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10) Iceland is not actually made of ice. It probably got its name due to the Vatnajokull – Europe’s largest glacier, which is in the southeastern corner of the country. The rest of Iceland has mountains, volcanoes, more glaciers, rivers, meadows, cliffs, black sand beaches, and this crazy moonscape-type area which isn’t found anywhere else in the known universe (well, except for on the actual moon). On the whole, Iceland is much greener than Greenland.

 9) Iceland is all about confluences. It’s situated where the North Atlantic and Artic Oceans converge, though only a small part of the country, Grimsey Island, sits above the Arctic Circle. In Thingvellir National Park, the gap between the North American and Eurasian continental plates is visible.

8) Iceland’s capital city is Reykjavik, but maybe they should just call it Rage-kjavik. (As in the slang for partying, not a synonym for anger). The city is renowned for its runtur (literally “round tour”), a pub crawl which occurs both nights of every weekend all the year ‘round.

7) Perhaps because of their runturing, Icelanders are very fond of hotdogs, which are made with lamb and served with a special mustard. In the true fashion of a hangover meal, Icelanders pile toppings on their “pylsurs.” In 2004, Bill Clinton was skewered (see what I did there?) in political cartoons when he ordered a pylsur with no toppings. Other national delicacies include puffin, whale, and fermented shark meat.

6) In 2008, the Icelandic government established the Vatnajokull National Park, which surrounds the glacier of the same name. With glaciers, rivers, geysers, and such, the park embodies Iceland’s dynamic geology. About 12% of the country’s total land area is protected in the park, and Vatnajokull is, in fact, the largest national park in Europe.

5) J.R.R. Tolkien was a devoted fan of all things Icelandic. He studied the language at Oxford and taught Old Icelandic as a professor. Before the Inklings were the Inklings, they were the Kolbiturs (literally “Coalbiters”), a term for a type of hero in Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda. J.R.R. Tolkien had an Icelandic au pair watching after his children while he was working on The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Many of his ideas, such as trolls turning to stone, have roots in the types of stories Icelanders tell young children.

ChristmasCat

4) Icelanders like to profess a belief in elves, trolls, and, my favorite, a giant cat that comes down from the mountains at Christmas and eats all the children who didn’t get new clothes.

3) Convincing potential tourists that Iceland is more than a frozen, dark hunk of rock at the top of the planet has become a national priority. They’ve done a good job thanks to the Inspired by Iceland campaign, where visitors to a website can propose alternative names for the country, and watch videos of trendy people having a good time.

2) There’s more to Rage-kjavik than a pretty face. In 2011, it was named a UNESCO City of Literature. Reykjavik is the only non-English speaking city to earn this honor. Iceland loves its writers – there is even national union for them which provides modest living stipends.

1) Andddd….the most interesting thing about Iceland, at least to me, is that I will be spending most of the month of June there.  Woohoo! Fist pump! The school where I work offers study grants for faculty who have taught at the school for at least three years. I’m wrapping up year six and finally decided to take advantage of it. This is what happens when you sit around on New Year’s Eve talking to two very well-traveled Classics teachers, I guess.

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I’m thrilled. Aside from a few weekend trips to Canada when I lived in Montana, I haven’t left the country since I was 17. Like the American Transcendentalists, I’ve always defended and enjoyed the idea of “deep travel” – taking any place you happen to be and opening all five senses to it. I’m fine with road trips, and I know that I could spend the rest of my life exploring this corner of Appalachia and still not know all there is to know. However, there’s also something to be said for throwing yourself into a completely new place. This summer, that’s what I’m going to do.

I have some specific plans for the three weeks I will be in Iceland. I’m really interested in exploring the reasons for and effects of item #2 on my list. Why does this remote, sparsely populated country value literature so much? How does that valuation inform the national ethos? I’ll be spending lots of time in Reykjavik to get a sense of the contemporary scene, but I’ll also explore the Western Peninsula (where the Sagas were set), travel up to the northern capital of Akureyri for an arts festival, and make stops at various cultural museums and writers’ residencies around the county.

