It is fall, past the autumnal equinox. I drive, almost sick with fear, the world outside my window telescoped down to a pinhole of light, 'a wandering star'—Jupiter? Mars? Saturn? I cannot tell—suspended above the roadside. My headlights carve the landscape into a verticality of ghost aspen and fencepost, while a fleeting horizon of barbed wire holds fast the vegetating night over Phantom Canyon.
"Dark Skies," the opening essay in Kathryn Winograd's memoir, Phantom Canyon: Essays of Reclamation, begins with this haunting image as she drives alone to her family's mountain cabin. The very isolation that attracts Winograd to the place, the darkness that she doesn't know, also raises her fears. Yet the land itself is a "balm,"the sight of a bear just out of a winter den, "balancing on a rock like a circus bear," the sound of wind in the aspen trees, the bluebirds' return in spring, the gift of water, at last, when the well drillers reach it far below the fractured granite surface. Fear and solace balance back and forth, circling, attracting and repelling, throughout this lyrical memoir.
I don't know this dark.
The story circles as well, back in time and rippling out across the continent, but always returns to the land in Phantom Canyon, as if the place itself anchors Winograd's life. Although the land's wildness both attracts and repels her, Winograd returns again and again in a narrative that sings a hymn of renewal, of gradual restoration, a creeping toward forgiveness and healing as slow and non-linear as the pace of the land itself healing from the insults of mining, grazing and fire.
The story circles back to the time when Winograd was raped as a young teen, to the farm she grew up on, out to her fear as she births her two girls—"what have I done?"—into a world where being a girl is still dangerous. It circles forward to the loss of her father, to her mother's gradual loss of vision from glaucoma, to rape of the land through mining—toxic acids used to leach out gold, uranium mining and its forever-deadly legacy. Winograd invokes mythical and Biblical images of women as talismans, yet it is the Phantom Canyon land that is her constant. The quiet, the wind, the sky, blue during the day and star-dazzling at night. The comfort of life living itself.
I sit on the wellhead. The six thousand dollar wellhead. Bluebirds plumb and level around me. The notched aspens sing with their nested young, and the sky is white in this soft hour of June darkness.
In one essay, Winograd quotes Leonard, her husband: "You are the least spiritual person I know." Religious no. Spiritual, yes. Phantom Canyon is deeply spiritual throughout, the essays a litany of what Winograd loves, has lost, fears, takes comfort from, is nurtured by, all circling back to the land and seasons and stars. Her writing often takes the form of a chant, a sacred call and response.
Phantom Canyon is a rich read, not an easy one. It can be almost painfully introspective, and is occasionally so abstract as to almost come untethered. Almost. It always lands safely, grounded by earth and life itself. The narrative has a rhythm like a heartbeat, a pulsing meditation on how to live with fear and doubt, violation and loss, how to circle back and love the world after all.
Kathryn Winograd won the Colorado Book Award in Poetry for Air Into Breath, and has been the recipient of a Colorado Artist Fellowship, a Rocky Mountain Woman's Institute Associateship, and a Colorado Endowment for the Humanities Grant. She is a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee, received a Special Mention for Pushcart Prize XXXVIII, and a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2011. She is the author of three teacher reference books, including Stepping Sideways Into Poetry. Visit her website.
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