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 The Hearthlight of David James Duncan

[The following has been published either in full or in part in numberous journals, including; The Big Sky Journal and The Flyfish Journal, among others. Written by Jimmy Watts, photos by Carson Artac and others. More about Duncan’s new novel, Sun House, can be found on his website >>>]

It’s midafternoon in Bellingham (WA), and a bonfire is burning behind our house—split timber from last winter’s treefall are towered high and bright as a sun, and an October breeze is gently feeding the flames air. There’s a break in a week’s worth of rain and the wind has blown even the grass dry, begging us to sit outside. 

With me is David James Duncan—the revered author, storied activist, and one of the deepest spiritual and ecological minds of our time. He’s just finished a forthcoming novel, Sun House, a sweeping 1100-page odyssey through the American West portraying what he calls “our biological and spiritually inescapable realities and the love and justice they demand.”

“I tried to stick to a more practical length but the state of a world in which problems are no longer political, but epic, overwhelming, mythical, left me pining to pen an epic in what the praise poet Anne Porter called “an altogether different language.” I wanted this read to feel like walking El Camino in Spain, or the Pacific Crest Trail, or taking a month-long spiritual retreat in a place far from the nearest asphalt and fumes,” he says. “I’m hoping Sun House found that different language, and it’s my best and most timely work. It’s certainly been the most costly.”

How my audience with Duncan came to be is a separate story, begun around a much earlier fire—or an earlier reverberation of this same fire warming us today; friendships being no different than flames, the way lightning strikes for millennia have been carried from one hearth fire to light another. 

Huddled behind us –as if they too were a fire—are twelve tamaracks raining amber needles like embers into our laps, as a towering broadleaf maple drifts down leaves like dinner plates the color of the sun. It’s cold out, such that we’re sitting snug to the flames. Even my retriever reclines toward the heat, his back against the warm firepit stone and mortar walls. Nearby is a small and nearly dry spring-fed creek, a Lost Creek, as its actual name predicts, its water diminished by four unprecedented summer months without rain. I’m in a hooded fleece zipped tight to my chin. Duncan wears two long sleeve collared shirts with a craft knitted blue scarf horseshoed around his neck. “My daughter Celia made it,” he says, wearing it like a hug. 

Scattered on the acre behind you,” I tell him, “hidden under the salmonberry and sword fern are five Sequoia starts Ellie(David’s other daughter) gave me a couple years ago. A few hundred years from now they may be the only conifers still here.”

Holding his blue scarf from Celia and eyeing Ellie’s Sequoias, David remarks that he loves sitting in the backseat while his daughters choose the destination, and drive. He says he wrote Sun House as a gift to his daughters, and all the generations facing the epic and the overwhelming. Our challenges, he says, have moved far beyond the political. “The world situation is darkly mythic now. Epic. And requires a collectively mythic and epic response.”  

“Nothing having arrived, will stay,” I remark, quoting a Wendell Berry poem, “…and yet this nothing is the seed of all—the clear eye of Heaven, where all worlds appear.” It’s a poem I hear resonant within the pages of Sun House. Inside of the narrative of which is a sense that the womb of Earth herself harbors a smoldering warmth which cannot be extinguished, as if a maternal force hidden in the dark nothing, beneath the dirt, is waiting to become known.

“One of the most unusual things about my life,” Duncan continues, “from the time I was twenty I’ve had many friendships with wise old women, and a preference for the feminine expressions of wisdom, ongoing to this day. I drew on the saint Julian of Norwich in The River Why, and visited her home city when I was just seventeen. I draw on Julian again in Sun House, saying ‘just as God is our Father, so God is our Mother.’ Toxic masculinity has for centuries driven our engagement with Mother Earth in exactly the wrong directions; I heed wise women facing the direction of life, not money. As our Muscogee Nation U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo wrote, ‘Remember the earth whose skin you are’.”

For the better part of my life, David James Duncan has been a treasured companion, for years now in person, far longer in his body of work. Like every Pacific Northwest river kid Huck Finn wannabe, at age sixteen I wanted to be Gus, his protagonist in The River Why.  

