Monthly Archives: January 2013

Winning Essay in Oregon Quarterly

A Flyway Runs Through It
By Dwight Holing

Dressed in a pressed blue suit, my father had on a fixed smile, his good-luck tie, and a pair of comfortably worn athletic shoes. “Take care of your feet and they’ll always take care of you” was one of his folksy mantras, a lesson he learned more than a half century before while leading a company of infantrymen through the murderous and malarial jungles of Guadalcanal. The shoes were my sister’s idea, more of a nod to his practicality and sense of humor than a backhand at sartorial convention. Besides, no one would be affronted by the choice of Dad’s informal footwear. The lid of the casket was like a Dutch door and the bottom half was closed.

Despite the thermostat’s purposeful low setting in the visitation room, the scent of gardenias hung heavy as I watched the mourners file by to pay their respects. My brother, older than me, took his place at the end of the line, the last to bid farewell. He bent low over the open casket, whispered a few words, and placed something inside. After he left, curiosity won out. There, hooked to the breast pocket of the blue suit was a #12 golden stone nymph, a Polly Rosborough original, I was certain of it, knowing that my Dad had known the late fly-tying master. Also, gleaming from his grasp now firm for eternity was the brass cap of a twelve-gauge duck load. Charon’s obols, maybe, but totems to be sure, and another mantra filled the somber silence: “When it comes to hunting, never be a shell short, but when it comes to fishing, it’s not how many flies you take, it’s the kind you do.”

My father practiced those beliefs in blinds dug in a barley field he owned along the shores of Klamath Lake and in chest waders casting in the clear, cold waters of the Williamson River that fed it. He was not native to the Klamath Basin, but had discovered it after a long search to duplicate the Dakota farmland of his youth when, following his discharge from the Army at Camp Roberts in California, a whirlwind romance and marriage to a comely USO volunteer bound him to the West Coast forever. Here, like a winged migrant that errantly veers off its Midwestern course, he found life along the great Pacific Flyway to his liking and quickly adapted to it. Here, also, he shared his love of the great outdoors with my brother, sister, and me.

There’s no rocket science involved to explain why we three siblings built lives and careers of our own that were longitudinally aligned with the house and field on Klamath Lake and its sparkling rivers where my Dad and old Polly had fished. My brother and I both studied at University of Oregon, my sister became a Huskie. Later, bookended by homes and jobs in Seattle and San Francisco, Klamath remained our center, and we always found our way back there, our timing not uncoincidental to the flocks of waterfowl moving first south then north, and the redband rainbows swimming from lake to river and back again as water temperatures changed and clouds of insects billowed. The cycles which set the movements of birds and fish triggered our own, connecting us to them, to the land and water, and, mostly, to each other.

Whenever we arrived at the home in Cove Point, Dad would always have something new to show us. Out we’d file to see a great horned owl he called Fred in honor of a neighboring farmer whose stature was even bigger than his own John Wayne frame, or to admire a lone bald eagle that had taken up residence in a fir overlooking the lake. Down to the water we’d tramp so he could throw dummies to demonstrate how well Dobie and Blix, his brace of Chesapeake Bay retrievers, were following hand signals. Or we’d load up in his dusty, rattling Cherokee and head to Tom’s Hole near Chiloquin as dusk fell and the trout rose. We’d fish till dark and catch up on each other’s lives on the drive back, and when we returned to our own homes, we couldn’t wait until we could do it all over again.

Those and other remembrances welled up like the tears in my eyes as we laid my father to rest next to his beloved USO bride. As we stared at the shared granite headstone etched with our parents’ names and searched to find meaning in life and death, my brother leaned over and whispered, “You going to make the hex hatch this summer?”

“Wouldn’t miss it for the world,” I whispered back.

But miss it I did. Things came up, work got in the way. At least that’s what I kept telling myself as first one, then two, then three years rolled by. The truth was, I just wasn’t ready yet. Though deep down I knew that the Klamath Basin would still be chockfull of life as I’d always remembered, from the river otters tobogganing down banks on the Williamson and the mink dining on crayfish to the millions of birds blackening both sky and lake on their way between tundra and tropics, I was afraid that all I’d see was a soul that was missing.

