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2004 Writers' Forum
Irene Wanner

Irene Wanner, a member of the Northwest Independent Editors Guild, teaches fiction writing at Richard Hugo House, Field's End, and Western Washington University. On editorial staff of The Seattle Review, she also reviews books for The Seattle Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, and Orion. Her natural history essay, "Looking for Snowies,'' appeared in the November/December 2003 Bird Watcher's Digest.
photo credit:
dean wong
Conversation with Curator Belle Randall
In this interview, recorded March 10, 2004, Irene and Belle discuss genre, voice, nature, place, community, authorship, and more.
Listen to an excerpt of Irene's reading (MP3)
4:05 / 2.5 MB

Birding at the Office (excerpt)

Mornings are for writing. Today it's slow going, though, because six feet away, three evening grosbeaks--a species I've never seen from my other house in Seattle--have been chowing down like hogs at a trough. Filling the whole tray feeder where it swings from a piñon branch, these three little piggies, with their handsome white wing patches and black faces, have bright yellow streaks curving over both brows. Males, they resemble flapper-era Gatsbys with slicked-flat, parted-down-the-middle hairdos, or three linebackers in striped helmets with their broad shoulders, big heads, and massive bills, a defensive line noisily protecting the sunflower seed bonanza from all comers. To grosbeaks, terrible manners spell success; sharing isn't a smart survival skill.

For hours, they've kept the usual suspects at bay: scrub and Steller's jays, juncoes and juniper titmice, finches and pine siskins, chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches, and a mysterious black-and-yellow flash, who's been batting 1000 for vanishing whenever I almost focus my binoculars on him. All week, I've been trying to identify that colorful blur, similar to tanagers, to warblers, to Washington's state bird, the American goldfinch-in short, to everything yellow in the field guide. I'll find the answer eventually since I spend big chunks of every work day birding at the office.

In September 2000, I began making payments on this small adobe house and four and a half acres at roughly 5800' in New Mexico's Jemez Mountains. Immediately territorial, I went deeper in debt the following year to buy--read "protect from development''--an adjoining eight acres of arroyos and hills, what the realtor now jokingly calls "Irene's ranch,'' a.k.a. Casita Tres Gatos, the little house of three cats. How land conserved as nature created it can be labeled "unimproved'' stumps me. I've always lived in cities, but longed for a horse, and idealized country life. My dream was to leave town each fall, to spend autumns in a rural setting, writing full time with no distractions.

Like most plans innocent of experience, mine couldn't anticipate the instructive disruptions that would reform this romantic image. Endless entertainment right outside replaced theater, movies, symphony, dance, restaurants. Above the mesa one day, a pair of talon-hooked hawks spun in courtship; across the driveway another time, a roadrunner trotted past on its errands. With neighbors, walks, tea, talk. In a small village, big rewards repay small donations of time or energy. Shelving books when the library reopens Tuesday mornings not only provides the gratification of a shipshape book bin but also the opportunity to overhear others' adventures.

When the little yellow-and-black mystery bird attempts to join the grosbeaks, I grab my binoculars, but a commotion at the front door draws me away. Two neighbor children--Sage, about five, and Noah, pushing four--arrive hand in hand, in tears, sniffling, pointing over their shoulders, both jabbering. They are far too young to have come this far. All I can make out is "Che,'' who is their horse, and "Mom.''

"What happened?'' I ask, kneeling. ''Wait. Slow down. Come in.''

But they shake their heads, grab me, pulling, chanting Che. Mom. Che. Mom.

Frightened, I catch one of their hands in each of mine and we race between prickly pears and cholla, across the road, past the chicken coop, past the self-serve honey-for-sale box, past the barn, and see Isabella, the baby, plopped crying but safe in the dirt outside a green metal exercise pen, where Laura--not trampled, not unconscious, not bleeding, not dead--holds Che by the halter, stroking his neck, not daring to move. Somehow, he has threaded one hind leg between two rails, stands trapped, and could easily snap a bone if he starts struggling to free himself.

To read more work from the 2004 Jack Straw Writers Program, contact Jack Straw Productions to purchase a copy of Volume 8 of The Jack Straw Writers Anthology.

Jump to Irene Wanner's Interview with 2004 Curator Belle Randall
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