Friday, June 19, 2015


by Jean Roberta

To inspire literally means to draw air into the lungs. For the ancient Greeks, inspiration was given by the gods to selected mortals, who were deemed worthy to receive sacred revelations and transmit them to the rest of their human community.

One of the oldest of the ancient Greek shrines, the one at Delphi (said to be the omphalos or navel of the world), was presided over by the Pythia or priestess who was inspired to utter prophesies which were usually hard to interpret, the avant-garde art of antiquity. In some sense, she was said to be married to the god Apollo, who supposedly inspired her via the fresh air of the mountains, or the water of the sacred spring at the site.

I spent my formative years (ages 4 to 16) in southern Idaho, a state that is completely on the western slope of the Rocky Mountains, which form the state’s eastern border. From age 9 to the summer I turned 16 and moved to Canada with my family, I lived in a house three miles outside the nearest town, where I could see mountains like this from all the front windows of our house. I liked to write stories while sitting on our second-floor balcony, looking across a valley to Chinx Peak, which looked somewhat like the rugged mountain in the picture.

It was a three-mile walk from our house to the town of Pocatello (said to be a corruption of “Pork and Tallow,” a name given to a local native chief by 19th-century traders.) Halfway to town, there was an artesian well where fresh, clear water constantly bubbled out of a hole in the earth. When I got there, I always cupped my hands and scooped up enough to drink. That was my earliest idea of a sacred well.

From age 16 on, I have lived in a part of North America that is famously flat, but I still sometimes dream of mountains and fresh water. I don’t yearn for a strenuous hike or a climb, just the pleasure of a scenic view.

Forests are equally inspiring, though I’ve never lived in or near one. I have visited the boreal forest of northern Saskatchewan, and the last time I was there, I loved writing in pencil in a cabin. If the mosquitoes aren’t unbearable (and I am marinated in Deep Woods Off), and it’s not raining, I like to write outdoors.

I love writing in my office at the university, where I transferred most of the books from my home library. (Sorry I didn’t take a photo of it to show here.) There I have a floor-to-ceiling window to the outside world, which shows a concrete walkway connecting buildings, and several trees. Unfortunately, I usually have too much actual work to do in my office: mark student essays, find handouts to be photocopied, and counsel students, including strays who ask for directions. Writing for my own pleasure tends to come last.

I also like to write in the “library” on the second floor of my house, but when I’m here, my spouse is usually home too, and if I leave her alone for hours with her laptop in the front room downstairs, our eventual meeting isn’t sweet. When I see her again, she usually makes sarcastic remarks about our separate lives. Besides, the “library” window shows the side wall and part of the roof of our neighbour’s house. It’s not inspiring at all.

The outdoors seems freeing because it seems completely unconnected to the publishing biz or the larger economy. When I feel surrounded by nature, I don’t have to ask myself whether my idea for a story fits any current trend.

Here is the beginning (backstory) of my unpublished gothic story, “The Water-Harp,” about a little girl who is inspired by her natural surroundings. Eventually, she is put to work in the laundry run by the local convent, and there she is “discovered” by the young lord of the manor, who thinks she would be an amusing plaything. He learns the hard way that he can no more control her than he could single-handedly divert the local river:

The Sisters of Mercy named the baby Dorcas as soon as they had fetched her in from the doorstep, where she had been left like a gift, wrapped in a clean blanket and tucked into a wicker basket. Sister Ursula said that Dorcas was a good name for a willing servant, and all the other sisters agreed that it was perfectly suitable.

As the baby grew to be a child, and then a young girl, all the sisters remarked that she loved cleanliness, and did her chores willingly enough when these involved scrubbing away dirt, and turning disarray into order. She followed instructions to the best of her ability, and no one could call her disobedient. Yet Dorcas spent as much time outdoors as she was allowed, and there was something about her that made her seem out of place in the orphanage, and unfit for the social station for which she seemed destined.

As a five-year-old will-o-the-wisp, she once led Sister Ursula on a merry chase to the bank of the river, the child’s favorite place to explore. Dorcas had unplaited her raven hair, and it streamed behind her like a banner in the wind. To make things worse, she wore no shoes.

“Dorcas ! What a ragamuffin you are!” called the sister, gasping for breath as she reached for the child. “’Tis time for your bath.”