Luckily, no matter how old you grow, a big brother remains a big brother, and mine eventually showed me the way back so that on a crisp October morning I finally joined him in the land of our father, more precisely, chest deep in the waters that we had fished together so often. The first few casts felt awkward. The slender rod went back too far, the imitation insect collapsed in a frustrating and embarrassing coil. Who was I kidding, I fumed. I’d forgotten all that my dad had taught me. I stole a glance at my brother fishing just upriver. Sunlight and droplets sparkled from the translucent line arcing overhead in long, graceful, patient loops, the fly shooting out fifty, sixty feet, touching down gently without causing a ripple. Sure, I thought, of course. He’d never stopped fishing here, never severed the ties; he lived just on the other side of the Cascades, made the short drive over often to check on the farm. Steeled by a younger brother’s resolve, I turned back to my own casting and, finally remembering, let the river’s rhythm guide my own. When I finally felt a tug on the end of the line I knew that what connected me to Klamath was still strong; it may have frayed, but it had not broken. And as I set the hook, I could hear a familiar voice, another one of those plain-spoken mantras, calling over the babble of the current: “Keep your tip up; if he wants to run, let him, but remember, just as in life, always keep a tight line.”

The big redband was the first of many caught and released that day—a day that I wanted to go on forever. Though the hours rushed by like a fallen leaf borne by whitewater, I found myself able to focus on the moments, to see what I had missed so much: A doe and her two still-dappled fawns quietly nibbling on tender blades of late-season grass at river’s edge; a belted kingfisher using the supple tip of a willow branch as a springboard to launch itself after a minnow; a flock of flight-resistant mergansers paddling comically upriver; a fox sitting on his haunches on the opposite shore just watching us. As long as I was keen to look and listen for it, life still abounded here, all around, in the air, on the bank, and especially in the voice in the rapids.

On the last morning of the trip, my brother and I stopped off at the old place in Cove Point. The house had changed hands and the new owners had made it their own, punching out a deck, adding a sunroom, converting the garage. While seeing it brought up memories, I found solace knowing that another family was making new ones there. The nearby lakeside farm reflected changing times, too. My brother, who had taken on ownership, was working with conservation organizations to plant willows in one section and create riparian habitat for wildlife. A new, more efficient irrigation system was in place. The barley grown here was now certified organic.

It was frosty as we walked out to survey the fields and the recently threshed stubble crunched beneath our boots like the sugary breakfast cereal we ate as kids. With a comforting smell cast from woodstoves lingering in the air and a thin band of alpenglow haloing Mount McLoughlin as a backdrop we toured a new blind he’d built, each assessing it for our own needs, him for duck hunting, me for bird watching. We talked about things of no import, but in doing so the conversation meant even that much more to us. Finally, it was time to part, and as we said our goodbyes, we plotted return trips, one for the explosive hatch of hexagenia mayflies come June, another for the duns next fall.

As I headed south on Highway 97 and my brother turned north to reach the cutoff leading to his place on the Umpqua, I thought of how he and I and our sister were inextricably linked, not only by blood and our shared upbringing, but by the aerial ribbon of the Pacific Flyway. And I realized it wasn’t just our family that the flyway helped define, but all who lived in the land beneath, whether in big city or small, on a farm or in a suburb, for it and the watery stepping stones and food-rich resting and refueling spots it follows delineates the natural world in which we all dwell, a place of power, beauty, and grace where trees still stand tall, fields grow lush, rivers run free, and birds fly from pole to pole.

Through the windshield I could see a caret of snow geese silhouetted against the sky winging their way in the same direction as me. Their journey would be much longer than mine, but several months hence they’d heed nature’s call and turn around and head back north again. As the Klamath Basin retreated in the rearview mirror, I knew so would I.

Dwight Holing ’76 lives and writes in California. He’s currently working on a book about wildlife migration for Animal Planet. Previous books on conservation, natural history, and travel have been published by University of California Press, Time-Life, and Random House. His fiction has won honors in literary journal competitions with short stories recently published in Cutthroat and Phoebe. He graduated from University of Oregon in journalism.

