NOVEMBER 4, 2016
[The first part of Peter Nowogrodzki’s interview with Jim Harrison appears along with an introductory story here.]
II. A Drive
“JUST KICK THE BOTTLES out of the way,” Jim Harrison said as we climbed into his gray 2004 Toyota 4Runner. Two Fijis and a box of Kleenex rattled around the wheel well alongside the broken handle of a hatchet, some plastic scraps, and a handful of straw. The backseat held another couple of Fijis, crumpled newspapers, blue jeans, some sort of lower back cushion. I put my recorder in a used coffee cup as Harrison crawled the truck along at 15 miles per hour, up and down back roads that cut the ranch lands to Nogales.
Outside were fields of dry grass as far as we could see, west and east and south toward Mexico — gold stems swaying in the winds and, every mile or so, small green stands of oak. We passed a red-tailed hawk. “This is where he hangs out,” Harrison noted. “You see that mountain up there? That’s where the jaguar lives. He’s been there since last year.” A sign for “Primitive Road” led off a dirt stretch into the mountains west, toward one of Harrison’s favorite hunting spots. He confessed to having killed thousands of “utterly delicious” game birds over the years. But he’d stopped shooting following one particular hunt, after which he’d lifted the top on a cooler full of supposedly dead birds: “There was a woodcock that had come back to life, just staring up at me. That was so upsetting.”
PETER NOWOGRODZKI: Have you read J. A. Baker’s book The Peregrine?
JIM HARRISON: Yes. That is a lovely book. I like that idea that if they were stupid enough to do so, they could read the newspaper 50 feet away. God, that’s a lovely book.
Baker was a mysterious person.
Birders can get that way. It’s very lonely without my wife. With just Folly. But, birds help you get over the loneliness.
What are you writing currently?
I was working on some poems. And straightening out my notebook. I’m in revision, and then starting a new novel — I’m going back to that sort of longer, more romantic kind of novel. Like Dalva. I’ve written about everything — rivers, the natural world. This time I’m writing a novel called The Girl Who Loved Trees, about a girl who grows up in the UP, where the history of timber farming is a horror story. She is obsessed with trees and her obsession is supported by her melancholy father. Sort of like my wife’s family. And then I can do a lot about the history of timbering. And also about trees themselves, which I find fascinating. We share a lot of DNA with trees. I’ve often regretted being a literature major in college. Now that I’m older, I’m much — perhaps as interested in certain sciences, which a lot of literary people avoid at their peril.
I had the opposite. I studied biology and botany instead of writing. How is your poetry practice?
Well … I just … stay sharp. A poet always has to be ready for the bread that comes fresh from the oven. Isn’t that an interesting statement? St. Augustine said a remarkable thing: The reward of patience is patience. Which is true. I’ve thought — I don’t know if you’d agree — what writers need above all else is humility. Because pretty much nothing that they do can make them more successful. It’s such a crapshoot. Humility works. That’s a good valley up there, too, to hunt quail in. You never know. I don’t suppose I’ve ever —
Harrison slammed the truck to a stop and quickly wagged his finger at a large hawk ripping at the neck of its kill, gore exposed.
Oh! There’s a harrier — we used to call them marsh hawks.
He’s on a rabbit.
Good for him! He’s successful! They’re cooperative hunters. They work together to nail things.
Out beyond the bird, the view looked like an American Serengeti, a landscape I’ve never seen before and didn’t even know existed — grassland stretched apparently forever, rippling like a soft sea.
Truly amazing view.
I thought you’d like it. ’Cause people don’t get to see emptiness. And I suppose that this is really the glory of emptiness, huh?
After several minutes of silence, Harrison remembered a visit to some cave petroglyphs. “You went through a gully, slipped through a crack in these enormous boulders, then crawled under this overlay. It was a basket dwellers camp and there was the tip of a wolf and then all these half-men half-cranes dancing. Incredible.” I asked what he did at the cave. “Stared at them for a couple hours, then went to town, ate, got drunk, camped.” He added that he’d always wanted “to carve a giraffe just to fuck people up.”
III. The Saloon
Harrison called Patagonia’s Wagon Wheel Saloon “the bar of my people.” Luke Bryan’s “Strip It Down” played on the jukebox as we ordered Pacificos with limes and cheese enchiladas with extra chilis. Harrison asked me to get out my phone, recited his assistant Joyce Bahle’s number from memory, then invited her to come join us. She declined.
Which poets do you admire?
I like Paul Celan and H. D. I like Rebecca Wolff. I like William Blake. I like Rilke.
How wonderful. Me too. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell has stuck with me forever.
The etchings and the poems.
A waitress carried over our plates. “Go for it,” Harrison said. Then, a bit panicked, “She didn’t bring the chilis?! Oh — yes she did! She’s my darling. That red chili is the best. Suzie makes it fresh every day.” He spent the next minute removing his shirt. Topless, Harrison began to eat, talking in gusts between bites, often still chewing.
