It’s a pleasure to welcome Smoky and Scott Zeidel to Malcolm’s Round Table to talk about their new book Trails: Short Stories Poetry and Photographs released in paperback and e-book this month by Vanilla Heart Publishing.
Smoky is the author of fiction and nonfiction, including The Storyteller’s Bracelet (2012) and Observations of an Earth Mage, (2010). Her husband Scott, who plays the guitar, teaches music history as an adjunct professor at Mt. San Antonio College in California.
MALCOLM: Trails has been dedicated to the squirrels. Is this the entire family of tree or ground squirrels or a bird-feeder robbing band in your yard?
SCOTT: The squirrels are metaphors for nature. So, to answer your question, the book is dedicated to every type of squirrel in the world, the little bastards.
SMOKY: I started to say, “He doesn’t really mean that last part.” But then, I looked out my studio window, and there’s a pregnant ground squirrel out on the deck, ripping a rug to shreds, to get wool to line her nest, and I think, maybe Scott’s right.
MALCOLM: I’ve had many conflicts with squirrels over the years, usually a difference of opinion about just who the bird feeders are for. Scott, when you write that you once thought everyone remembered their own birth, I thought of people who had either bad vision or better than normal vision and supposed everyone’s eyesight was the same. What has this memory given you that others do not have—long-term vision, connectedness to your family going back in time, insight into the big picture of our incarnation, or something else?
SCOTT: I can’t speak for others, but, like I said, I do remember my birth. Nevertheless, was I instantly awake, instantly aware, at the moment of my birth? On a purely rational level, is this even possible? I think not. On a metaphysical level, when did my life really begin as a sentient being? When will it end? These are the big questions.
MALCOLM: Smoky, some people say that old stories change every time they’re told. Did you hear different versions of your childhood stories over time and do you now find yourself telling them differently when you relate them to others? Do you begin to wonder what parts of them have slowly become fiction?
SMOKY: I assume you’re referring to the stories I relate in the book about how I became a storyteller; the stories about my mother being a turkey murderer and my uncles’ wild snake stories. Hell, when I heard them the first time I wondered how much of them were true and how much my mother and my uncles made up. Even as a little girl I recognized these magical stories as being part truth, part fiction. What I garnered from them wasn’t whether my elders were being totally truthful or not, but rather the love they poured into the stories as they told them. Stories without love are dull, and seldom are they remembered. But these stories? There was so much love in them it wouldn’t have mattered if my mother said she’d slain a dragon, or my uncles done battle with Kaa (from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book) himself. The stories would have stayed with me.
MALCOLM: Scott, when you follow Smoky into the hospital for seemingly an infinite number of visits leading back to her being struck by lightning in 1989 and you sit, as you wrote, in another waiting room that looks the same as all the others, do you see it all as being within the hands and plans of the universe or do you watch people, read books and wait in a stoic limbo mode?
SCOTT: My intention was not to be particularly deep or philosophical here. I’m just a man. This is what I do; this what everyone should do. We all should hold out our hands and arms to others, friends, enemies, loved ones. What else is there? I comfort Smoky because this is what I do.
MALCOLM: Smoky and Scott, before either one of you wrote the first word of this book, did one of you say to the other, “Let’s co-author a book about life, walking and nature” or was it a muse or a publisher that suggested the project?
SCOTT: Our wonderful publisher, Kimberlee Williams, suggested the project. She has been so supportive and helpful. Kimberlee is our muse.
SMOKY: Let me clarify that “Kimberlee is our muse” thing. I talk about Muse frequently in the book; Kimberlee is not that muse. Kimberlee could ask me a thousand times to dive naked into a freezing mountain river and I wouldn’t do it. Muse, however… well, you’ve read the book, Malcolm. And whoever reads this here, on your blog, can read the book to learn more about that Muse.
MALCOLM: Smoky, has it taken a lifetime to learn the lesson of the California buckeye, that it’s part of a continuing process of life rather than a work of art to be preserved for all time as it was during one moment? Or, did the beauty of nature’s changes come to you more as an epiphany when you looked at the seeds you collected?
