Archive for Blood Mountain

The Wood Wide Web: About Those “Talking” Trees In BLOOD MOUNTAIN

“The boy half hears below consciousness
the sounds of the trees —
those feral, nighttime communications
of the wood makers,
the carbon eaters,
the sunseekers,
the water gulpers.”

 

Blood Mountain, p. 104

There’s a short video, under two minutes, that’s been shared around the internet lately, largely because it was featured on The Kids Should See This website. Produced by BBC News, the video is titled “How trees secretly talk to each other.”

I’m glad to see this tree conversation shared in an easy-to-digest format. A quick clip we can watch and pass along to friends and family and Facebook weirdos. I’m moved by the scientific reality of an underground social network of fungi that shares and communicates and feels and interconnects.

Of course, anyone who’s read The Lord of the Rings (Tolkien was a tree man! Treebeard at Isengard!) or even watched “The Wizard of Oz” knows that artists have long imagined trees as being dynamic, living forces of nature — with more to them than meets the eye. In the past these “magical” trees have been in the domain of fantasy, so I was eager to reclaim the accuracy of that fact-based perception in a book that was realistic fiction.

The past few years I’ve increased my love affair with trees, mostly by learning more about them. Reading books, yes. And a lot of long walks: looking, noticing, seeing the details I’d missed before.

One book was particularly important, though there were others that informed and inspired my writing, too. Here’s some that fed me . . .

               

 

In The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate by Peter Wohlleben, I first encountered the phrase “the wood wide web.” This book, by the way, surely inspired aspects of The Overstory by Richard Powers, which stands as one of my favorite novels of the past decade. I knowingly borrowed Wohlleben’s phrase in my middle-grade adventure novel, Blood Mountain. But I hope, on a deeper level, the book expresses some of that tree-perception and otherness-appreciation throughout. Those magnificent creatures that — or who? — live amongst us.

Here’s a bit from Chapter 32, pages 103-104. To set this up: Carter is alone, lost and hungry, suffering from early stages of hypothermia, collapsed beneath a weeping willow after wandering through a lowland bog. Things are teetering on the edge . . .

That night, the trees of the forest began talking.

Carter overhears their murmuring.

Of course, he knows little of trees and nothing of their primordial tongue. To his ears it is only wind through moonlit, shimmering leaves. He doesn’t comprehend that roots intermingle, that electrical impulses pass from root tip to root tip, tree to tree, in a vast unfathomable social network of interconnected forest. How all trees of the forest are one tree continuous. A community, an underground wood-wide web. Carter hears the moan of a heavy branch, the groan of another, and the sporadic signals of tree parts dropped to the ground: sticks, stems, detritus falling all around him, delivering messages in a complex code. If these sounds were translated into words from the human world, Carter still could not grasp their meaning, as foreign to him as the tongue of a lost tribe. No boy can talk to trees.

Time is different for trees and rocks and the human species. Trees live for decades, centuries: generations pass through in a continuous ecosystem through the ages. Trees have existed on the planet since long before the first hominids walked upright, and trees will remain long after humankind is wiped off the earth’s surface. A smudge on a windowpane. The great trees persist, and wait, and watch, and whisper. 

Alone and cold and closing in on hypothermia in the wild unknown, the boy half hears below consciousness the sounds of the trees — those feral, nighttime communications of the wood makers, the carbon eaters, the sunseekers, the water gulpers. From the beginning, roots have turned toward the things they desired: water, nutrient-rich soil, a firmer grip. Beneath Carter, below the understory, the roots of the forest send out messages to one another. 

The trees are talking about the boy.

It is time.

Long limbs reach toward him.

Two Quick Excerpts from BLOOD MOUNTAIN, Plus Words of Advice from Kurt Vonnegut

This year, I’ve been using an idea lifted from Kurt Vonnegut as an opening point in my middle-grade presentations. In his “Rules for Writers,” Vonnegut advises, “No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”

Most books follow that dictum consciously or not. I know that I certainly put it into practice in Blood Mountain. I do terrible things to those kids.

In these two short excerpts, we’ll meet Carter and Grace as they get a little deeper into the story (for a previous excerpt, click here). In “Bog,” taken from the end of Chapter 30, we find Carter traveling alone. Rangers advise hikers of three cardinal rules should they find themselves lost in the wilderness: “Stay put, stay dry, stay warm.” In this scene, Carter is failing, and fighting, spectacularly. He doesn’t have much choice.

In the next excerpt, we briefly visit with Grace, injured and alone on DAY 4, and get a glimpse into her spirit and toughness.

 

 

from chapter

30

 

[Bog]

Plowing forward, Carter takes a hard hit from an overhanging branch. The blow staggers him, knocks him to his knees. He stays on all fours, woozy. He touches his head, his fingers come back wet and red. He sits back, resting on one arm, dazed, holding the shirtsleeve of his outer wrist against the wound. The shirt becomes wet with blood. Streaks trickle down the left side of his face. He gathers himself, continues the descent. He trips on roots, skidders on slick surfaces and falls against jagged rocks, slicing his fingers. Carter finds that his legs no longer work properly. A bloody gash forms on his left knee, bleeding into his boot. Each blow, each misstep drains something vital out of him. Slowly his energy leaks away, deflated like a forgotten birthday balloon.

