I'm revisiting blog posts from the past and this one struck me because I just finished launching my fifth novel and this same feeling of loss can be overwhelming. If I let it be.
This morning I was listening to Ann Lamott's book Small Victories: Spotting Improbably Moments of Grace, and her first lines just jolted me: "The worst possible thing you can do when you’re down in the dumps, tweaking, vaporous with victimized self-righteousness, or bored, is to take a walk with dying friends. They will ruin everything for you."
I have not, I must admit, recently walked with a friend who is close to death, but I could relate to what Lamott was saying. Lately I have been wallowing a bit too much in self-pity, for no reason whatsoever except perhaps because I have completed my novel and although I'm working on the next, I definitely feel a sense of loss. And, I must admit, although I never started on this journey for the accolades, (and most obviously not for the money) there are moments when I wish that everyone I meet at the coffee shop, or passing by on the street would just say to me: "Hey, I heard you wrote another book. Congratulations," even if they have never read any of my work.
I was at a picnic a few weeks ago and something like this happened and I was amazed at how much it lifted my spirits. A man came up to me, someone I know through my children, and he told me he had read one of my novels: Ephemeral Summer, and he loved it. I was a bit shocked. It is a coming of age story and the target audience would be his college-age daughters. "Everyone in the family has read it," he told me, "We loved it."
I'd like to believe I'm not vain. But maybe I am. Or maybe these feelings I'm experiencing are meant to teach me something. How often I have neglected to tell someone that what they did or are doing is worthy: my friend who spent a year volunteering on a political campaign for a candidate I didn't plan to vote for; or another, who spent 6 months learning to become a yoga instructor. And then there is my friend who opened her own shop; and another friend who drove almost every weekend this past spring, over 11 hours in the car, one way, to watch her daughter play college ball. Finally, there are more than a few, who have had to sit by the side of their loved ones while they undergo treatments, trying to keep the faith. What dedication.
My own family members have started new jobs, struck out on their own, or started up support groups. Congratulating them, or even making some commentary on their hard work is something I think, I should remember to do, if for no other reason than because they are trying. They are living life the way it was meant to be lived: with purpose.
I've used this tag line in my biographies several times and although it's metaphorical, it's also true. In my professional capacity over the years as an outdoor educator and professor teaching ecology and environmental science, I've worked alongside volunteers and students planting trees. Together we've planted hundreds of seedlings and bare root mature trees in places such as the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge, the City of Syracuse parks, and the nature trail behind the college campus where I teach.
So you can imagine my chagrin when we were approached by the utility company with a request to take down the ash trees that line the front of our house. The Emerald Ash borer is wreaking havoc on ash trees in the Northeastern U.S. and our ash trees are directly under the utility wires. The emerald ash borer beetle lays eggs in the tree's bark and the larvae eat away at the phloem, the inner part of the bark that transports water and nutrients, eventually killing the tree. The borer is not native to the United States and was brought to the states accidentally in 2002 from Asia. Within the decade our trees would be dead so we agreed to let the utility take them down.
We then had to decide whether to take down the magnificent ash tree in our side yard.
This tree was planted long before we arrived, I'm guessing its age at fifty plus years. Its largess allowed it to throw shade on the back deck. Great! Except when you live in Upstate, NY and summers are so short. Half the tree hung over the driveway and in the fall it shed dead limbs and leaves like crazy. We spent hours cleaning up the mess it left on the pavement after a wind storm. So although I loved the tree we decided to take that one down as well. As upsetting as it was to see the hole in the sky when the tree was felled, this summer we've witnessed spectacular sherbet colored sunsets now that the limbs aren't obstructing the view.
It wasn't long however before the gaping hole in the landscape gnawed at me and we went in search of a new tree. I chose a redbud because I love the way their lavender flowers bloom so delicately in the spring. And they don't get that big - maybe twenty-five feet in height.
Even as we were debating whether to take the ash tree down I knew I'd end up planting another in its place; I've spent the past few decades educating and advocating for the natural world. And I'm always rewarded by the look of wonder and accomplishment that passes over people's faces after grubbing around in the dirt, digging holes, putting in a tree, heeling the rich earth back into place.
