Smoky Trudeau is the author of two novels, “Redeeming Grace” and “The Cabin” as well as two non-fiction books for writers. This month, Vanilla Heart Publishing released her collection of essays, poetry, and color illustrations, “Observations of an Earth Mage,” in print and e-book formats.
In her blog, Trudeau recently wrote that she is passionate about “nature and our intimate, intricate connection with what is wild.” This passion is clearly evident in stories that take the reader from the Great Smoky Mountains and the Appalachian Trail to Joshua Tree to Yosemite to tidal pools along the California Coast.
Malcolm: You set the tone for “Observations of an Earth Mage” in the book’s prologue with a memory of climbing an apple tree behind your house when you were three years old: “I closed my eyes,” you said, “and felt for the pulse of the tree in the trunk beneath my fingertips, for surely this tree had a heart that beat like mine. The trunk warmed beneath my gentle touch as my branch swayed in the easy spring breeze. It felt like the tree was breathing. I matched the rhythm of my own breath to that of the tree. I was the tree. The tree was me.”
Was this a unique and singular moment, or have you been able to maintain this level of empathy with the natural world throughout your life?
Smoky: Both. It was a unique and singular moment in that it was the moment when I made the connection that, as a person, I was not above nature, not separate from nature. I was nature, and nature was me. One can make that realization but once in a lifetime. What made it unique, I think, is that I was just a baby when it happened. Yes, I have been able to maintain this level of connection with the natural world for the fifty years that have passed since that day. Although I have to admit, when I was struck by lightning, there were a few months when I thought perhaps that was being a little too connected to Mother Nature!
Malcolm: Lightning is definitely too much nature at once. (See first of Trudeau’s five-post lightning story here.) What are the genesis and scope of “Observations of an Earth Mage,” and what do you hope your readers will take away from their experience with the book?
Smoky: The book is a memoir told in both essay and poetic form. I open with a series of stories that I wrote when my children were little about encounters my family had with the famous Great Smoky Mountain National Park black bears. Back then—we’re talking the early to mid 1960’s—black bears were all over the Smokies due to bad garbage management. It was impossible to go to the park and not have a close encounter of the bear kind. My family seemed to attract the bears wherever we went in the park. The book continues with stories of my life on the prairies of Illinois, and then follows me when I moved to California and began exploring the California wilderness with my husband Scott. I hope that, upon reading the book, readers will want to get outdoors themselves, take a hike, go camping, splash in a tidepool. But more than that, I hope they learn how to see the natural world with the eyes of someone who is a part of it, a participant, rather than as a spectator.
Malcolm: When I was young, my parents took my two brothers and I on family vacations to such places as Key West, Mammoth Cave, the Smoky Mountains and Niagara Falls. As I read your book, was struck by the fact that your late father dreamt up similar vacations as well. Was this your introduction to wanderlust and to seeing the natural world in its many shapes and sizes?
Smoky: Absolutely. My father took us to those places, too, and to Shenandoah National Park, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Canada, and on a couple of great tours of the West. We camped; we hiked. One of the most sacred experiences of my life happened on one of these trips, when we saw a gray wolf trot across a forest road in the Upper Peninsula when I was maybe ten years old. I have as clear an image of that wolf in my mind today as I had when it was happening. My dad instilled in me not only my wanderlust, but something I call wonderlust—the propensity for always asking, “I wonder what’s over there/down that road/under that rock/up that mountain?” It was his greatest gift to me. Dad’s gone now—he died Thanksgiving weekend—but when I’m out hiking, I still feel him with me. He still tags along on my explores. The book is dedicated to his memory.
Malcolm: You tell several stories about bears in the book. How did you happen on so many of them? I wondered if they were a totem animal or if you were, in fact, a bear whisperer.
Smoky: I mentioned a few minutes ago that we always saw bears when we went to the Smokies when I was a child. And boy, did we ever see bears! I know people who have camped in the same campgrounds, hiked the same trails, and never saw a single bear. As a child, I thought we were lucky. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized perhaps it was I who somehow called the bears.
Yes, I have a spiritual connection to the bear. It wasn’t until I had what a Native American acquaintance of mine termed a shamanic experience with a bear after I was struck by lightning that I understood my connection to her. He pointed out that, on the medicine wheel, Bear is the symbol of the West, and also that lightning comes from the West. It wasn’t a coincidence, he said, that Bear was reaching out to me.