Despite all this, Carter remains determined to plunge forward. He walks unquestioningly into a wall of dense vegetation. The summer-tangle of branches grope like sinister arms. Hellish snags claw at his flesh, rip his shirt.

Carter keeps fighting, keeps moving forward.

Bog all around him.

He longs for firm footing, a dry fire.

Twilight drops down like a quivering leaf. The bugs gather in swarms. For the first half hour, Carter slaps at them, waves his hands, rubs his arms and legs, scratches furiously, even howls out loud; mosquitoes, gorged with his blood, explode when slapped on his forearms and legs. Reinforcements come to take their place. In desperation, Carter smears black ooze all over his skin and face, gets it in his mouth and ears. Eventually, he surrenders. His tender face reduced to a swollen welt, blistered and raw. Black flies take turns tormenting him. They dive and bite and veer away. His eyelids swell, his left eye nearly shut.

He weaves, falls, despairs, rises again.

He cannot stop here.

He cannot die.

Carter Taylor is eleven years old and he feels his life wavering on some great precipice.

Grace, his feverish mind recalls.

In the relative openness of the bog, he easily sees the stars in the velvet sky. When did it become night? When in the world have there ever been so many pinpricks of light?

He feels cold to the core.

Shivering, wet, bone-tired.

He keeps walking, staggering, reeling through the reeds, bumping into dead, bare, nutrient-starved trees.

His boots fill with water. He finds himself leaning against a dead tree. He pauses to rest for a moment, a minute, an hour. He doesn’t remember. His mind blank, a void. Fear slaps him awake. Instinct yanks at his collar, shakes him. If he stays in this grievous bog, he won’t live to see the morning. It is the one clear thought in his muddled mind. Can’t stay here.

The temperature drops.

He blunders into the black.

He steps and his foot does not sink.

Another step. The ground holds.

Another, and another.

Carter hangs his head, drops to his knees, begins to crawl, feels the firm earth under his hands.

He’s made it through.

So tired, so tired.

Carter stumbles another 75 yards, losing his hat in the process. He collapses, curls into a ball beneath a weeping willow that has taken root in the rot. He does not wonder at the way the graceful giant’s branches sweep downward, or how its long, slender leaves resemble tears of tree-sorrow and tree-remorse. How did it come to grow so sad? He does not wonder at all. Just knows in his bones. The cold presses against him. He shivers in anguish. His body begins to shake convulsively. He rolls and looks to the sky.

I am not lost, he thinks. The world is lost.

I am right here. I am right here. And there is the moon, right where it is supposed to be.

 

 

from chapter

35

 

[Grace]

 

Light is coming and with it a new day.

Grace watches unmoving as the dark woods gradually take on space, contour, color, dimension. The shapes of tree trunks, movement in the branches, squirrels chittering and birds with their insistent, I’m here, I’m here, I’m here!

The trees come alive with birds and their words.

Today springs from yesterday, the dream of tomorrow becomes the new now, and inside Grace’s chest an ember still glows. Call it hope. Call it fierce will. Grace is determined to live. Somehow. Some way. She is alone and injured, her infection blackening, one girl in the vastness of a mountain wilderness. Somewhere, she hopes, Carter is okay. He never should have left. A terrible decision. Grace begins to feel that tug of negativity, her thoughts going down a dark path, but she fights against them in the same way a falling figure claws against gravity. She senses that negative thinking will not sustain her here. Carter will find a way, she resolves. My job is to survive.

Grace closes her eyes and prays. It has never seemed to do much good in the past. She isn’t, honestly, all that sure. But prayer is a meeting of soul and intention. Her prayer does not require answers. Grace has never understood how some people claim to talk with God, or how He answered their prayers. This new morning, Grace does not expect a reply. It is enough to think the words, to bring unity of spirit and mind, the meeting of wish and desire –- like a corked bottle with a rolled up note inside, floating in a great, unpeopled sea.

Sending the note is enough.

I am here.

I have survived so far.

I would love with all my heart to see another day.

Great Review for BLOOD MOUNTAIN — from an Actual Kid!

“I will recommend it to anyone
that does not get grossed out by stuff
and wants to read a great adventure story
that you won’t be able to put down.
I finished it in two days!”

Tyler, 5th grader, Castleton, NY

First, let’s take a look at this Tyler fellow. It’s interesting to me, because he almost looks exactly how I imagine the boy in the book, Carter, age 11. Except this guy, Tyler, looks a little too clean for my liking. Too washed and scrubbed and freshly laundered. But I bet if we left him out in the rain for a few days, let some black flies feast on him, he’d look the spitting image of Carter from the book.