I remember one day in particular while planting thirty trees with my students in the nature trail behind campus. I was crouched over a dug-out hole, wide enough to handle the bare roots of a red maple. I was working with a student, using a shovel to back-fill the hole with dirt, when the student told me, "I've never planted a tree." He sat back on his haunches sweating and wiping at his brow with the back of his hand. "Well," I told him, "this is something you won't forget." I eyeballed the sky. "And if you do, come back one day to see how much it has grown."
Drive through any rural area of the U.S. and you will inevitably find apple orchards; some may be new, others may be reminders of a family homestead long abandoned. But the trees remain.
It's believed that the Pilgrims brought apple seeds with them to the American colonies when they arrived in the early 1600s and grafted the European variety with the native American species of crab apple. Over the years farmers created many new varieties of apples. But not for eating. Apple trees and orchards had other economic uses.
One of the first things a settler would do is plant an apple orchard as a way to stake claim to a parcel of land. When investors formed the Ohio Company to lure colonists from the eastern states further West, they insisted the settlers plant at least fifty apple trees to establish their claim.
Apples provided an important part of the American diet: cider. Most colonists used their apples to make cider, which was safer to drink than water. Indeed, one of out of every ten farms in New England operated a cider mill. Estimates are that an average New England family consumed about 35 gallons per person per year. (The author, Tracy Chevalier, wrote a historical novel centered around a family in Ohio that grows cider apples titled At the Edge of the Orchard. Although dark, it includes a fascinating botanical history.)
By the mid 1700s, orchards were an integral part of the American landscape. And although it may be assumed that the European settlers were the only ones to plant orchards, there was ample evidence that Native Americans also incorporated orchards into their lifestyle. In 1779, a scout for the Revolutionary Army drew a map of the Cayuga and Seneca native American settlements in the Finger Lakes region of New York. As the map shows, there were numerous orchards dotting the landscape. General Sullivan, ordered his soldiers to go into the villages and wipe out the crops in retribution for an Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) incursion against the army. One soldier wrote in his diary about an attack on a village in what is now Geneva NY: we found about 80 houses something large some of them built with hew and timber and part with round timber and part with bark. Large quantities of corn and beans with all sorts of sauce, at this place a fine Young Orchard, which was soon all girdled.
The story of the American Chestnut (Castanea dentata) is tragic but hopeful. At one time the Chestnut tree was prolific in the northeastern US. At the turn of the 19th century, the Chestnut covered over twenty-five percent of the Appalachian mountain range which runs from Maine to Georgia. However, an imported fungus first discovered in 1904 destroyed much of the Chestnut forests.
The Chestnut tree was an integral part of the landscape and had many uses. Indigenous people had multiple names for the tree's nuts, which they ground them down for flour. Families that moved into the Appalachian region foraged the nuts to eat and sell. But people weren't the only consumers of the trees' bounty. Bear, deer, turkeys, and many of the forest dwellers relied on the nuts to fatten up before winter. Farmers would let their hogs and cattle loose in the woods to eat the downed nuts.
Chestnut trees could grow upwards of one hundred feet and often the lower trunk would be devoid of branches, making it an ideal tree to harvest for timber. The wood was rot-resistant which made it an ideal material for use around the homestead. It was literally used from cradle to grave. People used the wood for for constructing homes, fences, furniture (including cradles) and coffins. The Chestnut tree was instrumental in the industrialization of the country. The wood was used to make rail ties for the burgeoning railroad sector after the Civil War and when the telegraph took off, the wood was milled for the poles.
The Chestnut offered another valuable commodity: tannins. An industrious land owner could strip the bark off a tree and ship to a tannery where it would be boiled down and used to soften hides. The tree was so prolific and had so many uses that the loss to blight was a turning point for industries and people that relied on it for their livelihoods.
Around the turn of the twentieth century scientists began to notice a strange fungus blight infecting Chestnut trees found in a park in New York City. Unfortunately, the fungus was imported to the US via other plant species and there was and is no known cure. It spread rapidly, eventually reaching the Appalachian forests by the mid-late 1920s where it wiped out huge swaths of trees.
