The work of belonging to a place is never finished. There will always be more to know than any mind or lifetime can hold. But that is no argument against learning all one can.
—- Scott Russell Sanders, quoted in Susan Wittig Albert’s An Extraordinary Year of Ordinary Days
I have– finally!– read Susan Wittig Albert’s An Extraordinary Year of Ordinary Days, published in 2010.
Because Albert is one of my favorite writers of mysteries (China Bayles) and other intriguing books, I’m chagrined not to have discovered this one until I found it online in 2014.
On the other hand, I’m glad I didn’t read it when I bought it, or I might not have published my own most recent book, Gathering from the Grassland: A Plains Journal.
I began reading Albert’s book June 6 of this year. I stopped almost at once because my own book was already in production; I knew I’d be receiving page proofs soon. I could tell that Susan Albert’s journal and mine would have enough in common as to make me afraid I might unconsciously adopt—steal—some of her ideas as I proofread my own work. When I had earlier asked Susan to write a back-cover comment for my book, I had no idea that its structure, a year’s diary, paralleled that of her book.
Susan’s own words in her diary are always enlightening. “But there’s a blessing in inhabiting a place for a long time,” she writes, adding that her years as part of a tenant farming family in eastern Illinois “fed my life for country, for the everyday world of overworked fields and sagging fences, untidy woods, winter pastures. Nothing special, nothing extraordinary, not even (to most people, anyway) very beautiful. . . . Unkempt fields, tangled woods: my history. Home.”
This, to me, is the strongest statement of her book and of my own: that for most of us, wherever we are is home if we accept it as such, and consent to understand and enhance our relationship to the place.
No matter how much one may love the world as a whole, one can live fully in it only by living responsibly in some small part of it.
—- Wendell Berry, quoted in An Extraordinary Year of Ordinary Days
Writing of her relationship to home, Albert provides a reading list for the responsible writer. Each person in the United States, she learns, is responsible for around 21 tons of CO2 emissions per year, according to the United Nations Human Development Reports.
Global warming is one of those things, not like an earthquake where there’s a big bang and you say, “oh my God, this has hit us.” It creeps up on you. Half a degree temperature difference from one year to the next, a little bit of rise of the ocean, a little bit of melting of the glaciers, and then all of a sudden it is too late to do something about it.
—- Arnold Schwarzenegger, quoted in An Extraordinary Year of Ordinary Days
Shocked, she assesses the usage attributable to herself and her husband. They drive fuel-efficient vehicles fewer miles annually than most families, and wouldn’t consider replacing then until they’ve gone 200,000 miles. “We repair, repurpose, reuse, recycle,” take short showers, use compact fluorescents, noting that if everyone replaced just three regular lightbulbs, we could keep a trillion pounds of CO2 out of the atmosphere.
We’re all connected and nobody is in charge.
—- Thomas Friedman, quoted in An Extraordinary Year of Ordinary Days
Besides her own observations, Susan Albert has generously added to the outer third of each page quotations from other writers that address her theme of ordinary days. Thus not only does she provide the reader with a broad spectrum of observations, she brings attention to writers the reader may have missed. Some of the writers and comments were ones that appear in my own quotations files, but in my highlighting, underlining and copying, I added at least a dozen titles of books to my “must read” list.
A bookstore is one of the only pieces of evidence we have that people are still thinking.
—- Jerry Seinfeld, quoted in An Extraordinary Year of Ordinary Days
Moreover, throughout the book, Albert weaves her own and others’ advice about writing, both directly and by inference. As she is writing this diary, uncertain whether or not it will become a book, she is proofreading another of her books I have not yet read, Together, Alone: A Memoir of Marriage and Place. Her discipline and ability to focus provides a strong lesson for any aspiring writer, or, indeed, any writer who considers herself a professional with nothing more to learn about the craft.
Reading this book, slowly, with my highlighter close by and my journal handy for writing my own reactions, I felt as if I were engaging in a long and glorious conversation with the writer as we nestled in comfortable chairs in front of a glowing fireplace. I was delighted but not surprised to realize that many of the writers I admire have come to the same conclusions as we reach similar ages.
It just may be that the most radical act we can commit is to stay home. Otherwise, who will be there to chart the changes? Who will be able to tell us if the long-billed curlews have returned to the grassy vales of Promontory, Utah? Who will be there to utter the cry of loss when the salmon of the McKenzie River in Oregon are nowhere to be seen?
—- Terry Tempest Williams, quoted in An Extraordinary Year of Ordinary Days
If I am not here, on this small western grasslands ranch, who will know that I have not seen a long-billed curlew since the neighboring subdivisions started erecting so-called “security lights” that blare into the darkness and make it difficult to see the stars?
There is strength, freedom, sustainability, and pride in being a practiced dweller in your own surroundings, knowing what you know.
—- Gary Snyder, quoted in An Extraordinary Year of Ordinary Days
Get this book and read it; you can purchase the hardback book from the publisher, University of Texas Press, or find used copies online.
Oh yes, and get my book too, and enjoy the conversation. And don’t be surprised if you keep right on buying more books whose authors could join all of us in this vital discussion about the future of our world.
Gathering from the Grassland: A Plains Journal, is available in both paper and hardback– and though the book has only been out since September, used copies are available.
Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota
© 2017, Linda M. Hasselstrom
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