Wednesday, January 28, 2009


Wednesday, February 4, I'll be celebrating the publication of Clear Heart at Sullivan's Restaurant in La Honda. As a special treat, Susan Walker will join me, and together we'll read a few passages. Susan's voice was the star of the Clear Heart podcast, and it will be fun to read aloud with her in front of a live audience.

Terry Adams will join me in celebration of his book of poetry, Adam's Ribs.

We'll start around 6:30. Trot your horse on down, have a burger or a pizza, a coffee or a beer, and stay for some good reading. This will be fun.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Living With Wood

A neighbor in La Honda tries to share a fence line with an oak tree.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Never Argue with a Redwood Tree

How do you share a redwood forest with the beings to whom it belongs? That is, how do you share living space with the actual trees, their spiritual grandeur, their sheer physical force?

Here's one example. It's the deck outside my front door, built around a young redwood tree. (Young in redwood time - the tree is about 120 years old.) The trunk is a handy place to lean a broom or a piece of firewood, or some old wooden axle hubs and iron rings from pioneer wagon wheels.

At deck height, which is about four feet above the ground, the trunk is five feet in diameter. When I first built the deck, the trunk was about four and a half feet in diameter. I allowed a two inch gap between deck and trunk, figuring a 100 year old tree wouldn't be expanding too quickly.


Ten years later, I had to cut the deck back because it was strangling the trunk.

Five years after that, I had to rebuild the foundation of the deck - and cut the decking farther back - because the tree was not only pushing against the decking but also lifting the foundation several inches out of level. Here's what a redwood tree thinks of maintaining levels, in this case with an eight inch slab of concrete:
The tree will keep expanding in girth and length until it reaches its maximum height in a few hundred years. The height, by the way, is limited at around 300 feet not because of wood strength but because it can't lift water any higher. It's a plumbing problem.

So one accommodates. One accepts that the tree is boss. One schedules rebuilding the deck every ten years or so. And one feels slightly queasy with the knowledge that occasionally one of these trees will drop a branch the size of a mature buckeye tree onto your roof - actually, through your roof. It's happened to me. Roofers are guaranteed steady income around here. One keeps tabs on the health of any trees within reach of the house, as they can come down hard and fast. Next door, twenty years ago my neighbor's house was crushed. One wonders about karma, about justice. One is aware that the decking surrounding this vigorous young tree was built of redwood two-by-sixes milled from some other tree, perhaps a cousin, in some nearby forest.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Hearing them listen

I love reading my work aloud to an audience. In this, I differ from many writers. Also, if I may say so, I'm a darn good reader. Again in this, I differ from many writers.

I learned long ago how much I could improve my writing by reading aloud to an audience and hearing them listen. Hearing when they breathe. When they smile. When they slouch. If you pay attention you can hear line-by-line feedback to your writing. You may learn to your surprise that something you thought was sad is actually funny to the listener; and the funny, sad. I get that a lot. What excites me, bores them. And so on.

Most people hesitate to criticize, so after the reading you hear positive feedback. But while you are reading, you hear the negative. The squirms. The stifled yawns. The coughing. People don't cough when they're being truly entertained (unless they're actually ill). And the shifting of legs, the glancing at wristwatches, leaning forward, sitting straight, the rapt attention or the drifting off, the vacant look - all are part of hearing (and seeing) them listen.

After reading one chapter of Clear Heart last night to about 20 people at Moon News, five people came up and told me they were going to buy the book. Later, I checked with the store. They'd sold two copies.

That's feedback, too.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Reading tonight

I'll be reading at an open mic at Moon News in Half Moon Bay tonight. It starts at 7:30 pm. It will be a warm and well-lit refuge on a dark and rainy night. Y'all come!

Monday, January 19, 2009

Living With Wood

I live in a redwood forest. Here's my house plus the trunks of about a half dozen redwoods. Some of those trunks are 6 feet in diameter. They're about 200 feet tall, heading eventually for 300 if we humans don't screw the place up.

For a better idea of the scale of these trees in proportion to our houses, here's a photo of my neighbor Limey Kay's house:

When I was 7 years old growing up in Maryland, my best friend moved to Palo Alto, California. His family piled into their 1954 Ford sedan and drove away. He sent me postcards as he crossed the country: a buffalo, an Indian chief. And then when he arrived, he sent one final card: a redwood tree that you could drive a car through. From that day on, I ached to see California. They have trees big enough to drive a car through!

It took another 13 years for me to get there - to San Francisco - and it was the Summer of Love. Life was amazing. It took another 11 years for me to find La Honda. In the redwoods. On my quarter acre of land, I have 20 redwood trees ranging from 50 to 150 years old. Expected life span: 1000 to 2000 years.

I don't own these trees. They will still be standing 40 generations after I'm gone. After my house is gone. After all memory of my existence on this planet is gone.

Their patience calms me. Their spirit uplifts me. They are my cathedral and my home. Like the squirrels leaping in their branches, like the chickadees pecking at their cones, like the hawks perched at their crowns, these trees sustain me in my brief passage through life.

Wow. I just realized: After 40 years in California, I still haven't seen a tree you could drive through. Why would anybody want to do that?

Friday, January 16, 2009

Boone Barnaby on iTunes

The podcast of Boone Barnaby is up and running on iTunes. Search the iTunes store for "Boone Barnaby" and then click on the "subscribe" button. The price? It's free.

Now how do I alert all the 10 to 12-year-olds of the world that this story is available and that they would like it? And that their parents will enjoy it just as much? (The great secret of children's books - the better ones, anyway - is that grown-ups usually enjoy them even more than their kids do.)

Seriously - how do you publicize to fourth, fifth, sixth graders? And how do you do it without spending any money?

