Content Tagged ‘Charles C. Gilbert’

A grandfather’s essay

May 3, 2017 | 9 Comments

Making Notting Hill’s long list

March 29, 2017 | 14 Comments

A year and a half ago, I wrote about my excitement at having drafted an essay in which I relive accompanying my father to buy a Hereford bull when I was four. That’s the main story, but the essay really explores the complex relationship among memory, story, and imagination as I relive that trip and some other early memories. What happened to provoke it was fetching a cane for my wife, who was recovering from foot surgery two summers ago. That reminded me of a cane the bull’s breeder gave me. I still have it, over 55 years later. Why?

I found out late last week that my long complexly braided essay, “The Founder Effect,” has made the 2017 long list for the prestigious Notting Hill Essay Prize, a British-run worldwide biennial competition. They pay $20,000 and publish the winner, and publish their short list of top finalists. Two friends also made the long list: Jill Christman, who teaches at Ball State University, in Indiana, and Dave Madden, who teaches in the MFA program of the University of San Francisco.

I don’t expect my essay to go further—I’m counting the long list as its award. What an honor and unexpected achievement. It’s hard to remember what I was thinking when I sent it in. For great reading, go to the 2015 long list and search your chosen authors and their titles—these “losing” essays have since appeared in an array of journals, and many are readable on line.

My essay will soon be three years old, and I’m still fiddling with it. After my first year of working on it, I had it so messed up. I quit it and dashed off (in comparison, at least) an essay on my crazy dog that was well received on Longreads. I actually used in the dog essay something I was trying in “The Founder Effect,” which is showing how I jump to conclusions about people and situations from mere scraps. I think that’s common, and says something about the operating system of the human mind: stories.

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Atoka Gold, Dad’s bull

September 2, 2015 | 10 Comments

All summer I’ve been writing about cattle. My father’s bull Atoka Gold is a character, one of the purebred Herefords Dad raised during the early 1950s in California. What got me drafting a memoir essay was that in early June, when I brought my wife home from having surgery on her foot, I found a stockman’s cane among the umbrellas in our foyer.

I dimly recalled receiving the cane when I was four. This was about 1959. We had resettled by then in southwestern Georgia, and Dad bought a bull from a nearby farmer, R.W. Jones Jr. Walter Jones was a prominent breeder of polled (naturally hornless) Herefords who has since become legendary. He gave me the cane. Finding it again sent me into our basement, where I found Dad’s framed color photograph of Atoka Gold.

I wove my memories of what surrounded the cane, me, Dad, and Atoka Gold together with my research into Mr. Jones and polled Herefords. I braided in my wife’s recuperation this summer. There’s always so much to explain, but good writing concerns more than one thing—so, great. Except my essay grew at one point to 27 pages. Rather long!

In my mind from the start, the piece really illuminated the nature of memory, imagination, and story. But early readers wanted more about my relationship with my father. I resisted, having written so much before.

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Tending what remains

May 13, 2014 | 8 Comments

I was concerned going into my panel Saturday, “Return to Nature: Nonfiction,” at the Ohioana Book Festival. Although farming still brings many of its practitioners into intimate daily contact with the natural world, let’s face it, farming is now seen mostly as hostile to nature. A necessary evil, at best. Yet so much else seems grandfathered in its deleterious environmental effects! Am I being thin-skinned here? I can’t tell.

As a former farmer and author of a book that portrays farming, I’m sure of one thing. Farming has become an exotic activity in America. People have heard too much to fully trust the mainstream, which engages in what’s become mysterious. But those seeking alternatives often seem lost. There they stand, looking at labels—pay extra for organic? what does grass-raised mean? are cage-free eggs better? And I’m among the uncertain: the man who knows too much. I know that organic farms are only as good as the farmers who run them. That such farms can be a sham, abuse the environment. And I fret about monster farms taking over the value-added organic market.

On balance, I’ve decided, a vote for organic-sustainable-pastoral-humane methods, the odd scammer among them notwithstanding, is a vote for a better system and will foster its emergence. Surely we’re all coming to know these things.

Such musing didn’t prepare me for my session with my lone fellow panelist (our third speaker was a no-show). A panel on nature and farming can mean anything. I was wondering about reading one of my rapturous landscape descriptions, when the moderator’s introduction turned me in a different direction.

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1st review of my book

March 29, 2014 | 16 Comments

Waiting for my book to arrive, I’ve felt strangely adrift. Although its publication date is May 1, books go on sale on or about April 15. Which is about when I’m hoping for advance reviews in the trade press: Booklist, ForeWord, Kirkus, Library Journal, and the biggest dog in this pack: Publishers Weekly.

Advance notices are important because they’re read by major reviewers, editors, and booksellers. Not to mention by Hollywood producers and directors. (Note to Wes Anderson: My wife would love Meryl Streep to play her; Brian Cranston could certainly do justice to me, though, knowing you, you’ll probably hire Bill Murray.)

But my true hope is simply that by getting advance reviews, Barnes & Noble will stock my book in its stores. It is listed on the B&N website. But the physical book world is still old-fashioned, and a web notice doesn’t mean my book will enter a bricks-and-mortar building.

I campaigned for books for 11 years at Indiana University Press and Ohio University Press/Swallow Press, where I ascended to marketing manager and also helped acquire books and reprints, including the classic farm memoir RFD, by Charles Allen Smart, The Sheep Book, by Ron Parker, and All Flesh is Grass, by Gene Logsdon. It still surprises me how few authors (and smaller presses) know how the game is played.

Here are the steps . . .

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Reading my father’s book at last

June 10, 2013 | 14 Comments

My father got enthused about hydroponics—growing plants in sterile sand, gravel, or vermiculite and fed by liquid fertilizer—while serving during World War II in the Pacific, where the U.S. Army established several vegetable farms. Family lore has it that Dad was the first American to land an airplane in Tokyo after the war ended. He was twenty-six years old on August 28, 1945, when he flew in Major General Kenneth Wolfe, who had directed the start of the heavy bombing campaign against Japanese cities. Outside Tokyo, which had been devastated by subsequent firebombing, Dad witnessed the development of a vast hydroponics facility.

At Chofu the army built a glass greenhouse that covered 232,000 square feet—over five acres—more than twice as large as any in the world. U.S. Signal Corps photographs show a gleaming structure that stretched to the horizon in a series of peaked glass roofs. Workers seeded lettuce, tomatoes, and other crops into gravel beds periodically saturated with 75,000 gallons of liquid fertilizer. Other crops apparently were grown hydroponically outside the greenhouse in special beds.

Soldiers longed for fresh vegetables, but they were forbidden to eat local food, grown under centuries of “unsanitary and primitive fertilizing practices,” Dad writes in Success Without Soil: How to Grow Plants by Hydroponics. This allusion to the use of human excrement was in contrast to the hydroponic plants grown in “sterile gravel and pure water.” He adds, “I wish that those who are not yet convinced of the value of soil-less growing could see the harvests taken from those fifty-five acres of concrete.”

Dad saw an opportunity—this was modern farming. The future, in fact: all variables were under control.

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