese roots back in the 90s and, coincidentally, that’s when I met the Portuguese poet, Nuno Júdice. He read at Poets House, along with the translator Richard Zenith, in December of 1994.

The author of over twenty books of poems, Júdice was born in 1949, on the southern coast of Portugal, in the region known as the Algarve. He is currently a professor at Lisbon’s Universidade Nova and directs the Colóquio/Letters program for the Gulbenkian Foundation. I’m hoping to see him in Lisbon when we are on the mainland.

Here is Nuno Júdice’s “Poema” in its original and in a translation by Martin Earl.

POEMA

As coisas mais simples, ouço-as no intervalo

do vento, quando um simples bater de chuva nos

vidros rompe o silêncio da noite, e o seu ritmo

se sobrepõe ao das palavras. Por vezes, é uma

voz cansada, que repete incansavelmente

o que a noite ensina a quem a vive; de outras

vezes, corre, apressada, atropelando sentidos

e frases como se quisesse chegar ao fim, mais

depressa do que a madrugada. São coisas simples

como a areia que se apanha, e escorre por

entre os dedos enquanto os olhos procuram

uma linha nítida no horizonte; ou são as

coisas que subitamente lembramos, quando

o sol emerge num breve rasgão de nuvem.

Estas são as coisas que passam, quando o vento

fica; e são elas que tentamos lembrar, como

se as tivéssemos ouvido, e o ruído da chuva nos

vidros não tivesse apagado a sua voz.

POEM

It’s the simplest things that I hear in the wind’s

intervals, when the simple beating of the rain

on the windows breaks the silence of night, and its rhythm

overwhelms that of words. Sometimes, it is a

tired voice, that tirelessly repeats

what the night teaches those who live it; other

times, it runs, hurriedly, mowing down meanings

and phrases as though it wanted to reach the end, more

quickly than the dawn. We’re talking about simple things,

like the sand which is scooped up, and runs

through your fingers while your eyes search

for a clear line on the horizon; or things

that we suddenly remember, when

the sun emerges from a brief tear in the clouds.

These are the things that happen, when the wind

remains; and it is these we try to recall, as though

we had heard them, and the noise of the rain

on the windowpanes had not snuffed out their voice.

 

© 2006 Nuno Júdice, from As coisas mais simples, Lisbon: Dom Quixote, 2006

Translation © 2007 Martin Earl, first published on Poetry International, 2014

 

 

Sheep in the Scottish Borderlands, August 2014. Photo by SEA

Sheep in the Scottish Borderlands, August 2014. Photo by SEA

Twice in my life I wanted to raise sheep. I’m not sure why. Perhaps it is an interest stemming from deep within my Scottish and Portuguese heritage.

The first time, I was as a teenager outside of Rochester, New York. I considered enrolling in the organic agriculture program at Goddard College in Vermont, where I’d learn animal husbandry and then get a piece of land where I could raise a flock. I heard that Canada had a generous homesteader program and wrote to various provincial governments. (I still have a couple of their responses.)

The second time was in 1992, I had just moved to Garrison, New York, into a converted ice house on the old Vanderbilt-Webb estate. I bought Raising Sheep the Modern Way by Paula Simmons and a few other books and looked into buying a few starter sheep from a neighbor. (I still can’t part with my copy of Simmons’s book.)

While my poem, “Deserted Sheep,” which was part of a group of three poems that won the Nebraska Review Award in 1997, was certainly influenced by my experiences in New York’s countryside, thinking about raising sheep, it was a very different landscape that provided the inspiration.

I was walking the hills outside of Giessen, in what was then West Germany, in the spring of 1987, when I stumbled upon the sheepfold described in the poem.  The sheep were alone, except for each other, grazing within a small, orange plastic enclosure.

Like many of the poems I wrote at the time, the early drafts were heavily influenced by my attempts to learn the German language through reading its poetry — no easy task. This course of study had a deleterious effect on my writing at the time, as I’ve described elsewhere, and it took me a long time to get my native tongue back to its proper place; not to mention my syntax, grammar, and word order!

By the time I arrived at the version that appeared in the Nebraska Review and, later, in my book Fallow Field, the result was very different, after many stumbles and headlong bumps like those lambs in the poem.

