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Friday, April 19, 2019

It’s About Time: Kathleen Stocking Comes Home

From the Place of the 
Gathering Light:
Leelanau Pieces

by Kathleen Stocking
Even now that I’ve moved to a senior residential community in nearby Traverse City, I’m still from the place that has made me, that has informed my sense of the world, that taught me who I am, who I think I am, that has given me my ideas and my core self. - Kathleen Stocking, From the Place of the Gathering Light: Leelanau Pieces
Kathleen Stocking’s first book of essays, Letters from the Leelanau, burst onto the northern Michigan scene in 1990, selling in numbers that took the University of Michigan Press completely by surprise. The first print run was only 500 copies, but then, noticed by and raved in the New York Times, the book quickly went on to become a classic and is still in print. 

When she came to my bookstore in Northport to do a reading from her third book, The Long Arc of the Universe, essays ranging from her Michigan life to experiences teaching in California prisons, a rich kids’ school in San Salvador, and Peace Corps teaching assignments in Thailand and Romania, part of my introduction to the audience assembled was — and I believe this to be true, if not for descendants of the Odawa and Ojibway peoples or third- and fourth-generation locals, surely for those of us who arrived only in the latter decades of the twentieth century — “If you haven’t read Kathleen Stocking, you don’t know Leelanau.” So it is a great gift she gives us with her new book, Gathering Light — another collection of essays focused on the Leelanau but informed by almost thirty additional years of observing nature, participating in community, reading voraciously, traveling bravely, and endlessly pondering life on earth, from our little Up North paradise as it evolved through time to our place in the universe.
Kathleen Stocking’s essays, while personal, are about much more than her own life, rich and overflowingly full as that life always has been and continues to be. Essays in the new book are divided into seasonal sections, and over and over we are reminded that our brief time is but the thinnest of glazes atop the rich layer cake (she uses the image in one section) of geologic time.
Geology is interesting psychologically because to approach it, at least for me, requires examination of the fabric of space-time and the physics of consciousness. 
Thoughts of geology inform her thought as deeply as does her awareness of wildflowers and the history of county families. Following a fragment of quoted conversation by a Suttons Bay geologist about Michigan eight hundred million years ago, for instance, she writes:
The whole mass of quivering geologic time lies in that downhome, tossed-off remark.
Quivering awareness, I say, in her response And yet, presented in nonspecialist, everyday language and images. She writes, the reader sees.

Consciousness of history is also intricately woven into Stocking’s accounts of walks and drives and conversations and memories recalled from childhood, and woven in so gracefully, so naturally, that it never interrupts her narrative. How long, in the sweep of geologic time, have human beings been on earth? In the space of human history, how long have white people been in Michigan? How many of us who call Leelanau home today are aware of early black pioneer families in what is now Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore, and how many know that while whites and blacks were buried together in cemeteries around the county, for a long time Natives were buried outside the fences? Why is this knowledge important?
History, like lighthouses, helps position us so we can understand where we are, relative to where we were, and relative to where we might be heading. 
Stocking, like an old-time lighthouse keeper, keeps track of everything at once — boats, storms, lives, mechanical equipment — such that her questions and thoughts infect our own. And thank heaven they do! Whether writing about the relatively youthful movement of local community-supported agriculture, new, start-up wineries, talented young local musicians Ruby John and Jonah Powell, or her own childhood days in the woods with her father, timberman Pierce Stocking, she never lets a reader get so comfortable that the broader worldview is lost. “It’s about imagining the future,” she writes. “It’s about seeing one’s self as another.” The lighthouse keeper in Stocking asks us to navigate between our safe, precious home and places in the world where privilege is unknown, life not safe. 

Years ago another dear friend, a woman who follows sports in a way alien to me but with whom I have many other abiding interests and loves in common, wrote to me something about baseball that I’ve never forgotten. Maybe she was quoting someone else. I don’t remember. Somewhere in a trunk that old letter, carefully saved, awaits re-reading, but for now I can only paraphrase. Baseball, she wrote, is the only game where the object is not about annihilating the opposition but about coming home. 

In some ways, of course, we never leave home. We take it with us wherever we go. And wherever we go, the experiences that we have come back home with us when we return. This is particularly apparent in Kathleen Stocking’s life and work. From Letters from the Leelanau to Lake Country to The Long Arc of the Universe to From the Place of the Gathering Light, we have now the arc of a serious and important contribution to American literature, and while we can take a kind of regional pride in the fact that the contribution grew from Michigan soil, I hope our gratitude to the writer and recognition of her accomplishments will eclipse any credit we may want to give ourselves. Kathleen Stocking is a treasure. We are fortunate to have her among us.

One more note: As was indicated in the title of her previous book, somehow -- with all her knowledge of world history and hands-on experiences in parts of the world where life is truly dismal -- Kathleen Stocking manages to be optimistic about the future of mankind. She thinks we have it in us to work together to expand the realm of human rights and even reverse the ongoing degradation of the environment. Even if our generation (hers and mine) doesn't live to see it, she has faith in a more-than-possible good future for our descendants. So again I say -- what a gift we have in her work!


twessell said...

I look forward to the author coming to Dog Ears this summer. Thanks for sharing your great review. Save me a copy.

P. J. Grath said...

Ty, I look forward to seeing everyone in Northport again -- friends, customers, and authors -- and it's a good thing we'll be back soon, because my lists are growing. That is, lists of authors to visit, lists of books to order, and the list of people who want copies of Kathleen's book!

Dawn said...

It sounds wonderful. Are the photos from the book? Or yours? They are also wonderful.

P. J. Grath said...

Dawn, sorry I missed your comment here before. The photos are mine, selected from various seasons over a number of years. I'm glad you like them.