Reviews of California Works

May 29, 2013
Books: CALIFORNIA WORKS: STORIES: Dwight Holing
Dean Poling
The Valdosta Daily Times

VALDOSTA — Dwight Holing tells brutal, beautiful stories of being young. Whether it’s learning a new job, being alone for the first time, losing everything, or any number of experiences, Holing captures that sense of discovery, both good and bad, that being young can have on the whittling away of a naive soul. In “California Works,” Valdosta-based publisher Snake Nation Press collects eight of Holing’s stories in a slim but powerful book. Holing is the 2012 winner of the Serena McDonald Kennedy Fiction Award. Holing’s style packs a roundhouse kick to the head in each take, but as Snake Nation notes on the book cover, it is the story “Salt” that not only pounds on the reader’s sensibilities and emotions but claws at the soul. In “Salt,” Holing enters that nightmare realm of the loss of a child; the story nearly wails a lament from the page. Snake Nation Press continues providing publication for local and regional writers as well as offering publication to gems such as “California Works” found a little further down the road.

CalifWorksCover

What They Are Saying…
Dwight Holing’s work compels us with the texture of its language, entering us like music and insisting that we feel the story on more than one level as we read it. This is a writer who impresses us with his eye and ear and heart. — Judson Mitcham, Poet Laureate of Georgia

Dwight Holing has the ability to put the reader into another person’s head, young or old, and into that person’s world, even as that world is ending, a topic few writers can deal with. — The Editors

Nominated for The Story Prize

My collection of short fiction was nominated for The Story Prize. Nominees are invited to contribute a blog. Check it out:

http://thestoryprize.blogspot.com/2012/12/dwight-holing-keeps-it-real.html
TSP
The official blog of The Story Prize

THURSDAY, DECEMBER 20, 2012

Dwight Holing Keeps It Real
In the 58th in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Dwight Holing, author of California Works (Snake Nation Press), discusses his roundabout path to writing fiction.

Okay, here it is in a rush because I need to get back to work since I came late to short fiction and am trying to make up for time. Notice I didn’t say “lost” because it wasn’t. I just took a roundabout way of getting to it. It’s not like I rolled out of bed in my 50s and suddenly decided to put fingers to keyboard. I’ve always made my living as a writer, if you don’t count the stints working in a body and fender shop and cutting and gutting salmon in Alaska. Nonfiction books, newspaper articles, magazine features, special reports, you name it, I’ve written it. Whatever could pay the rent, the trips to distant lands, then the mortgage, the sitters, the tuitions. Well, you get the picture.

Spare me the cliché that journalism is the world’s second oldest profession and nowhere near as well compensated as the first. There’s plenty of creative juice getting spilled over reporting, whether or not you subscribe to Wolfesonian mau-mauing or Twain’s never letting the facts get in the way. Characters, conflicts, and cool stuff inhabited the environmental issues, life sciences, and outdoor adventures I’ve written about. Some was truly stranger than fiction, and now I’m finding the natural world not only is a source and inspiration for short stories, but helps keep dialogue and settings real. Wildlife, weather, landscape—they all play an integral role in a narrative’s arc and protagonist’s journey, providing action, motivation, revelation, be it a story about a veteran of the Iraq War turned cactus rustler finding peace in a night blooming cholla or a commercial fisherman relying on the rules of the sea to distinguish what he knows and doesn’t after his son drowns and marriage founders.

Chiseled on a tablet somewhere is the adage “write about what you know.” What isn’t carved right alongside it is the answer to “why do you write in the first place?” Though I’ve reported about genetics, I can’t say for certain if there’s any involved in writing. For sure, environment plays a role. It’s the whole nature versus nurture debate all over again. My grandfather was a story teller, penning Jazz Age romances for Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s before getting the call from Hollywood. My mom raised me on a steady diet of what it was like growing up with an itinerant writer for a dad—true life adventures of being chased by bill collectors from one Georgia town to the next while they awaited a check for his latest creation, waking up in their rented California bungalow to find Raymond Chandler passed out on the sofa, his fingers still ensconced in the white gloves he wore the night before while drinking gin and playing poker with a pack of Paramount scribes.

Was it genes or memories that shaped me? Was it just cosmic coincidence that this California writer’s first collection of stories was published by a Georgia-based literary press? Who knows? But what I am certain of is I only have to reach back to what I’ve witnessed and experienced to find the genesis for stories, and then just look and listen all around me for mood, imagery, and voice. I’m not the first to discover nature not only delivers honesty to a well-told tale, but adds punch, no matter the form or genre. Read Chandler’s opener to his short story “Red Wind” and you’ll see what I mean:

There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.

Okay, now back to writing fiction. Cheers.