I have some days scheduled in for roaming around the natural landscape as well. So far, the Hornstradir looks the most interesting. It’s about as remote as you can get, and there are some backcountry tours I can connect with to get up there. I’m really hoping to see some puffins and whales in the wild, not just on my plate. (Ha, ha…I don’t think I’ll actually eat either, but one never knows about such things.) If you have been to Iceland and have any suggestions for things I should do, see, or eat,  please leave a comment!

I’m extremely grateful for this opportunity and interested to see how/if it changes the essays I write later this year.  I’ve never claimed to be a travel writer, but maybe there’s a niche for me somewhere.

English is spoken almost universally in Iceland, but its citizens also take a great deal of pride in its own language. I guess that’s to be expected from a country that places so much stock in written expression. In hopes of at least learning the basic phonetics of the language, I’ve downloaded an app on my phone and poked around on YouTube. So far, Icelandic makes absolutely zero sense to me, but I have at least figured out how to say goodbye:

“Bless Bless.”

(Christmas Cat image taken from hugleikurdagsson.tumblr.com. Very cool site.)

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Along with being a writer, I teach, coach, work in the Writing Center, and run the literary magazine at an all-boys’ prep school here in Chattanooga. (Maybe that sentence should be reversed. Unless it’s summer, carving out writing time is quite a battle. I’m following a proud tradition in that camp.) My coaching duty is fall novice crew, which I affectionately think of as “rowing kindergarten.” The other novice coaches and I show up in the Student Athletic Center in August and meet about three-dozen ninth-graders who have never even sat in a racing shell. By November, they’re trucking down the course at The Head of the Hooch, one of the largest regattas in the country (Actually poised to become THE largest regatta in the country this year. I’m not sure if the numbers are out yet.)  It’s a steep learning curve, and I could certainly write an essay or two about what happens to your heart rate when you put 9 14-year-olds in an expensive boat and turn them loose on the Tennessee River. By the end of the fall season, however, a lot of the “crap-are-they-going-to-crash-into-stuff?” stress is gone and replaced by the fun of strategizing for competitions, soaking in the slanting golden light as I putt down the river in a jon boat, and enjoying the personalities of the rowers and coaches around me.

I have not posted much this fall, nor have I done a lot of writing (though I have been reading/researching, so that’s good). I sent my dog off to be with my parents in Florida because I was too busy to take care of him. The lazy, languid days of summer ended with a full sprint into the school year, and I’ve been going ever since. Still, I’m not gonna’ lie, coaching novice crew here in Chattanooga is a blast. From the initial rowing instructions to frightened and adrift novi in September (“Okay, now straighten your knees …. no, your knees….your knees….. Those are your elbows.), to  the overheard conversations as I drive the mini-bus (We have a boarder from Westchester, New York, this year. Listening to the Southerners and the Yankee trying to sort out their mutual misinformation has been so funny that I’ve nearly crashed the bus), to the general chaos around regatta preparations (last week, after rowing all of our boats down to the staging area for the Hooch in the rain, I ended up walking all the way from downtown back to our boathouse with about eight guys, one of whom was barefoot because he couldn’t find his shoes), to the sprinting-cowbell ringing-dock catching chaos that the Head of the Hooch always brings, it’s been a satisfying and exhausting autumn.

I’ve done other stuff this fall, too, like realizing my lifelong dream of being a part of the Southern Festival of Books. (I was even mentioned in the Nashville Scene!)More on that and other events in future posts. For now, enjoy a few pictures from my life in rowing kindergarten.

By the way, if you enjoy these shots, want to learn more about rowing, or are interested in how I got into crew and why I love it so much, check out the essay I wrote for the Pittsburgh in Words project a couple years ago.

The Novice 8 in late fall 2009

Rowing with the Novice 4+ in November 2009

The recovery dock at the 2011 Hooch in Chattanooga. Thanks to my mom, Margaret, for this shot!

"My" Novice 4+ coming under the Walnut Street Bridge at the 2011 Head of the Hooch. My mom took this awesome shot. I was too busy whooping and hollering.

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This past July, after my reading at Malaprop’s in Asheville, I decided to spend a few days in the Smoky Mountains. My trip to Great Smoky Mountain National Park was significant and memorable for a couple reasons. First, I got to spend time with my friend Tim, his wife Mindy, and their infant daughter. Tim was one of about a half-dozen people with whom I shared a double-wide trailer outside Kalispell, Montana, in 2002. Sometimes, I can’t believe that’s a sentence I can even type – I lived with seven other people in a double-wide trailer in Montana for a year when I was 24. That time seems long ago, and it was quite special to me to have Tim and Mindy there at my reading in Asheville. (Tim now works for the NPS in the Smokies.)