When the US government started the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1933 as part of the New Deal program to counter the impacts of the Great Depression, the men recruited to work in the nation's park systems had to deal with the blight. At the time they tried various mechanisms to control the fungus, including harvesting young trees to bring to nurseries in the hopes of re-foresting the region. However, this proved fruitless because oaks and ash harbor the fungus and once Chestnuts reach a certain age, the fungus inevitably attacks.
To treat trees that had the blight, the CCC used a procedure called mud-packing, covering the cankers with moist soil and wrapping the area with black tarp. This also proved unsuccessful. Trees that were beyond help were often cut and the men used the wood to make bridges, stairs, and facilities for the parks. Indeed, many structures found in US parks may be remnants of old Chestnut trees.
Today there are efforts to genetically modify the native chestnut species with an Asian counter-part that is disease resistant. There are numerous research farms dedicated to re-introducing these modified Chestnut trees into the forests where they once thrived. In a matter of generations we may see a modified version of the majestic Chestnut grace our Northeastern forests once again.
At one time, the Eastern White Pine (Pinus strobus) dominated the northeastern forests of the U.S. and had multiple uses for both the Native Americans and the colonists. Its durable wood and straight trunk made it a valuable commodity during colonial times in the U.S. Because of its value, the white pine was at the center of numerous skirmishes between colonists and the men in charge of enforcing English laws on harvesting white pines for private use.
White pines grow rapidly and have longevity, some living as long as four hundred years. When the colonists arrived in New England in the early 1600s, they found virginal forests of pine and discovered trees towering over 200 feet in the air with bases several feet in diameter.
They also noticed how the Native Americans used the trees for utilitarian as well as medicinal purposes. Algonquins steeped the needles and inner bark to make a tea to prevent scurvy earning them the nick-name 'bark-eaters'.
The Haudenosaunee (Iroquois - Five Nations) culture refer to the white pine as the Tree of Peace. Historical accounts of a peace treaty agreed upon between the Mohawk, Onondaga, Seneca, Cayuga, and Oneida tribes, occurred after a meeting under the canopy of this majestic tree. And in a testament to the significance of the white pine to their culture, (the five needles represent the tribes) the tree is at the center of the Haudenosaunee seal.
I put this video together a few years ago to highlight the work of the US Civilian Conservation Corps. During the Great Depression they planted over three billion trees in our state and national forests. As it is approaching Arbor Day and the book launch date of my novel The Truth of Who You Are set during this time and about these men (April 28, 2022) I am sharing this video. Click Below and Enjoy!
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Thanks in advance.
About five years ago I was on a trip in the Orcas Islands when I learned about the men in the Civilian Conservation Corps who worked for a measly $5.00/week during the Great Depression, building infrastructure and planting over 1 billion trees in our nation's parks. Of course I'd heard of these men but never knew much about their work or their history. But after reading about the Corps, the multitude of men who hearkened from diverse geographic backgrounds, many of them first and second generation immigrants, I felt compelled to tell their story.
I hadn't realized it at the time, but this book project titled The Truth of Who You Are, would become an emotional journey for me that had me doubting myself time and time again. Was it worth it? I kept asking. Let me list the tribulations to see this novel through to a publishing deal.
1) Research - since the novel is historical, I had to do research, which meant traveling to some of the sites where these men worked. Being self-funded, I launched an online crowdfunding campaign. I made a video, which took hours, and I almost made my goals. But the campaign failed and I wrote about it here. So I scaled back my travel plans to something doable - research in the Smoky Mountains, near where my parents lived in South Carolina. There was a lot of history to work with and hey, it's a tax write off, right?
2) Contests - I am a sucker for them. After winning one literary contest in 2017 for my novel The Night is Done, I figured I might be in a roll, so why not enter my work in progress to some contests , see how it goes? I entered The Truth of Who You Are in five writing contests. It gained semi-finalist status in one, and lost in two others. One is still pending. But the most heartbreaking loss was a national, prestigious contest that required I not pitch the book to anyone, no agents or publishers, until they told me it was out of the running. Five months later and two weeks before they were going to announce the winner, I still hadn't heard anything. My novel was still in the running. I couldn't believe it. The prize was $25,000 and a publishing contract. Could it be that The Truth of Who You Are had won? Everyday that I opened my email and there was no rejection I got my hopes up. My anxiety level was through the roof. I told only a few select friends and family about my anticipation. And then....rejection.