For a free PDF of Boone Barnaby, click here. For a used paperback copy of the book - for the price of one penny (how do they make a profit?) - click here.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Living With Wood

Wood is alive. Even when it's dead. That's why we cut angle joints, so that as dry summer follows wet winter, these redwood 2x6's will ease apart and then ease back together without an ugly gap on top.

The board on the left was added 8 years ago when I extended my deck. The board on the right is part of the original deck built 29 years ago. On the older board, lichen is growing, and a leaf from a rose bush has fallen. The grain is raised - or, more accurately, the soft parts of the grain have weathered away, leaving the hard parts like ribs. I don't know how much longer that board can last, but it's already survived 29 summers, 29 winters, 3 snowfalls, 1 major earthquake and the relentless onslaught of insects, fungus, and children.

It isn't premium lumber. We call it Con Heart, meaning construction-grade heartwood, which usually has knots and flat grain from relatively young second growth redwood trees, which grow like weeds around here. Weeds that we love. Weeds that we feel guilty cutting down, and that provoke major battles whenever somebody submits a logging plan.

When these boards were installed, they were "green" - that is, wet. The trees are milled at the sawmill and sold at the lumberyard and installed before they dry out. When you cut them, your saw blade smokes. When you nail them, water squirts out, sometimes onto your face or into your eyes. To me it always seemed that the boards were bleeding, and that's why the book cover of Clear Heart shows blood oozing from a nail. That's the guilt of a carpenter, for all the world to see.

Hats and memories

Sometimes when my back hurts, I lie down on the hardwood floor, put a hat over my face, and take a short nap. Which is how my grandson discovered me.
Hats fascinate him.
He'll forget this day. Then years later, when he's old and his back is hurting, some strange compulsion will make him lie down on the floor with a hat over his face. He'll wonder why he's doing this - and why it makes him feel like a happy little kid again.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Living With Wood

Wood is alive. Even when it's dead. We don't just use it in the way we use concrete or steel. We live with it. We have a relationship. How we live with wood defines to some extent what kind of people we are—our values, our styles. Wood makes certain demands on us, and we have to accommodate wood even as we shape it to our needs—or our nests.

Here we have a small roof over a house entry. Besides the use of milled lumber, a decision was made 40 or 50 years ago to use small cedar poles with the bark still attached. The decision was partly practical: Small cedars grew in abundance around this house, so the supply cost nothing. It was also an aesthetic decision: The rustic style speaks of a tradition and of a love for what's natural.

It's a compromise. Most of the structure is low-grade wood from a sawmill, painted a neutral color so it fades into the background. The rustic elements stand out, though they are of less structural importance. The workmanship is competent. The joints are tight enough, the nails are strong enough. There's nothing flamboyant or high-end or high-ego about it. No notching, no hidden fasteners—just butt joints and rusting nails. A day's work, maybe less.

To me, this is the heart of carpentry. Working to a budget—both of time and of money—working within a tradition and a style, meeting a need, doing a job, nothing fancy—but nothing ugly or shoddy, either. It's a concept the birds understand.

You don't have to build high-end furniture to take pride in your work. You can use power tools and common wood and simple joints. You do the best with what you have—in skill, in tools, in time, in money.

In the days to come, I'll be returning to this topic of living with wood.

At my house

The two dogs are real. The cat is a stuffie who has been lying there for years.

Update: Boone Barnaby podcast is live! (but not on iTunes yet)

The headline says it all. The podcast should be live on iTunes in a few days. I'll post here as soon as I learn that it's up and running. For those of you who are smarter than me, you can subscribe right now through at this link:

I love podiobooks for hosting my podcasts, but I simply cannot figure out their subscription mechanism. If you're under 30, you don't have to figure it out—you were born knowing how to do this. For the rest of us, we have to wait for iTunes.

The image shows the original hardcover of Boone Barnaby published by Scholastic in 1990.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Boone Barnaby: the PDF

In 1990 Scholastic published my novel The Adventures of Boone Barnaby. In a few days my podcast of the novel will be up on I'll announce it when it's out. For a podcast, I had to shorten the title to Boone Barnaby so it would be visible on those tiny ipod screens.

The book is out of print. I had planned to republish it just to make it available, but I see that Amazon is selling used copies for one penny! (Then, of course, they charge $3.99 for shipping.) I can't beat that price, so if you want a printed book of Adventures of Boone Barnaby (Apple Paperbacks), just click on the link.

Or if you want a PDF or any format of e-book of Boone Barnaby, it's available at Smashwords. And Amazon has it available as a Kindle edition here.

Speaking of pennies, they tell me Boone came within a hair of being a Newbery Honor Book that year but that one voting member was outraged by its "controversial subject matter." Twenty years later, that controversial subject matter** seems remarkably tame. It's a lighthearted, joyful, down-to-earth story—the only kind I seem capable of writing. Oh well. I made about $5,000 on the book. With a Newbery, I would've made about 100 times that much. Writing books is like buying a lottery ticket. And the odds are about as good.

For the record, the Newbery Honor Book (which means second place) that year was The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi. In first place, the Newbery Medal winner was Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli. Good books, both of them.

**Controversial: There's some discussion of the Vietnam War as a less-than-noble endeavor. There's a father who smoked marijuana, didn't go crazy, and didn't go to jail. The word "fart" appears once. And one of Boone's friends has a "stepmom" who is living unwedded with a man. Shocking, isn't it? None of these items have much to do with a story that actually promotes rock solid family values. The book is in school libraries everywhere. Teachers read it aloud to their classes. Kids—and parents—send me e-mail saying "Thank you for writing this," and sometimes asking fascinating questions. It's for these things that I write, and keep on writing...