Of Memory and Place
Fireweed Crossing is a fictional town. But it is so much more than that. To me, it is an amalgam of a dozen small towns and villages that were a part of my early life. Indelible impressions persist from each recalled encounter. And so a new place is born from an olio of memory.
Olio is a lovely word: a medley, a hodgepodge, a miscellaneous collection. Many of the details that draw me into my character Lou’s world, come from that olio of memory. A friend, a fellow MFA student from back in the day, once pushed me on the origin of Fireweed Crossing. It was easy to come up with the place, drawn from a matrix of vivid memories. But the making of the town and the realization that the town was in actuality a character in its own right, proved harder to put into words.
Now that I am deep into revisions of WHERE THE RIVER IS A ROAD I revisit the town’s origin story. I find an old photo I took of one of my early three dimensional maps of the place. I review hand-drawn documents and images that lead me into the veracity of Fireweed Crossing.
It is important to hold onto the physicality of such a place – a place where a story can live and breathe.
So now I step into that place, Fireweed Crossing, and find a sensory overload of facts, lies, odors, and sounds. Some of these facts of place will have to be pared. Others may need to be added. The lay of the land, however, is critical. First, growing up in Alaska, as I did, one is always aware of the land. The land dominates, shifts under your feet, hardens and thaws sometimes with mercurial speed. Second, dangers are inherent in the geography, in the wildness. As a kid, some of those dangers or risks are very real, while some are imagined.
When I was young, up until my early teens, bears dominated my thinking. Hunting with my father, we had numerous bear encounters. The power, speed and the beauty of Grizzlies astounded me.
Sometimes, in the flimsy canvas surround of a tent, I would lay awake listening for the approach of a bear. I found their tracks pressed deeply into the mud near creek inlets.
One recurring dream I experienced involved crashing in a small Cessna. I’d lash together a makeshift raft and start to float down a wide fast river. Then the current slowed and I’d hear a low murmuring, like voices at a party. The raft would spin lazily around a bend and there would be dozens of Grizzly bears along both shores. At first they were only aware of each other, of the high-bush blueberries. But slowly their muttering stopped and their massive heads swung in my direction, ears pricked, snouts wrinkling as they inhaled my presence. This lucid dream didn’t terrify but rather compelled me. I always woke with a sense that the dream meant something, was trying to tell me something.
The truth about Fireweed Crossing is that it is a settlement surrounded by wilderness.
The question: where lies the true danger?