What lured the able essayist John Daniel into a writing life? Perhaps, he muses in this slim sort-of-memoir, his testy parents' "loud, inflamed and frequent" arguments: "I knew, listening in my bed or at the shut bedroom door…that words intended to hurt could hurt, did hurt, and set the hurt loose throughout the house…. [I]t's possible that understanding that power of language may have heightened my interest in its other, more beneficial powers. Ours was a home in which language lived, and I believe I carry all that language with me, mingled with the rest of my experience like compost in a bottomless bin. All of us carry a rich lode…."
In Daniel's case, his subsequent experience included adventures not often associated with writers of lyrical prose and poetry: setting choker-cable in the Cascade Mountains of Washington, eating LSD for breakfast, running up mountains and falling off them, stealing firewood from national forests, living next to Wallace Stegner for five years, and very slowly learning that "groping in language for the unshuttered clarity," as he says, was his real work.
Raised in suburban Maryland and riveted early by the natural world, Daniel was nearly 30 by the time he tried to write seriously—first fiction and poetry, none of it especially glorious. Then, impressed with nonfiction masters like Stegner and Wendell Berry, and by William Stafford's gentle insistence on authenticity, he began to write personal essays, and so found his form—"resonant personal anecdotes from which he then spins larger philosophical, psychological, ecological, and sometimes political messages," as the scholar Scott Slovic notes in a biographical essay on Daniel in Winter Creek: One Writer's Natural History. (The book also includes a thorough bibliography of Daniel's work, including magazine and newspaper articles.)
Daniel arrived in Oregon in 1966 to study at Reed College, but drugs, mountain climbing, and a powerful lack of interest in scholarly matters lured him quickly from the groves of academe. More than 15 years later he resumed college life, this time at Stanford, where he earned a master's degree, taught poetry workshops and freshman English, and was befriended by Stegner, who has remained, even after his death in 1993, a steady compass point for Daniel both as disciplined artist and committed citizen. In 1988, Daniel and his wife, Marilyn, returned to Oregon, and since 1994 they have lived west of Eugene on the land drained by the "winter creek" of the title. "In California I decided that home is the place you stay long enough to begin to see," he writes. "Now I believe in a tougher standard: home is the place you decide to stay in spite of the miserable weather….Eden? No. But close enough."
Best known for the two books that earned him Oregon Book Awards—the eloquent essay collection The Trail Home and a poignant memoir of his zestful mother, Looking After—Daniel has here crafted a long and lucid essay as much about the polestars of his heart as about the details of his life. Winter Creek is graced by Daniel's usual blunt honesty (especially a long passage about the savage economic body blows absorbed by rural Oregon communities since the 1970s), but it also features, for the first time, a forthright discussion of his spiritual convictions. He is, he says, chasing after clear seeing, a ferocious attentiveness to the sheer stunning miracle of everything that is. "I write to touch and be touched by the real, and I try to write in such a way that a reader or listener…can enter the things I make and find his or her own sense of the real enlivened. Writing in this sense is a gift. It is one way of contributing to…this ongoing conversation we are having about…how our lives should matter."
Readers familiar with Daniel's work will savor the slim but strong Winter Creek, the latest in Milkweed's Credo series brief books by notable American writers of natural and human community. (Other writers in the series include Rick Bass, Robert Michael Pyle, Pattiann Rogers, and Ann Haymond Zwinger.) Readers new to this former logger will find here an excellent primer not only on Daniel's work but on writing especially attuned to the natural world—a growing genre in which many of the most interesting voices, like this one, come from the American Northwest.
San Francisco Bay Guardian
August 28, 2002
Review by Alexandra Yurkovsky
In Winter Creek: One Writer's Natural History, poet and naturalist John Daniel shares the lessons of a life spent learning to live in, to live with, nature. His subdued but deeply felt sentences coalesce in a lyric narrative of anecdotes and ecologically philosophical meditations. The memoir thus resembles Thoreau's Walden, and Daniel invokes him several times, along with more recent wilderness writers who were his mentors, such as Wendell Berry and Wallace Stegner. From childhood days exploring the creeks of Washington, D.C., to his eventual migration west in search of a romanticized land of mountains and forests, Daniel has grappled with the need to integrate his writing self with his wild self. He attended Reed College and worked in the forests, as had Gary Snyder. But, more interested in rock climbing and too dazed by his wryly depicted psychedelic experiments, Daniel left Reed without graduating. At the time, he was unaware of Snyder's broad intellectual interests, but Snyder's poetry had raised "the possibility that literature could be made from…the very kind of life that I was living"—that is, a life of backpacking and ordinary labor. Although almost solemnly unpretentious, Winter Creek suggests that "nature writing" is not a mere corollary of "serious" literature. His literary ideal is a quality he admires in Stegner, who "called the reader's attention to the worthy and enduring things of the world, both human and transhuman, not to the emotive splendor of his responses to those things, and not to the considerable virtuosity of his own language." Daniel simply but persuasively argues that the natural world remains our essential source, wherever we live, with a unique power to elicit our more authentic selves.