Also (and here’s the part you are not going to believe), my July trip to the Smokies was significant because I had never been to the Smokies before. If you’re growing up in Nashville and you want to go to the mountains, the Cumberland Plateau is the closest option. Plus, I’d always heard that Great Smoky Mountain National Park is crowded with tourists and traffic jams. No thanks, says I, I’ll just muck around on the Sewanee Perimeter Trail.

However, no one can deny that the Smokies have a powerful mystique about them. Plus, my latest project focuses on how Americans/Southerners view the wilderness – how we interact with it, fear it, commodify it, and ultimately love it (though our love often seems bizarre, elaborate, and more than a little dysfunctional). The Great Smoky Mountain National Park is pretty much the epicenter of bizarre human/wilderness interaction, so a visit was imperative.

I loved it. The weather was nice and cool. The people-watching was excellent and, once we got about a quarter mile in on any trail, we felt like we had this vast, breathing wilderness to ourselves.

Last night, late fall arrived in earnest. It is chilly and windy outside. The yellow leaves are bright against the backdrop of a stormy sky. I am reading Horace Kephart’s lost novel Smoky Mountain Magic and wishing I could wake up cocooned in a sleeping bag in one of the hollers Tim and I explored this summer. I keep thinking of the remnants of farms and foundations that we found there; graveyards where people who lived back in those mysterious mountains were buried long ago. But, I also think of RVs and leaf-peepers and winding highways. Thinking of that space where people converge with the wilderness or their idea of it, here are some shots of my trip to the Smokies in July.

Doubtful, but entirely possible since most park visitors never leave the road.

Remnants of a house with a dog trot, about 4 miles in on the Boogerman Trail

Tim and I sat alongside this burial plot far off the trail and ate a lunch of string cheese, fruit cups, and Gatorade. I wondered how long it had been since these bones had enjoyed company.

Clingman's Dome at dusk. We drove there.

Today's human settlements in the Smokies. Note odd juxtaposition of amenities.

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I’ve yet to meet a Southerner who doesn’t welcome autumn. Summers in the South, with their ever-present humidity, bugs, and heat, are oppressive. This week in Chattanooga, we’ve finally started getting fog in the morning, and stepping onto my front porch in 55-degree chill, smelling the mist rolling off the ridge, is positively thrilling.

But here’s the thing: Summer is also glorious. Where would hardy Midwesterners be without their winters? Where would the South be without this spate of 100 or so days that force us to find solace on porches with sweating glasses in our hands, the season that drives us inside with our books during the day and outside to play or socialize in evenings? Where would we be without the collective suffering of sweat trickling down our spines as we go about our summer business?

As you can probably tell from the precipitous drop-off in blogging, I had a fantastic summer. Along with my much-publicized (on this blog at least) book tour, I worked with a writer’s group of fellow teachers and managed to write two new essays. I also conducted much research on my new topic – the American phenomenon of the drive-by wilderness. This research consisted mostly of reading John Muir, learning to kayak, hiking in the Smokies, and spending a week at Sewanee.

Fall has rolled in, and I sure hope it’s not going anywhere, but this first post after a long blog hiatus will devote some pictures to the summer that was.

June:

Solstice sunset from the cross at Sewanee.

July:

Malaprop's promoting my reading in Asheville, North Carolina!

A hiking friend and I strike our best Lewis and Clark in the Great Smoky Mountains.

August:

My friends' "garden" on fire escape in Madison, Wisconsin.

Corn on the cob - Madison, Wisconsin.

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Those of you who read Confederate Streets closely probably noticed a few recurring characters besides my immediate family. Two such characters are my good friends Eddie and Lynn, who were youth group counselors and Sunday School teachers when I was growing up. Eddie and Lynn are referenced on the very first page of my book and also feature pretty prominently in “Learning Glory,” adult voices of reason while I groused about singing Rutter’s Gloria for the big Christmas concert.  Those depicted conversations where they brought me around on singing classical pieces in Latin were just a few of the many, many discussions we had. We were all in the church choir together, you see, and one or both of them would give me a ride home from practice once a week for about three years. That’s a whole lot of car rides.