Rilke’s part of your life, a period in your life. It’s so overwhelming. When you think the Sonnets to Orpheus were written in about 10 days, as he was finishing the Duino Elegies. And the Letters to a Young Poet I gave to many writers who were just starting out and wanted to know something. It’s so full of profound advice. In other words: “Don’t do it unless you have to.”
When did you first read that?
Jesus. 20. 19. And I’d read all of Dostoevsky while still in high school. That was an overwhelming influence. I ran off to New York when I was 18 with a couple volumes of Dostoevsky and Rimbaud’s work. The two didn’t provide for solid sanity. But I wasn’t interested in sanity at the time.
Are you now?
Not particularly. I’ve had a couple depressions in my life where I lost control. That was very bad. I’ve started to get very depressed these last few months over the death of my wife and the loneliness — but there’s a difference. Most depressions are about an amalgam of things. But when somebody you love dies, it’s just reality, so it’s a different kind of feeling altogether.
Yeah, as opposed to flipping out.
I’ve always felt traumas were easier to deal with if there was a clear event they were associated with, as opposed to some kind of more subterranean experience.
That’s part of it. I remember a severe one I had when I was 20, right after I got married. My father and sister were killed in an auto accident. That was crushing. He was my biggest ally as a writer. He was an agriculturist who read a great deal. As opposed to what many poets or writers go through with their father, he was totally for me being a writer. “You may as well do what you want in life.”
He said that? That’s great advice.
Yeah, it is.
Back at his casita, I ran around snapping photos while Harrison napped. The details of his existence felt foreign, like artifacts from another planet: A cheap bottle of Cahors. Habanero sauce. Half of an English muffin with marmalade jam. Folly’s Taste of the Wild dog food. A note from Ted Kooser. A calendar with a rendering of a Kokanee Salmon. Small soapstone carvings of crows. A DVD of Lars and the Real Girl. His XL orange Patagonia vest. A handwritten note on Russ & Daughters stationary: “Fish for the King!! Xo Mario Batali” — the two had plans to co-author a cookbook. The red cover of Harrison’s journal bore a black dragon. I opened it like a child peeking into an older sibling’s room. Inside, he’d written in meticulous cursive, “I am learning the difficult terrain of the heart of darkness. No maps are available. Light never enters here. The brain is helpless.”
I woke Harrison at 5:30 and we sat down at the pine table with Bahle, who had returned to the house after a rare day alone. As I packed up for the drive back to Los Angeles, Harrison asked her to prepare a ham sandwich. “Taste this pepper,” he instructed me. “Mario brought them.” He handed over a jar of Tony Packo’s Hungarian Banana Peppers. “Not terribly hot, but they’re delicious.”
So, do you have any questions about my book of poems, Dead Man’s Float?
How do you ask questions about poetry?
Oh, I thought you were a poet. But I guess I don’t really know how to ask questions about poetry either. There was a guy in the ’20s, named Eli Siegel, from New York. He wrote sort of a longish, ostensibly foolish poem called “Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana.” It was a beautiful poem about Indians in Montana. He’d never been there. So … what questions would I ask Eli about Montana? I don’t know. You have sort of big feet, don’t you?
Oh, goodness. Mine are nine and a half. Normal, I guess. I had a couple ideas today while we were talking. Which is always nice, you know? I thought what to do with this girl in my book, who’s walking around the lake with a granite shore, like many of the lakes do in the UP. And it rained. And she got into a granite overhang so she didn’t get wet. She had a parka in her knapsack. Anyway, I like her. I’ve been obsessed with trees. And I finally thought of a plot that encompasses trees. I’m starting to do research on the trees of the world — though there’s some variation in the scholarship — around 30,000. It’s difficult, because they know one hillside in South America with 500 different kinds of trees. How many graduate students can you send around counting? Right? I like researching the novel because, like I did Dalva and went out to Nebraska half a dozen times, the novel itself, the structure, often occurs to me while I’m researching. So I’m making notes on what I’m researching and also what I think will be the structure of the novel. Now I just can’t decide whether to have her kill her husband. Because his company chopped down her personal tree.
I think that’s a good idea.
Shoot him. Yeah, I think so. Because it’s the tree she’s loved the most since she was a little girl — she would walk in the forest with her father all the time.
And the scene you thought of today is her walking along the side of the lake and hiding under a granite ledge?
Yeah, under the ledge and thinking about everything in her life. Because yesterday for the first day of her life someone had seen her in the nude. And she was very agitated. She was just swimming and standing and toweling off, when a guy had stopped on the side of the road to ask her if he could borrow some gas, because his truck ran out of gas. And he’s worried that he’s seen her in the nude because he works for her father. He’s a poet and a botanist.