I wrote about that shamanic journey; it’s one of the stories in the book, the story called The Bear Whisperer. My daughter, who was maybe ten at the time, dubbed me that. Is it true? You’d have to ask Sister Bear, but I’ll tell you this: the last time I was in the Smokies, a black bear actually nuzzled my forehead through the wall of my tent one night. It was an amazing experience. It was like three kisses on the forehead, as gentle as a mother kissing her child. And no, I wasn’t afraid.
Bear is always with me. I have her tattooed on my arm, beneath a pair of lightning bolts, a sort of personal symbol of my strength. It is an honor and a privilege to have been touched by such a powerful creature.
Malcolm: Tell me about the red cap you’re wearing in 98.6 percent of the pictures I see of you. Is it your lucky hat?
Smoky: Only 98.6 percent? I thought it was higher than that! Yes, that’s my Earth Mage hat. It has secret powers. I can’t tell you about them, though—they wouldn’t be secret anymore.
Seriously, though, my husband gave me that hat the first time he and I went hiking together. I’ve been attached to it ever since. My father used to always give me three pieces of advice: (1) Don’t bite anyone’s dog; (2) Check the air in your tires, and (3) Wear your hat. I like to think Dad’s looking down from the great hiking trails in the afterlife and saying , “Good, she’s wearing her hat.”
Malcolm: Of all the places you describe in prose, poetry and photographs in “Observations of an Earth Mage,” do you have a favorite?
Smoky: Well, the Smoky Mountains are my heart’s home. I’m named for them; they are where my soul always longs to be. But now that I live in California, I’ve made strong connections to the mountains here, too. Mount Baldy, the third-highest peak in Southern California, shoots up from the San Gabriel Valley floor just twenty miles from my house; my back deck affords me a spectacular view not only of Baldy but also, on clear days, of Mount San Jacinto and Mount San Gorgonio, the second-highest and highest mountains, respectively, in Southern California. We’ve been camping in the Sierras several times—I’ve lived in California less than two years—and have trips back planned for this spring and summer. And I love the ocean, especially exploring the tidepools. But I guess, deep down, if I have to pick a favorite, I’m a mountain girl at heart.
Malcolm: From reading your blog on Xanga, I see that from hikes around your neighborhood to longer trips to national parks, being out of doors is a part of your weekly agenda. Will there be Further “Observations of an Earth Mage” in your future?
Smoky: That’s the plan! In fact, we’re planning a trip to Anzo Borrego in just a few weeks to begin research for “Further Observations of an Earth Mage: The Desert.” The deserts out here are beginning to flower; there is nothing more beautiful than an ocotillo or a beavertail cactus in bloom!
Malcolm: What other projects are you working on that keep you in the house and at the computer rather than out on the trail?
Smoky: Well, I’m a freelance editor and writing coach; that’s what pays the bills. I like to make sculptures of—what else?—bears. Nothing fancy; just little clay bear totems, maybe an inch or so long, out of oven-fired clay. They’re my stress relief; I must have made fifty of them during the holiday season, after my dad died. I’ve started a tradition with them: I take one with me when we go hiking, and leave it somewhere along the trail, first as an offering to Mother Nature, and then as a gift to whatever hiker may find it, nestled in a tree branch or among rocks.
I live in this charming little shack perched on the side of the foothills in the San Gabriel Valley. Red-tailed hawks are screaming overhead, courting, building nests in the oak trees above my deck. We have deer, coyote, and bobcat roaming our neighborhood. The mountains are covered in snow. All this I see from my writing studio’s window. With inspiration like this right outside my house, how can I not write? I’m working on my third novel, “The Storyteller’s Bracelet.” I actually think I’m going to finish it within the next few months! I was going to work on it today, after this interview.
But right now, the hawks are screaming, and the sun is peeking through the clouds. Chia, my big mutt puppy, is getting restless. And I think I hear, off in the distance, Mother Nature calling to me, “Come … come ….”
I better obey.
Malcolm: As ever, my well-worn boots await by the front door. Thank you for sharing your journey.
Part of the proceeds from the sale of both print and electronic copies and from the sale of related merchandise will be donated to the Yosemite Association.
Copyright (c) 2010 by Malcolm R. Campbell