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Dinosaurs Return to the Sierra

An assortment of three eclectic collections of short stories and essays
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Mike Marvin, Hot Dog … the Movie!’s creator, wrote the first draft of the movie script for Jim Harrison’s Legends of the Fall in 1978, a project that would take 16 more years to see it’s 1994 release.

Sierra Stories: Tales of Dreamers, Schemers, Bigots, and Rogues

Something uniquely special brought us all here — be it the allure of the granite mountains and conifer forests, or something a bit less romantic; perhaps you were lucky enough to be born in the Sierra or brought here thanks to work or a loved one. No matter your reason, there is something special about this place that has the ability to grab hold of your soul. Something that brings out the best (and worst) in us.

This hold, I believe, is due in part to the deep history associated with the Sierra. A history of these dreamers, not so different from you and me, is told by Gary Noy in his 2014 book Sierra Stories.

This collection of stories is unique because of its emphasis not on general information, but on the uncommon details that make up the Sierra. Noy tells the tales of dreamers, schemers, bigots, and rogues. The 33 anecdotes, each broken up into individual chapters, cover everything from the rock climbing pioneers of Yosemite, to Charlie Chaplin and the gold rush, to the history of the flume.

Most interestingly, each individual story is concluded with a “Sierra-Spotlight” that delves a little deeper into lesser known history. One of them, The Ultimate Thrill, tells the story of reporter H. J. Ramsdell from the New York Tribune, who, on a dare, traveled down the 45-degree incline of the flume on a boat in what turned out to be a horrifying experience.

“How our boat kept in the track is more than I know,” he wrote. “… but if I was on the water to eternity, I wanted to know exactly how fast I went; so I … turned my eyes towards the hills. Every object I placed my eyes on was gone before I could clearly see what it was. Mountains passed like visions and shadows.”

The chapter concludes with a Sierra Spotlight on how Incline Village got its name. Hint: It has everything to do with the slope of the flume.

Born in Grass Valley, author Gary Noy has been teaching at Sierra College since 1987 and is currently writing Gold Rush Stories: 49 Tales of Seekers, Scoundrels, Loss and Luck, scheduled to be published in 2017.

~ Ally Gravina/Moonshine Ink

Eating the Dinosaur

If you’re a fan of the book Sex, Drugs and Cocopuffs by Chuck Klosterman, I urge you to read Eating the Dinosaur. Set up as a series of essays, interviews, and personal stories, it explores the human relation to media. Focusing mostly on film, TV, and writing, Klosterman points out some of the stupidest things about entertainment. My favorite essay “’Ha ha,’ he said. ’Ha ha.’” talks of laugh tracks as a central component of escapist television. “It will always seem stupid, because canned laughter represents the worst qualities of insecure people,” Klosterman writes. Laugh tracks are generally used to mask bad writing and the general public is usually convinced by them. Some of our favorite American TV shows include the phenomenon of canned laughter and we hardly think about it — especially when we are told they are filmed in front of a live studio audience. However, that audience is usually told when and how to laugh. The shows without a laugh track seem to have a more intelligent form of humor. So, why would we use laugh tracks at all? The concept seems contradictory.

Another theme that seems so common to our American culture is our obsession with movies; even when we have seen them dozens of times before. Klosterman explains that “one of the minor tragedies of human memory is our inability to “unwatch” movies we’d love to see (again) for the first time.” Using the Hitchcock movie Vertigo to illustrate his point, Klosterman talks about the complicated plot, saying that the way the beginning keeps the viewer in the dark about the characters’ intentions causes a set up that feels distant to the viewer. It’s a surveillance tactic; it’s interesting not to know things; it is intriguing. It’s the same way it’s compelling to look through your neighbor’s window because when he doesn’t know he’s being watched. Klosterman isn’t advising the reader to go stalk the neighborhood, but is comparing the effect of not knowing an outcome to how we watch media.

His writing leaves you introspective and wondering. It caused me to think about how film and television can affect our psyche and everyday life.

~ Andrea Bartunek/Moonshine Ink

Returning to Earth

“Death steals everything except our stories.” ~ Jim Harrison

The Sunday Times of London famously described Jim Harrison as “a writer with immortality in him,” and a persistent theme of mortality dominated much of his later work. Returning to Earth unlocked my first true understanding of Harrison’s brute courage and power, introducing me to a writer who could stare death and its aftermath in the face for 292 pages with unequaled grace and tenderness.

Harrison passed away this March. The night I heard of his death, I thought back to Returning to Earth, the story of Donald, a terminally ill half-Finnish, half-Chippewa father who chooses how he wants to die. He spends his last days recounting stories before being laid to rest on a bed of cedar branches adorned with a bear claw necklace.

The book is an unblinking examination of death, but, more than that, it is a clear-eyed look at the unmooring that often occurs when a person so central to our lives disappears.

I felt a similar upheaval the night I heard Harrison had died, like some elemental force in the universe had shifted.

The writer, Terry McDonell, who frequently corresponded with Harrison, recalled one exchange shortly before Harrison’s death, in a remembrance in The Paris Review. “In a last e-mail, he wrote he had learned you can walk between the valves of a blue whale’s seven-ton heart,” McDonnell wrote.

Such a simple sentence, but few people have the power of observation or the linguistic restraint to write such a stunning phrase. And it reinforces the fact that, up until the very end, there was nothing small about Harrison. He reveled in the outsized appetites of humanity and the matchless power of the natural world. He didn’t shrink away from any of it, no matter how wild, sad or terrifying.

McDonnell ends his tribute to Harrison by saying, “Nobody like him. Read his poetry. Read everything.” In Returning to Earth, Donald’s surviving daughter, Clare, is convinced that her father roamed the earth re-incarnated as a bear. Somehow, I believe that Harrison himself inhabits some voracious, instinctual, wild creature, if only in spirit or in the mysterious reaches of the world between waking and dreaming.

~ David Bunker/Moonshine Ink

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March 14, 2019