Finished in 1979 when he was just twenty-seven, and published in 1983, Duncan was mowing lawns for a living in Portland, OR and driving a Dodge Coronet with two smashed quarter panels and a door that wouldn’t open, “but it got me to the Deschutes in two hours,” he said, “and to my favorite coast streams in an hour forty-five.” Living in a $100 a month cabin on an urban creek, finger-pecking at a typewriter and without an agent to his name, every publisher in the country rejected his unsolicited manuscript, until the Sierra Club Books changed their ‘Nonfiction Only’ policy and made The River Why their first novel. Nearly 40 years later it’s still in print, and widely considered a classic.

He followed up in 1992 with another novel, The Brothers K, an 800-page effort he spent seven years writing, portraying a Vietnam-era American family, broken for the same reason families break today, pieced back together with deep understandings and heroic acts of forgiveness. The Brothers K earned Duncan widespread acclaim and international attention, and ever relevant, it too remains in print. 

To say Duncan has been prolific in the three decades since The Brother’s K is an understatement, but much of his work took the form of public speaking and activism. During those decades, he published three collections of essays, including the National Book Award nominated My Story As Told by Water and co-authored two activist-response books—Citizen’s Dissent with Wendell Berry and Heart of the Monster with Rick Bass—while also giving some fifty talks in close to as many cities.

Citizen’s Dissent was cowritten in 2003, Duncan says, in protest “of the de facto political party embodied by the so-called ‘Christian-right’ which betrays the words and example of the very Jesus it claims to love…Jesus scorned riches and embraced the poor, blessed peacemakers not war-makers, celebrated creation, diversity, empathy, beauty and insisted that compassion is literally compassionate!”

In 2010 Heart of the Monster was conceived, written and published in a span of less than three months, in a heroic attempt to stop Exxon-Mobil from turning 1,100 miles of Montana’s scenic byways into a primary transportation corridor for the Alberta Tar Sands, via river-routed roads —including the road that passed directly in front of Duncan’s house and home water. The proposed transportation corridor was to pass articulating trucks so massive as to almost be unbelievable (both larger and heavier than the Statue of Liberty), alongside five iconic Western rivers.  The book required tremendous personal courage from both Bass and Duncan, and in the end their cause prevailed.

“We went head to head with Exxon-Mobil at the time of their greatest power,” Duncan says, “And thousands of local heroes share the credit for stopping them. With our book, Rick and I were, so to speak, the Paul Revere figures yelling, ‘The Monster is Coming! The Monster is Coming!’ It’s still hard to fathom how our side won this fight to protect the Clearwater, Big Blackfoot, Nez Perce trail of tears, and other national treasures from being turned into Tar Sands’ tentacles. But when I drive along those rivers today, by damn, I don’t see a trace of Exxon’s ‘high and wide industrial corridor’.”

It was Barry Lopez who described their effort best, “What David Duncan, Rick Bass, and their colleagues have done with ‘The Heart of the Monster’ knocked me across the room,” he said. “They have breathed fire into a worldwide effort to make Big Oil, Big Ore, and Big Government accountable, to bring them to bay. And they have set a standard here—for citizenship, integrity, and courage.”

All the while, amidst these big and involved writing and activist efforts, Duncan continued to produce stand-alone essays, as published in scores of magazines and journals and over 40 anthologies, including Best American EssaysBest American Spiritual Writing (appearing five times!) and Best American Sports Writing. He also appeared in numerous documentaries, and both The River Why and The Brothers K were adapted and performed live on stage to sold out runs at the acclaimed Book-It Repertory Theater beneath Seattle’s landmark Space Needle. 

Most recently, Duncan edited and curated, and wrote the forward to, One Long River of Song—a vast and heartfelt collection of writings by his close friend, and much loved Portland-based writer, Brian Doyle. Published in 2019 by Little, Brown and Co. (the same publisher as Sun House), One Long River of Song is already in its second printing. On the back jacket of the book, writes the poet Mary Oliver, “Doyle’s writing is driven by his passion for the human, touchable, daily life, and equally for the untouchable mystery of all else.” It’s a description and attribute equally applicable to Duncan’s writing as well.