“I can wash myself in the water,” laughed the sprite, wiping her muddy hands on her dress, “and when I’m clean enough, I can visit the mermaids that live down there.” She pointed at the murky water that rippled over unseen stones.
“What nonsense,” declared the nun, but her tone was gentle. “You mustn’t believe Sister Margaret’s tales. God has created a world of marvels, but He would never make a woman with the tail of a fish.”

The child looked troubled. “Perhaps that’s why they don’t want you to see them,” she explained. “I’m sure they think you have no manners.” The child put her tiny hand so trustingly in the calloused palm of Sister Ursula that the nun was momentarily inclined to forgive her.

Or perhaps the good woman saw a flash of her old Adversary in the dark eyes of the little girl, and did not want to confront him then. “Where are your shoes and stockings?” she demanded.

“Here,” said Dorcas, showing them, “but I can’t put them on my dirty feet. I went in wading.” Sister Ursula, with a strength developed by years of domestic labor, picked up her charge and carried her back to the orphanage where Dorcas could be made presentable for the company of the other orphans and their caregivers. And if the patient nun felt a pang of regret that she had never had children of her own while she had the chance, she never said so to anyone.

And so Dorcas was raised more indulgently than many children with two parents alive, although she knew nothing of worldly luxury. She introduced several of the other orphans to the river and the woods, with their music of rippling water and rustling leaves. And as Dorcas’ young friends saw with delight the flash of a fin, the flicker of a furry tail or sunlight on feathers, they felt as though they too belonged in the world.



  1. Lovely excerpt Jean - I can see how beautiful scenery can inspire. Often I crave for a time back in Scotland where there is similar beauty in the mountains and glens - wasted on me at the time, I'm afraid. Now just distant memories.

  2. "They", whoever 'they' are, say that you can relax your eyes by looking in the distance. One of my squirrely theories is that's why people who live in hilly or mountainous regions can be more content than in flat places. If there are buildings in flat areas, that's all we see, things that are up close. Whereas even with houses and other buildings, we can still view long panoramas toward the mountains.

    Take Texas for example. Everybody seems pissed off there. And Kansas. And Oklahoma.

    And yes, sweet excerpt. Sounds familiar. Did you post this on ERWA at some point?

    1. Great theory, Daddy! It would explain a lot about the way things are in the US.

  3. Intriguing excerpt! I'd love to see where the story goes.

    I find that the scents of different kinds of woodlands are powerful stimuli. The dry leaves or damp leaf mold under hardwoods like maples and oaks, the sharper scent of pine and spruce and the intensely evocative aroma of balsam fir, the essence of Christmas, but also of deep forests. And then there are the many varieties of ferns, each with their own scent, from acrid to sweet.

    1. Oh yes. Nothing is so evocative as the scent of pine resin. Or pine needles baking in the sun... brings me back to summer camp years.

  4. Beautiful post, Jean!

    I feel uncomfortable in places without mountains or the sea. I remember the first time I flew across the country -- well, to Missouri, anyway -- as an adult. I looked down out at the flat emptiness of the great plains and felt a sense of panic to be so far from the ocean. (I grew up in New England, which has minor mountains -- well, hills, by some people's standards -- and a long, long coastline.)

  5. Lisabet, I felt uncomfortable on the vast, flat prairie when I first moved here as a teenager. I've been told that some people, esp. from elsewhere, experience a kind of agoraphobia here. On the other hand, it used to be a popular place to shoot movies for 2 reasons: - the local gov't offered a film tax credit (now gone), and the prairies can be made to look like anywhere else, esp. with digital imaging. Daddy X, yes, I posted the whole story on ERWA many months ago, hoping it would be accepted for the Halloween edition of the website. (It wasn't.) For some reason, the formatting was messed up, and I suspect this discouraged some folks from reading all the way to the end. (I recently sent this story out in response to a cfs.)
    Thanks for the comments, all. Interesting theory about gazing at mountains. My eyesight was much better when I had mountains to gaze at every day, but I was also much younger then.

  6. Fingers crossed for the story, Jean. I'd like to read the rest!

    I've always been near mountains and/or water, and can't really imagine life without them. And I discovered a few years ago that the one place in the world where I can really sleep is in the shadow of the mountain where I grew up. There is something about that presence.

    I love the photos in your post, by the way!


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