3) Publishers and Agents- I've attended numerous conferences over the past few years, pitching this novel to agents and editors at publishing houses. One editor wrote back to me with constructive feedback as well as encouraging words. "The Conservation Corps sections are terrific, I think. They really conjure time and place and show the impact of the programs on the people who participated in them and on the communities they served. And the burgeoning romance is nicely done as well." Yay! I revised and resubmitted. It was rejected. That was one of many to come from other agents and publishers, after they requested to read the whole manuscript.
4) Revise, revise, revise - the next step in the process is always to self-reflect, reexamine the manuscript and revise. At some point though one has to decide. What is the issue here? Is this novel not marketable? What do people want? Many revisions later, I adjusted the concept, and started all over again with the pitching.
5) Publishing Contract - I sent the novel to a small publisher who offed me a contract. Yay! Then I read the contract. That and a few other things led me to believe I'd be no better off than if I published it myself, so I declined. I can't even begin to tell you what a gut wrenching decision that was.
6) Giving up - I firmly believe in this novel. I know what it feels like to not believe something is worth pursuing. I have a novel I wrote about smuggling along the US/Canadian border sitting on my laptop which will never see print. But this novel, The Truth of Who You Are, is different. I've had positive feedback from several readers, people who I've only met in online writing circles. And my critique partner, who is brutally honest, told me it is my best writing so far.
Recently a publisher asked me for the full manuscript and I’m waiting for their response. Their contract is posted on their website and seems more favorable. So we'll see. Like I said, this book won't quit.
But I imagine, neither did these guys from the Conservation Corps.
Post script: I wrote this blog in November 2019 and have since signed a contract with Black Rose Writing to publish. The novel launches April 28, 2022. You can pre-order (discounted) ebooks at the following links.
My latest novel, coming out in April 2022 with Black Rose Writing, is now available for pre-order at a discounted price. You can choose to order a print book with a 15% discount through the publisher at this link using this code PREORDER2021
Or you can pre-order an ebook for $2.99. After launch the price will increase to $5.99. So get your deals now! And thank you for your support. Ebook links below
IBook, Kobo link here
When his family is plunged into poverty during the Great Depression, Ben Taylor takes a job with the US Civilian Conservation Corps developing the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. A tragic accident puts him in a dilemma: does he let someone else take the fall for what he did so he can keep his position? The repercussions of his decision plague him all the way to the Battle of the Bulge in World War II where Ben is reunited with an old friend from his time with the Corps. Inspired by actual events and the people who once lived in the Smoky Mountains before it became a National Park, this saga explores how people use stories to hide uncomfortable truths.
When I got the call to appear as a featured guest on the History Channel's Engineering That Built the World tv series my response was: "Me? You Sure? How did you hear about me?" I was told that the head of the history Channel recommended me. Really.
Not sure if I can verify that but I will say that if it hadn't been for my blog on the Durant Family Saga probably no one would have heard of my fictional account of the family of Thomas Durant. My name is associated with this infamous family because of my relentless pursuit of information about them and blogging about the research journey.
I went to the New York City A&E studios in August 2021 and spent about two hours interviewing with Karl Hollandt and his crew from Six West Media. And while they only used about three minutes of the total interview, I was thrilled to be a part of the episode about the building of the Transcontinental Railroad titled Race for the Railroad.
I'm not an expert on the Transcontinental Railroad but I am well versed in the motivations behind why Thomas Durant conspired to take over the Union Pacific Railroad and control the contracts - so he could bilk the U.S. government out of millions by over charging for construction.
It was the money he made during this time period (1864-69) that allowed him to acquire the half million acres in the Adirondacks which he planned to exploit as a playground for the rich during the Gilded Age. His son William was supposed to spearhead this venture and if you read my novels you will learned more about what happened to Thomas Durant's legacy.
If you missed the first episode you can stream it online here.
Sheila Myers is an award winning author and Professor at a small college in Upstate NY. She enjoys writing, swimming in lakes, and walking in nature. Not always in that order.