Yet, for the past fourteen years, beyond all that body of work, Duncan has primarily been seated in Montana at the table of Sun House, putting in six to twelve hour writing days, taking breaks only for birds, mountain walks, and an occasional cast when the fishing is good (a privilege reserved for those who live on trout rivers, whose fly rods are always against the wall strung up and at the ready).

His vast, multi-generational novel is a fusion of eastern and western traditions with a chorus of blues, folk and gospel music. Set against the mountains and rivers of the West, and told through the perspective of multiple narrators, it’s the contemporary story of rural Montanans on a twice-failed cattle ranch joining forces with a few urban refugees who swallow their City Mouse vs. Country Mouse stereotype and begin to uncover. David told me, “I’ve seen countless op eds calling for a change of consciousness if humanity is to survive. I’ve seen zero op ed descriptions of what this consciousness looks, feels, tastes, sounds, and lives like from day to day. That’s the void Sun House sets out to fill, because that’s the void plaguing countless human lives.”

While the community and characters in the novel are fictional the implications of their viability are pertinent, pressing, based on the very best things David has seen, and in that sense, very real. “I’ve come to believe only love and justice can work this mess out. And will,” Duncan says, “as slowly and damagingly as selfish and cynical tricksters force it to. But I still see a path forward.” He’s written of this path with the urgency of a fireman entering a house ablaze, and with the calm wisdom of one who’s entered conflagrations before. 

“Needed changes of consciousness is the through-line in my fiction, from The River Why to The Brother’s K, and on to Sun House,” Duncan says, “and it will remain a through-line. An activist I admire, Charles Eisenstein, recently said why in an essay titled ‘On the Great Green Wall, and Being Useful’—

“To heal the world, people must no longer be treated as standardized producers, functionaries, or medical objects in a global industrial system. Not only does this alienate them from the local knowledge and relationship needed to heal the places where they live, it creates legions of superfluous human beings.”

“Beginning with those wise, older women befriended when I was young…most of the couple hundred people I’m closest to lead lives that are not only not superfluous, they’re heroic.” David adds. “I reference scores of these people in the epigraphs that open each chapter of Sun House, like these words from Meister Eckhart: ‘When the soul wants to experience something, she throws an image out in front of her, then steps into it.’…This statement reminds me of the way you and your firehouse brothers step into a fire, Jimmy, ‘soul first’, and I so admire that”

Adding logs to the fire, I mention a paradox I’m well acquainted with as a fireman: the way water is taken in the darkness toward flames, where the light hides. “Inside a house on fire,” I say, “it’s complete darkness…ink black.” Duncan listens with his eyes, eyes the color of a coastal river. “So, we navigate by feel and sound, searching for life and for the seat of the flames, both felt well before they’re seen, inching toward them until a sun appears…We don’t put water on the fire until we’re nearly on top of it, where it’s the hottest. The only way this is accomplished is with love, and it can’t be accomplished alone. Firefighters can only navigate here in unison, with literal, physical contact with each other; and with a complete change of consciousness, turning entirely away from the self.”

As dusk arrives, and the shadows from the sun have all but disappeared to shade, we move closer yet to the fire, and I remember something his friend Barry Lopez wrote before passing, “There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of leaning into the light.”

This Duncan has done his whole life. Even now, surrounded by darkness save the glow of this fire and its reflection against his face, his heartfelt truths and compassion are physically felt and visibly radiant. I can see it. The trees see it, as do the lost creeks. As do the hundred-billion suns in the night stream above us. Listening to him talk next to the fire it strikes me that Duncan, now seventy, has become an elder—a guide; one comfortable both in this world and the other; the inner. His stories read like gospels—where the word is the water, ‘where all worlds appear,’ and where Duncan is carrying it with cupped hands. 

