“Now that you know what it looks like, I don’t want you to ever pick it.” Erica Trabold reads a section about goldenrod from her book, Five Plots, to the packed Rotunda at the Valley Library—on Oregon State’s main campus. A reading hosted by the School of Writing, Literature, and Film. The reading is part of the School’s Literary Northwest Series, featuring creative nonfiction writers, Trabold and George Estreich.
Trabold is a graduate of Oregon State University’s Master of Fine Arts in creative writing program and the University of Nebraska at Omaha. She now writes and teaches in Portland, Oregon. For the reading, Trabold chose a section of Five Plots titled, “A List of Concerns.” An essay in the form of a list, a style that she and her friends would use to plan their lives as children in Nebraska. The essay moves through tender reflections of adolescence like those early plans, and the more challenging moments of these formative years, leading into her return home as an adult.
Trabold’s grandfather taught her about goldenrod, the state flower of Nebraska, when she was a child. She recounts how selfish she now feels remembering when she claimed a branch as her own. Followed then by the shame she felt around the idea of being caught—she let the bouquet fall back to the earth, branch by branch, petal by petal—hiding what she had taken. The Nebraskan landscape plays an integral role in what is Trabold’s first book, which is the inaugural winner of the Deborah Tall Lyric Essay Book Prize. She writes about the prairie, the wildflowers, and their root systems as a metaphor and frame for her own history.
The animals and plants of the landscape she grew up in play an active role in her narrative. Intertwining meditative sections about ecology with her life, family, and friends, Five Plots delves into the belief that we are shaped by the land, just as much as we mold it. A realization that was easier for Trabold to see after leaving Nebraska to live in Oregon. She muses, that she began to know the prairie more once she left it. During the question and answer portion of the reading, an audience member asked Trabold why she wrote the book, and she answered frankly, “to be a better person.” She doesn’t spare herself in her narrative. The essay reveals how she has tried to cope with a person she used to be, one who was frequently cruel to the friends closest to her. Similar to how the prairie has been pushed back and fragmented by the cornfields and agriculture of the Midwest. But Trabold writes about the resilience of these grasses and wildflowers, growing in the space they can find. A metaphor that can be interpreted for the friends and family that she has grown away from—or treated unfairly in her adolescence.
The second reader of the night, George Estreich, is an instructor in Oregon State’s MFA program. Estreich is the author of many well-received books, including The Shape of the Eye, his memoir about raising a daughter with Down syndrome. And recipient of the 2012 Oregon Book Award in Creative Nonfiction. He read from his newest book, Fables and Futures: Biotechnology, Disability, and the Stories We Tell Ourselves, at the Valley Library. It explores the way we think and talk about human-directed biotechnology, and blends personal narrative with scholarship. The excerpt he read was relatively light and comical, for a subject that is so widely debated and can frequently lean hard into fear or prejudice regarding difference and disability, such as with eugenics. The scene we were brought into took place at a 4H fair. Where Estreich uses genetically engineered farm animals, their cuteness and quirks, to discuss the wider idea of human engineering, now and in the future. Similar to eugenics, Estreich talked about the de-extinction movement, and how the animals in these projects are bound to the possibility of engineering people.
During the question and answer portion of the evening, Estreich opened up about his writing process, and the importance and capability of science writing, and the confluence of the two rivers that brought him there. He claims that he is just a poet that wandered out of his enclosure one day. A sentiment that led to the writing path he is currently on. He discussed the interconnectedness of these experiences, and how they have led him to structure his narratives. These ideas, Estreich claims, echo the effects of metaphor by pulling together ideas that are too frequently separated, such as the analytical and the lyrical.
By the end of the Q & A I didn’t just feel like I had learned more about the authors and their works, I felt I had also learned more about the importance of interdisciplinary writing, and how we communicate our experiences holistically, paying tribute to the goldenrod, or acknowledging the old and new science that has formed both positive and negative views. When the evening came to a close, and the applause from the packed room waned, it was easy to feel inspired by these authors. To see the pull of their narratives, ones that incorporate the sciences into their very personal stories. We are not separated from the land or the long-extinct animals. They have shaped our time on this earth, the stories we know, the futures we form, and the way that we interact with the world. Their stories are a part of our own.