Redemptive Descriptions

Mary Sojourner's 'Bonelight' is full of essays revealing her creativity, passions and opinions

OK, truth be told, I grabbed this collection of essays looking for a little first-person obsession-confession. I'd heard Mary Sojourner on NPR a while ago talking about her compulsive gambling, and I thought she might serve up some more emotional dirt. Well, sure enough, she does--but it's emotional dirt in the context of high-desert sand, volcanic cinders, cliffs and slot canyons, bulldozer protests and sacred, personal Earth watering.

In these essays, Sojourner, a Flagstaff columnist, fiction writer, NPR commentator and activist, reveals her inner funky. She also reveals her inner creative. Sojourner's pieces--while sometimes unrehabilitated-hippie romantic or Indian-wannabe earnest or eco-freak strident--also manage poetic, detail-rich commentary.

Sojourner introduces herself with her opening. Eastern reared, she visited the West on a bet back in 1982, and then packed her middle-aged self off to Flagstaff. The mother of four adult children, in her pre-writer life, she worked 60-hour weeks and drank gin straight. She now lives in a two-room cabin to which she hauls her own water and firewood. She likes cats and geodes; yes, she is a slot-machine junkie, and she's nothing if not passionate.

A kind of mishmash of personal and activist issues, the collection is held together by Sojourner's passions: the Western landscape, friends and nickel slots against urban sprawl, logging, developers, franchises, the rich and community gated.

Sojourner threads motifs of light and the power of words through these pieces. Characterizing her childhood with a suicidal mother as imposed darkness, she describes learning to read as liberation: "Words became sentences, sentences became story, and stories opened into infinite passages of light."

The "Bonelight" of the collection title reflects both her loves and her hatreds. "Out here," she writes, "light can be the raw calcium of old bone." A literal "bone light" appears as the antler chandelier in the clubhouse of the country club where Sojourner and two friends went to confront a developer. She notes that the developer's salad chicken looks processed. "Product salad," she writes, "in a product room under product light, looking out on a wild place become product."

And homogenized product is one thing Sojourner and her friends abhor. They opposed a new Super Wal-Mart; they stood vigil as the pines were razed to erect a new multiplex theater, and they picketed the gigantic new Barnes and Noble. They also forced an environmental study of a proposed uranium mine in the Grand Canyon and pushed for sacred lands protection for the San Francisco Peaks.

Short enough for single-sit reads or radio spots, these essays are accessible, engaging and audience-aware. A teacher of writing herself, Sojourner excels in "show, don't tell." Her descriptions can be luminous and vivid: "Portal Canyon" begins, "I am in the heart of the earth, a delicate canyon holding dried grapevines, petroglyphs, cigarette butts, bottle caps, and a trickle of water no wider than my hand." In "Bonelight," she writes " ... limestone, cress, and elk track (braid) themselves into a living thread. ... "

If her activist pieces rage or scold, they do it authentically. "Ragged" is on tree thinning: "They had cut every small and medium tree. I cursed them, those who did it, those who ordered it, those who think you can fix the unfixable."

Sojourner's gambling essays can take on the frenzy and glitz of the tawdriest casino: "I park my truck, grab my lucky bucket of nickels, and hustle toward the Golden Nugget. ... I walk through and am in a jungle. Parrots shriek ... I hear water and birds and, above it all, my crazy heart pounding in my ears. And then, beyond it all, voices, shrieks, and the get-over-here-now! clunk of dollar-slot payoffs."

It's in her gambling essays that Sojourner is the most thoughtful observer of culture. She describes her fellows--all ages, all ethnicities--but focuses her sympathies on the older women. They're gregarious and jewelry-laden and unencumbered. But, Sojourner observes, they--and by extension, the others "hunkered in front of our machines"--are also isolated from the rest of society and not passing on to the next generation the "inheritance" of "time, knowledge and stories."

Well, she may be among those "hunkered," but she's still passing on stories. It's definitely worth wandering through the sand, cliffs and canyons, volcanic cinders and bulldozed sites--and even Earth goddess watering--to get to the compulsion dirt in Bonelight. The experience turns out to be downright redemptive.

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