A news item I came across in the paper yesterday reminded me of another series of post-choir conversations I had with them. (this is one of those blog posts that’s going to end in a completely different place than it starts, so bear with me. )

Anyway, as youth group counselors, Sunday School teachers, and just general good people, Eddie and Lynn usually accompanied the youth group on its big, yearly service trip to repair homes up in the Appalachian Mountains with the Appalachia Service Project.  I came back from my first ASP trip in ’93 pretty fired up about Appalachian culture and issues, and I wanted to learn more.  I was reading everything I could find, but I couldn’t find much. Mostly, I was going through encyclopedias, geography books, stacks of magazines, that type of thing. Eddie recommended a novel he had read – The Unquiet Earth by Denise Giardina, which, he said, uses a series of narrators to look at various events and issues over the course of about half a century in a fictionalized West Virginia county.

It became my mission to find a copy of The Unquiet Earth.  Keep in mind, this was B.I. (Before Internet). I also didn’t have a driver’s license, so I had to prevail on older friends and my parents to pull over every time we passed a used book store or library branch.  Getting my hands on this book became quite the quest, and I dutifully reported my attempts to procure it to Eddie and Lynn every Wednesday night.   (Eddie had borrowed his copy from the Vanderbilt University Library, which I didn’t have access to.)

Several weeks later, I climbed into the car after choir and Eddie promptly thumped a copy of The Unquiet Earth into my open palm. It was grey with black binding and made a nice resounding  thud, the way hardcover books sometimes do. He had gone back to the Vandy library and checked it out for me.

Every literary geek has a story about a time when they were young and the very act of reading a specific book seemed like the most thrilling thing ever – this is mine. There was the long hunt for it, for one thing, and then there was the fact that an actual grown-up trusted me not to lose or damage a book checked out on his library card (had Eddie known then, as he does now, of my proclivity for leaving a trail of my possessions every place I go, I wonder if he still would have lent me that book, but I did take obsessive care of it) And then, there was The Unquiet Earth itself.

A couple days after I got it, I took the PSAT. I was just a sophomore, and I knew my scores wouldn’t “count” toward Merit Scholarships, so I flew through those tests, closed the booklet, and read that awesome, solid hardcover book under my desk.  Such was my absorption in that book that there was no question in my mind as to whether or not I should shirk the standardized test.  For ten minutes at a time, I escaped that miserable grey testing room with its teachers and clocks and journeyed to coal miners’ strikes and forbidden love in the hills of West Virginia. (The next year, I did quite well on the PSAT and got some recognition from the Merit folks. I remember my guidance counselor saying, ‘Wow, you must’ve really figured some things out between last year and this one. Great job.’ Uhhhh, yeah…I figured out I shouldn’t read a book under my desk if I want money for college.)

I was really into reading but, up to that point, everything I’d read was either assigned in school, non-fiction, or YA stuff. (I’m not saying all YA books are bad, but the stuff I read was mindless). The Unquiet Earth was the first contemporary fiction I’d ever read. It showed me that stories could deal with big, relevant issues and still be transcendent and entertaining.  It blurred the artificial boundary I had established between compelling narratives and nonfiction.

Like so many early loves, I hadn’t thought about my total absorption in The Unquiet Earth for a while. Lynn and Eddie gave me a copy signed by Denise Giardina when I graduated from high school and it sits on a shelf in my living room today.

Then, yesterday, a news item caught my eye. It seems some citizens of Kinston, North Carolina have decided kudzu growing on a telephone pole by a hot dog stand resembles Jesus on the cross. I immediately flashed on “Kudzu Jesus,” a chapter toward the end of The Unquiet Earth in which a Catholic bishop visits a priest’s struggling church in the small community. The bishop’s visit happens to coincide with the appearance of a mass of kudzu vines that resemble the face of Jesus. I can’t believe that chapter has stayed with me in such a way that I called it up so quickly, but I suppose that is the very nature of books and why we read them.