 

Tyler is a 5th-grade reading ambassador in Castleton, NY. He’s a reading leader in a school that devours books. The librarian there, Ms. Rattner, is a force of nature, a whirlwind of good will and positive energy. Her mission: to bring good books and kids together. In my career, I’ve had the great pleasure to meet folks who are like Ms. Rattner in my travels. Librarians, teachers, even administrators. And every time, I’m awed and deeply grateful. Where would I be without you? And what will become of us, oh America, if our young people do not grow up to be thoughtful, passionate, informed readers? Thank you, Ms. Rattner, for the important work you do.

And Tyler, you are awesome.

Here’s a bit more of Tyler’s review (for the full piece, please click here).

 

I liked how this book was like Hatchet. I liked how the characters work to survive, written in their different points of view. There are even two chapters from the dog’s point of view=cool.

I wanted to keep reading it because I wanted to know if Carter and Grace would get saved.  I wanted to know more about John.  He was such a mysterious figure.

Four and a half stars for this book! I will recommend it to anyone that does not get grossed out by stuff and wants to read a great adventure story that you won’t be able to put down. I finished it in two days!

Bonus–This book made me want to go hiking.  I may run ahead, but not too far!

Interview Highlights: About BLOOD MOUNTAIN, and Introducing Ranger McCone

I was recently interviewed by Caroline Starr Rose over at her outstanding website, brimming with fascinating resources. Caroline is a gifted author and a generous spirit. A kind person, you know? She’s all about books and classroom connections and finding ways to make a difference. Please check out her space over there. And her books. Meanwhile, let’s please get back to me, please!

          

Here’s a sampling of my interview with Caroline, who blogged it a couple of weeks back. For the full interview, and a shortcut to Caroline’s world, just jump up and down on this link here.

 

 

What inspired you to write this story?

I published my first book in 1986. Over that period, more than half my life, I’ve discovered that what first inspires a story often gets left in the dust as the research and the writing begins in earnest. New inspirations take hold. Unimagined pathways open up, as long as the writer is still open to the unexpected.

Early on I had the basic setup of siblings lost in the wilderness, along with a vague idea of a hermit, possibly a veteran with PTSD, lurking nearby. At the time, I wasn’t sure what his story would be. I wanted the book to be tense, scary in parts, tightly plotted, riveting, and beautifully written. I held onto the idea that the person who saves you, might turn out to be your worst nightmare. Somewhere along the line my editor suggested a dog. Um, okay! And around this point it dawned on me that I had an awful lot to learn in order to do justice to this story. So I read books. About trees. About survival. About the psychology of getting lost. About veterans with PTSD. About dogs and how they think (I was determined to avoid the Disney-dog cliché; I wanted my dog, Sitka, to be authentic as a dog.) I learned about mountain lions.

Along the way, I told my editor, Liz Szabla, that I might maybe miss the deadline. And I did miss it — by a full year. Liz was cool with it. When it comes to publishing, I believe that all anyone cares about in the end is the finished book. No one reads a disappointing book and thinks, “Well, at least she hit her deadlines!” It just happened that Blood Mountain required extra time for me to think and learn and daydream. I filled a journal with notes, became overwhelmed with ideas and strategies, lost my way, fumbled in thickets. Along the way, I contacted a Forest Ranger, Megan McCone, who proved enormously helpful in terms of making the actions and thoughts of the ranger appropriate and accurate. All of those inspirations fed directly into the final book. Best writing experience ever.

Could you share with readers how you conducted your research or share a few interesting tidbits you learned while researching?

I simply had so much learn. Because “kind of knowing” isn’t good enough. For example, I wanted to introduce the hermit, John, in a powerful and unsettling way. So readers first encounter him with a large knife in his hand, field dressing a squirrel. I had to learn about slingshots and hypothermia and

 

New York Ranger Megan McCone served both as inspiration and valuable source of information. I owe her so much.

aviation extractions. And about how people who get lost behave –- the mistakes they make, the thought processes they typically go through, and the things they do that determine whether they live or die.

Most interesting, for me, was when I reached out to Eric Lahr at the Department of Environmental Conservation, who put me in contact with Forest Ranger Megan McCone. Megan was enormously helpful across several long phone conversations. She graciously volunteered to read the first draft of the book, making comments throughout. To me, this was not only a great pleasure, Megan helped me bring truth, the verisimilitude of small details, to this made-up story.

 

Pub Day, BLOOD MOUNTAIN!

The long walk is over; today is pub day for Blood Mountain. I stole this next bit from my friend’s blog, author Caroline Starr Rose:

“As always, here are some ways you can help a newly released book:

* Ask your local library to purchase a copy.
* Donate one to your child’s classroom or school.
* Give a book as a birthday or holiday gift.
* Tell others about about the book in person or online (feel free to tag me on Facebook).
* Leave an honest review at Amazon and Goodreads.

A book truly isn’t complete until it belongs to the world.”

Thank you all for the encouragement and support.

BLOOD MOUNTAIN IS A 2019 JUNIOR LIBRARY GUILD SELECTION!