SMOKY: The beauty of nature’s changes first came to me when I was three years old and sitting in a blooming apple tree in my parents’ back yard. (I wrote about that experience in my “I Am Nature” essay in my book, Observations of an Earth Mage.) I’ve always been keenly in tune with the cyclical nature of Nature. In tune so much, in fact, I feel intense physical pain when rain is coming, for example, or when I’m near a place where our Mother Earth has been ravaged by bulldozers or mining equipment. The lesson of the buckeye is best summarized as a lesson in the impermanence of beauty; the impermanence of life as we know it. Life goes on, of course. It just changes form. The buckeye becomes a sprout, then a seedling, then, over time, an enormous tree. It would be wrong—it would be impossible, in fact—to try to contain it in any one form, no matter how beautiful. We also talk about that in the last chapter of Trails.
MALCOLM: Scott, you traveled a long way—and many years—from your childhood play in the dirt outside your house to the Big Sur where you re-discovered the land on a rainy night while reading Vonnegut. Do you wonder now why the journey to the Big Sur took as long as it did or whether you had missed signs and hunches early on that you needed to go there, or somewhere, to re-connect?
SCOTT: I do wonder why it took so long. I certainly missed signs along the way, many signs. When I would sit at a table in one of my many Ph.D. seminars, I felt like a robot, a machine, waiting for something. But sometimes I felt something taping, taping on my shoulder. Now I know what it was. It was Poe’s raven. It was my muse. I just brushed it away.
MALCOLM: Smoky, you write that you “find there are two kinds of people: those who believe it is possible to talk and listen to trees, rocks, animals, and rivers, and those who do not.” You talk and listen. Are you “wired differently” or are whose who don’t understand the dialogue brainwashed that it’s impossible or too busy to consider it?
SMOKY: Brainwashed might be too harsh a term. I think children hear Nature speaking. But as they grow, they’re told to put aside their playful, creative natures and buckle down and study hard so they can get a good job and support a spouse and 2.3 children and begin the cycle all over again. The quashing of creativity quashes the ability to hear Nature speak. By the time we reach adulthood, we’ve learned the only people who talk to rocks and trees are crazy people. So call me crazy, but I know what I know, and I know when Nature and her children—the rocks, trees, birds, rivers—are talking to me. And I think other people hear it too. They just don’t remember the language. It’s not unlike being dropped on some random street in, say, the Middle East, and all you hear is Farsi. You hear something. You just don’t understand it. The good thing is, this is a skill that can be re-learned, understanding what the trees and rocks are saying. You just have to sit still and listen long enough.
MALCOLM: Scott and Smoky, what draws you to the Kings River in the Sierras? Would another river serve the same purpose or is the voice of this one Sympatico with your thoughts and feelings?
SCOTT: All mountain rivers inspire us: the movement, the sound, the color, the smell. So sensual. But there are many levels to a mountain river. They’re veins through the natural world; they’re Gaia’s poetry; they’re the beauty of life; they’re spirit. But the Kings River is special; it’s a mountain river on steroids.
SMOKY: For me it’s all that Scott said, but I’d add one thing: the Kings was the river of a profound spiritual renewal I experienced and write about in Trails. While other rivers are sacred to me—the Little Pigeon in the Smokies especially comes to mind—none of them have affected me, spiritually, as profoundly as the Kings. The Little Pigeon is the river of my heart; the Kings is the river of my soul.
MALCOLM: My feelings about mountain rivers are the same. Smoky and Scott, one of you is inspired by a guitar and one of you is inspired by Snake. Is this an example of opposites (or differences) attracting, or is there a synchronicity here that lurks within your respective muses?
SCOTT: Yes, synchronicity! Someone strums a snake; someone strums a guitar. There’s really no difference. As Rumi said, “Everything is music.”
SMOKY: Our muses are definitely entwined, which evokes an image of Snake. And music is a theme of our lives: there are times we live our lives at a fevered pitch, and times when we sit in quiet repose. There are slow, dark sonatas when I am sick; there are times the music plays so fast we can hardly dance fast enough to keep up.
MALCOLM: Does each of you have a favorite line from the book that best communicates the depth and breadth and intent of the book?
SCOTT: For me, it’s what I just said, “Everything is music.”
SMOKY: For me it would be “ …we went to the mountains, deep in the wild Sierra, to refresh our tired bodies and restore our faith in all that is Nature, and wild, and sacred, and good.” I hope our book, Trails, is like that, that it restores readers’ faith that there is good, and it is as close as our own back yards.
MALCOLM: Thank you for stopping by the Round Table today with your wonderful background about Trails.