“We’re here for a little window,” his close friend, Brian Doyle, said, “and to use that time to catch and share shards of light and laughter and grace seems to me the great story.”

“What’s next?” I ask, to which Duncan replies with the expected itinerary of an author with a completed book—the back and forth with the publisher, book tours, readings, etc., and he has other works on the backburner too. But that’s not what I’m asking about and he knows it.

“In response to Barry’s insight that the great questions have no answers” he says, “I find the Unanswerable to be a reminder that I was born lost, but in creeks and rivers began to be found. Watersheds remain a place of pilgrimage, wild salmon an interior compass, rivers prayer wheels, industrialized rivers blues tunes, dying birds prophets and guides, wild places as small as weeds blooming in the cracks of city sidewalks a momentary home.”  

Before retiring for the night, I try to describe to Duncan an experience I hold dear, but can’t very well express, “Either I don’t have the words,” I tell him, “or by putting words to it I’ll diminish the experience. I’m not sure which. It’s both.”David encourages me by saying what his late friend William Kitteridge said, that ‘secret’ and ‘sacred’ are basically synonymous. 

“I see her,” trying to explain the experience, “sometimes in dreams, and sometimes awake. I once even saw her in a house on fire. But most often she appears on the far banks of rivers, ankle deep holding a fistful of field daisies, smiling beneath chestnut eyes and long brown hair. It’s silly…” I admit. “She’s an image or an imagination, an apparition or an angel. Or maybe she’s only a memory. I just know that I love her, and when she’s there I drop my fly at her feet with the hope she’ll pick it up.”

“One of the heroines of Sun House might tell you,” David answers, “that words aimed at such an event are trying to catch a thunderhead in the gopher trap of American English. From your long, sometimes impossibly intense friendship with fire and water, Jimmy, you know as well as anyone that the greatest love de-selfs us, making of us itself…So the story-telling problem you face here is wonderful: there are mysteries far greater than words or stories can contain.”

An Afterward, of sorts.

Hours after saying goodnight, and unable to sleep, I’m lying awake beside our open bedroom window, as faint hints of smoke waft in from the untended fire that’s long since gone out. It’s the black of night, ink black. From my angle of repose even the starlight is unseen through the tree line and canopy and clouds, hidden. I can’t even see outlines or shadow. Outside the dark vacancy of the window I can’t see anything at all, but she’s there. I hear her whispers. They float on the back of warm ash in the breeze and sound just as quiet. Wordless and uncontained. Sharing a secret, saying the purpose of all that we do connects us, forever. 

Tomorrow, when I wake to a morning rain, I’ll go outside and press my palms against the damp, black coals of the firepit and feel a still warm earth smoldering underneath.  A mystery unextinguished, in a place where the light hides. 

And as raindrops run over the scorched earth and coals in small rivulets like veins, I’ll scoop two handfuls of ash and dirt, and cup the sun, and hold her hand—and carry this nothing.

And later yet tomorrow, should a house of logs be built atop this same soil not a match will be needed for it to ignite and its house to shine again like an appearing sun.  

The End

The Slip

By Wendell Berry

The river takes the land, and leaves nothing.
Where the great slip gave way in the bank
and an acre disappeared, all human plans
dissolve. An awful clarification occurs
where a place was. Its memory breaks
from what is known now, begins to drift.
Where cattle grazed and trees stood, emptiness
widens the air for birdflight, wind, and rain.
As before the beginning, nothing is there.
Human wrong is in the cause, human
ruin in the effect–but no matter;
all will be lost, no matter the reason.
Nothing, having arrived, will stay.
The earth, even, is like a flower, so soon
passeth it away. And yet this nothing
is the seed of all–the clear eye
of Heaven, where all the worlds appear.
Where the imperfect has departed, the perfect
begins its struggle to return. The good gift
begins again its descent. The maker moves
in the unmade, stirring the water until
it clouds, dark beneath the surface,
stirring and darkening the soul until pain
perceives new possibility. There is nothing
to do but learn and wait, return to work
on what remains. Seed will sprout in the scar.
Though death is in the healing, it will heal.

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