“It is only when we have truly loved a place that it is then lit by the stars and it has then literally become the epicenter of one’s world, informing imagination, memory and sense of meaning,” Gail Straub writes.
Straub’s newly released The Ashokan Way: Landscape’s Path into Consciousness (Homebound Publications, March 2018) is a collection of 36 short nature-based essays that take the reader on a reflective walking meditation over the course of a year in the Catskills. Intimate as journal entries, the essays begin on a Thanksgiving Day with words of gratitude for the landscape that has shaped the author’s life since she came to live in the Hudson Valley in 1981. From the moment Straub walked into the home in which she still lives today – so struck by the presence of High Point Mountain looming outside that, as she writes, “I felt like it lived in my tiny kitchen” – the natural world of the Catskill Mountains and her relationship with it became Straub’s bedrock. “I would not be who I am without this body of water and this mountain range,” she notes.
The essays move through the cycle of a year and its seasons, concluding on a Thanksgiving Day one year later. January’s “Praying in the Cathedral of the Ashokan” explores the solidity and constancy of nature, and appreciation of beauty as a form of prayer. In February, “Loon Call” opens with childhood memories that deepen into an adult’s knowledge that the landscape enlarges us while simultaneously rendering us insignificant, freeing us from our egos to be the wild and natural human creatures we are. And May’s “Heaven Here on Earth” is about the reconciliation of opposites: Nature is restorative, but also terrifyingly dispassionate and destructive. The contradiction teaches us, according to Straub, about “living between the opposites that naturally exist in the world,” that only by respecting the duality that exists in our lives can we achieve true equanimity.
Along the way, through the author’s finely tuned perceptions, nature becomes the protagonist in a vivid story that, while specific to one woman’s experience in the mountains, will resonate with any reader who has ever felt a connection with place. In the final essay, Straub writes about how “it takes time to form intimate bonds with a place, for landscape to become a confidant.” In the same way, this thoughtful collection of essays deserves the reader’s time and full attention; this is not a book to rush through from cover to cover, but rather one of moments to return to time and again.
Gail Straub and her husband, David Gershon, are co-founders of the Empowerment Institute (www.empowermentinstitute.net). Their initial motivation in 1981 – when the word “empowerment” was new to the vernacular, she notes – was to help people by shifting the focus from fixing problems and healing the past to focusing on what people want from their lives, organizations, community and world. The underlying intelligence is that our thoughts and beliefs create the conditions of our lives, and if we want to bring about changes, we need to change our beliefs.
Today the Empowerment Institute serves as an umbrella organization encompassing Gershon’s ecological concerns and climate-change work and Straub’s efforts for worldwide women’s empowerment. She co-directs the institute’s School for Transformative Social Change, which includes the global initiative IMAGINE, which helps women heal from violence, build strong lives and contribute to their communities. IMAGINE initiatives are currently underway throughout Africa, Afghanistan, India and the Middle East. Straub also serves as consultant to other organizations working on furthering women’s empowerment and is the author of six books now, including Empowerment: The Art of Creating Your Life as You Want It (co-authored with Gershon), The Rhythm of Compassion and the feminist memoir, Returning to My Mother’s House.
The Ashokan Way: Landscape’s Path into Consciousness will be officially launched during the Woodstock Bookfest on Saturday, March 24. Straub will co-host a panel at the Kleinert/James at 9:30 a.m. with artist Kate McGloughlin, whose luminous oil painting of the Catskills is reproduced on the cover of Straub’s book, and whose black-and-white prints mark the change of seasons in the collection of essays. The two will discuss the effect that the Hudson Valley landscape has on the soul, and on writers and painters. The Golden Notebook in Woodstock is sponsoring the event.
Oblong Books & Music in Rhinebeck will host an author talk and book-signing with Straub on Thursday, April 5 at 6 p.m., and the Catskill Interpretive Center in Mount Tremper will host a talk and signing on Thursday, April 26 at 6:30 p.m. In advance of these events, we spoke with Straub about The Ashokan Way.
As you wrote these essays over the course of a year, was it always your intention to collect them in a book?
Like many people, I’ve always loved the land, and it’s been a constant source of solace and inspiration. I walk every day still, and so often my feeling is this immense gratitude for living here. So as I was walking one Thanksgiving, on that day of giving thanks, I was feeling gratitude and had an idea to honor the land. I had this tiny notebook and a pencil in my back pocket, and it wasn’t that I had the idea to publish a book; I just got this inspiration – or guidance, you could say. I’m a journal-keeper, since I was 13, and I thought maybe it would be just little journal entries.
But it became evident very early on that themes were arising, and there was a book here if I wanted it. It wasn’t until exactly a Thanksgiving later that I said, “Let me sit down at my computer and see if something is here.” And as I was working on the book, as often happens to writers, you think you’re going to write about one thing, and then once you immerse yourself deeply into the work, something else arises. But I have to say, this was by far my easiest and most pleasurable book I’ve written. When people ask me what this book is about, the truest, shortest answer is that it’s a love letter to this Valley.
In reading the essays, many of the concepts resonated with me, but I was particularly struck by the one about the “reconciliation of opposites” – the glories of nature versus the aftermath of Hurricane Irene.