From the first time I read “Kudzu Jesus,” I was impressed with how Denise Giardina could render such a strong sense of place. There is a danger in regional writing, especially with Appalachia and the South, of leaning so heavily on images that they become cliche reductions of reality, or that they make a place feel cartoonish. A Kudzu Jesus sighting in the hills of West Virginia certainly treads dangerous literary water, but the characters are so fully and honestly rendered and their approach to the K.J. is so matter-of-fact, that it just rings true. The chapter resonates. It seems like something that could really happen.

And now it has.

Sure, the kudzu Jesus in Kinston doesn’t look like much, but I like that someone has decided that’s what it is. And I like that the hot dog stand owner has declared, “You can’t spray Jesus with Roundup.”

It’s a little absurd, but it’s real. A clear-eyed writer could get a lot of mileage out of it. But, if you don’t want to wait to read a vivid account of the significance of a Kudzu Jesus and the lives lived around it, find yourself a copy of The Unquiet Earth.  Unlike my search back in 1993, it won’t take you six weeks to track it down.

While you’re at it, I urge you to get a good, contemporary book into a young person’s hands, should the opportunity ever come about.  And, to bring this long, linear post back around to some sort of circle, today happens to be Lynn and Eddie’s wedding anniversary. Now that you dear readers of this blog and Confederate Streets know those particular characters a little better, do send some happy thoughts their way. 🙂

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Summer is in full swing now and I have been busy writing, recreating, and setting up readings.

I didn’t blog much last week because I was in a super secret undisclosed location, researching and writing for my latest project.  I bet you can’t guess what I’m focusing on for my next essay collection:

and now for something completely different...

I say it’s a “completely different” project from Confederate Streets, but really it’s not. Like CS, this project allows me to focus on my own interpretation of cultural geography – how we 21st Century Americans, especially Southerners, perceive place, space, and cultural issues, and what external and internal factors drive our perceptions.

For my next project, I’m taking it outside. And that’s really all I can say. It’s so new that it is completely nebulous. Along with reading lots of books (or parts of lots of books), I’ve decided that an important part of the research process is learning how to kayak.  I’ve chosen to intensely research what it feels like to go through rapids while upside down, so I’ve been doing that a lot. It’s all for you, dear reader.

My next project also is not completely different because race will be a factor. Why? Well, because race is a factor in every facet of American life, no matter where you live or what you do.

One of my favorite funny blogs, Stuff White People Like, gets (or got, since it hasn’t had new material in about six months) a lot of comic mileage out of the fact that one rarely sees people of color perusing the aisles of the local REI. But to say that “the outdoors” is purely the domain of middle class whites is pretty myopic. The 7th book up in today’s picture, The Colors of Nature, is a fantastic literary nonfiction collection by writers of color. I highly recommend picking it up, and I’m sure I’ll blog more about it later in the summer as I continue reading  the essays.

Do you know of another work of “nature writing” by a minority author? Please post a comment about it!

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It’s a cool, sunny, beautiful day here in Chattanooga. I find it difficult to believe that this time a week ago, I cast a worried look at a roiling green horizon, grabbed my dog and a woolen blanket, and rode out a storm in my pantry. Ultimately, that storm didn’t do much; however, it was one of four that shot up through Alabama and rumbled over the ridge where I live.

We didn’t get much but fallen trees in the city (and those did wreak some havoc for people I care about), but I’ll be thinking through the events of April 27 for a long while simply because of the bizarre sensation of living on the perimeter of a catastrophe. So, I have three pictures for you today. None of them are big damage shots. I’ll leave those to the pros. I’ve not gone into those parts of the county/region anyway because I have no reason to – volunteer needs are mostly for people with chainsaws and ATVs, and gawkers only cause problems.

BUT these three shots do convey a few things – the day of the storms itself, with its multiple trips to interior rooms/basements, the community response, and the little pieces of lives which I have found scattered all around the campus where I live.

faculty children exercise caution as they wait out storm #3 in a basement

What else could we do?

found while walking the dog on the morning of May 4 - a piece of tin roofing, a bank statement, a page from the Old Testament

Remember, there are still ways you can help the storm victims if you are so inclined. Do consider texting Redcross to 90999 if you can! Also, my school is collecting non-perishable goods which require little-to-no cooking (think beenie weenies and breakfast cereal), so get in touch with me if you want to do that, and I’ll get those beenie weenies into the right hands.

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