Perhaps one day I will retire to the Azores and raise sheep. Now that my wife, Samantha, has taken up knitting we could use the extra wool and lamb kofta is a favorite dish of ours. Here is my poem,

 

Deserted Sheep

 

Lambs, jostled, forgive

            the wolf, break

            its taste in lamb

into a toddler’s gallop,

bumping headlong

 

into thick-piled ewes–

lanolin slicking their noses, as

they stumble on the fescue

dotting the valley,

a pointillist’s landscape.

 

No shepherd, no sheep dog,

no gate to enter; a small,

orange plastic snow fence,

neatly staked at four corners

with steel posts,

gives form to the sheepcote.

 

The last ounce of sun

a violet tremor the wolf

            forgives, lingering

along the western ridge,

            the shepherd’s fear

returning to the valley.

 

A ram, brown and flocculent,

secures a silent corner

of the fold — eyes intent

upon a slow-moving shadow.

 

–Scott Edward Anderson

 

 

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The author’s Portuguese grandfather, Ed Perry.

My Portuguese grandfather was part of a generation of immigrants who wanted to be completely American.

On that path, he became the first Portuguese member of the Metacomet Country Club in Providence, Rhode Island, and was later two-term president of the club.

He served as secretary of the Rhode Island Golf Association, overseeing thirty years of Rhode Island Championship events.  He was chiefly responsible for the establishment of the Northeast Amateur Tournament.

He married into a family that had been in America since 1637, the Burgesses of Sandwich, MA, and made a successful career as a celebrity underwriter for New England Life Insurance Company.

In his striving to assimilate, however, much of what was Portuguese about him was kept under wraps.  He embraced America as a nation rather than hyphenation.  I favored my mother’s side; my father’s side was Scotch-Irish.  I looked more “Portagee” than most of my family. Too often this fact manifested itself in jokes not worth repeating here.

Throughout my childhood, there was little mention of the great Portuguese achievers: the explorers (Henry the Navigator, Magellan, De Gama), painters (Nuno Goncalves, Josefa de Obidos, Viera da Silva, Paula Rego), or writers (Camoes, Pessoa, Saramago).  Even if I knew of them, I never thought of them as Portuguese.

Only much later did I understand how rich my heritage was.  My grandfather seemed to take pride when, shortly before his death, I pursued him about the family history from his side of the Atlantic.  He came from the Azores, the tiny archipelago in the middle of the ocean, which is still a place of myth and magic to me.  He called me “amigo – one of us.”

In the search for my “lost” heritage, I discovered the poetry of Fernando Pessoa, Portugal’s great poet of the 20th Century.  Pessoa, like his hero Walt Whitman, “contained multitudes.”  Only in Pessoa’s case, this was quite literally true.  Pessoa took on what he called “heteronyms”: pseudonyms that were more than noms de plume.  For each persona, Pessoa created a unique personality, creative style, and body of work.

The most successful of Pessoa’s heteronyms was the shepherd-poet, Alberto Caeiro. Caeiro, like Robert Burns and John Clare before him, was a genius plucked straight from the fields.  Whereas Burns and Clare were truly of the fields, Alberto Caeiro sprung from the field of Pessoa’s imagination.  Pessoa wrote the poems of Alberto Caeiro from the top of his dresser in a Lisbon apartment.

In many ways, Caeiro in Pessoa’s invention is a pure nature poet.  Perhaps only poet Gary Snyder achieves greater reconciliation with nature in his work.  One of my favorite Pessoa-Caeiro poems is “Só a Natureza é Divina” (Only Nature is divine…) Here it is in the original Portuguese and in my translation:

Só a natureza é divina, e ela não é divina…Se falo dela como de um ente
É que para falar dela preciso usar da linguagem dos homens
Que dá personalidade às cousas,
E impõe nome às cousas.

Mas as cousas não têm nome nem personalidade:
Existem, e o céu é grande a terra larga,
E o nosso coração do tamanho de um punho fechado…

Bendito seja eu por tudo quanto sei.
Gozo tudo isso como quem sabe que há o sol.

*

Only Nature is divine, and she is not divine…

If I speak of her as of an entity

It is for to speak of her it is necessary to use the language of men,

Which gives personality to things,

And imposes names on things.

But things have neither name nor personality:

They exist, just as the sky is big and the land is wide,

And our hearts are the size of a closed fist…

I am blessed by everything as far as I know.

I enjoy everything as one who knows the sun is always there.

–Fernando Pessoa (writing as Alberto Caeiro) translated from the Portuguese by Scott Edward Anderson