Everyone who has written about the land has written about this, really. It’s all opposite; no matter the season, or time of day we go out. Life and death, light and dark, what’s hidden and what’s obvious…all teaching us that the life around us is nothing but opposites. I think I’ve always understood that – even as a little kid when I fell in love with the land; but it wasn’t until I was a lot older that I could take those teachings and use them in my daily life.
Continuing that thought, in “Heaven Here on Earth,” my takeaway was that “Nothing is all good or bad, and it’s about accepting it all and living in the now.” You wrote, “It is when I neither cling to the part of the opposite I desire nor push away the part I fear that I conduct my life as if Heaven were right here on Earth.”
I’m sure a lot of people now, because of the vast Earth changes and climate change, are thinking about the opposites of the natural world: its destructive force and then its life-giving nature. My husband, David, is a passionate climate-change activist. And you saw [in reading the book] how much I love the teaching of Dõgen [Zenji, 1200-1253]: All of his nature writing is about the reconciliation of opposites; the fact that things are evident and they’re mysterious. I’ve also found that as I age, the solace of the reconciliation of opposites is a friendliness towards death and the idea of carrying death on your shoulder. Not in a maudlin way at all, but…there’s just a lot of equanimity in the natural world.
I’d like to ask you to expand on another concept in the book: the idea of the connection between our internal, emotional landscape and the natural landscape outside.
There’s a very profound relationship between the outside landscape and the inside landscape: what I’m feeling inside, or working on within myself. If I’m feeling burned out, the land offers me an antidote, allowing me to empty and restore myself. At other times, it brings joy and empowerment or, in thinking about other people, insights. And I think this is actually one of the things I’m most proud of in this book, is that it’s, in my view, a more female perspective on writing about the land. Lots of people are in this genre of “place-based” writing, but the most famous are men, with some very big exceptions: Terry Tempest Williams, one of my heroines, and obviously the poet Mary Oliver, and others as well. But what I felt was that perhaps this focus on a more core relationship between the inner and outer landscapes is a more female way of coming into the land.
Another concept I responded to was the idea that the experience of being in nature makes you feel small in comparison, but also enlarged in the greater sense.
That’s one of the seminal experiences in the natural world. Thoreau spoke of that so beautifully, and John Burroughs, our great nature mystic of our Catskills. I think nature is one of the few places where that happens so viscerally, where we find our right size and simultaneously we’re so enlarged. And that’s a beautiful, special experience. I think for most of us, no matter how many times we’ve had that experience, it touches something; it wakes us up in a way, doesn’t it?
Would you say that writing is a spiritual experience for you?
It is. For me it’s a spiritual practice. And my friends, and my editor, who know my other books, have said to me that this book is my most spiritual writing. I’ve had a daily meditation practice for many decades, and my particular practice is with the breath; but one’s practice could be anything. Sitting meditation, emptying oneself and finding a larger space where the chatter of the mind has diminished, is akin to both writing and the natural world. When I sit down to write, the mind is distracted and may be worried or stressed out, but after a little while, just focusing on the words and the writing, I get slower. I get more empty, and that’s when the writing is good. I think the same thing happens in the natural world: I go out there and my mind is going in a thousand directions, but after walking for a certain period of time, the mind empties and slows and the focus is clearer. I think there’s a tremendous kinship between any art and any spiritual practice, actually, and any experience in the natural world. I think they’re kindred spirits.
I know you’re heading off overseas soon for a big conference having to do with your women’s empowerment work. Would you tell me a little bit about that?
It’s a big trip…we’re going to have 50 practitioners and facilitators from 12 countries. These are inspiring people; to me, they’re the warriors. One of the essays in the book is about Tejaswi Sevekari, my colleague in this work. She’s a real visionary working in the sex-trafficking sector to empower the women and change that.
And I think the relationship between this book and my activism is worth noting. Sometimes, as an activist, I’m either burned out or overwhelmed; or, as many people experience these days, the problems are too big and a kind of despair can set upon you. After talking with these women from all over the world and they tell me their stories, one of the greatest antidotes is to go out on the Ashokan Way and get my balance back. And here again is that reconciliation of opposites we were talking about. My work is very global, but my sustenance and my balance and my spiritual practice are very local. Without the Ashokan Way, I know that I couldn’t do this work. It allows me to sustain myself for the work I do in other parts of the world.
The Ashokan Way: Landscape’s Path into Consciousness book launch/panel discussion with Kate McGloughlin, Saturday, March 24, 9:30 a.m., $15, Kleinert/James Center, 34 Tinker Street, Woodstock; https://woodstockbookfest.com/woodstocks-landscape-effect-soul-writing-painting.
Author talk/book-signing, Thursday, April 5, 6 p.m., free, Oblong Books & Music, 6422 Montgomery Street, Rhinebeck; (845) 876-0500, www.oblongbooks.com.
Author talk/book-signing, Thursday, April 26, 6:30 p.m., free, Maurice D. Hinchey Catskill Interpretive Center, 5096 Route 28, Mount Tremper; http://catskillinterpretivecenter.org.