Heidi Barr’s latest book—a book of poetry entitled Cold Spring Hallelujah—publishes on November 1, 2019.
“We need to remember that the reason we are alive and in communion with this place, this earth, is to experience the abundance that is possible when we allow it in.”
– Heidi Barr
Late last spring, I began reading Heidi Barr’s book of connected, contemplative essays, Woodland Manitou: To Be on Earth. I quickly realized it was a book to be savored, one essay at a time. Woodland Manitou sings with imagery of the earth. I felt—with each essay—that I’d been brought into a place of deeper communion with the natural world. Barr’s essays examine the unfolding of her life against the backdrop of the delightfully wooded world where she resides on a lake near Scandia, Minnesota with her husband and daughter. Because the book is organized around the four seasons, I read it slowly and in the corresponding season, mindfully sifting through the reflections Barr’s words spurred in me, one layered reading at a time. With each layer, I found myself inspired to pay more attention to how my own life was unfolding and, I began to crave additional communion with the natural world.
Recently, I spoke with Barr about her path towards creating a life steeped in both nature and writing.
Fettig Parton: Your words in Woodland Manitou strike the perfect balance between the personal and universal. When you began writing these essays, were you writing them for a specific audience (or any audience at all)? Did you imagine these writings someday being bound together in a collection?
Barr: Many of these essays started as blog posts. At that point, all I was doing was remembering how to write again after several years away from the practice – I’d always enjoyed writing in high school and never found papers in college or graduate school to be something to be dreaded. But when I started working a corporate job, I let creative writing fall to the wayside for several years. Then my sister-in-law and I went on a camping trip one fall weekend, and she suggested starting a blog about our outdoor adventures. (This was well before I’d moved out of the city, at a time when ‘blogging’ was a new and exciting thing.) So, we started blogs, and I just kept writing about what was going on, what I was noticing, and how it made me feel. This went on for several years before I had the inkling that a book might come of it.
Fettig Parton: Although arranged by season, I get the sense of more than one year’s time going by in Woodland Manitou. At the same time, other than specific mentions of certain current events, these essays have a timeless quality to them. Over how many years did you write these essays?
Barr: They were written over the course of about seven years – 2008 to 2016 – a few were written prior to the move out of St. Paul to a more rural area, but the bulk came into being after we’d settled in our house on the shores of a tiny lake.
Fettig Parton: Can you talk about your process for determining how to order these essays? Did you know from the beginning that you’d arrange them around the four seasons?
Barr: I’d always been drawn to seasonal living – and when I started writing again, this became even more clear. Almost everything I write has some sort of tie to the natural world, which means whatever season it is has a lot of influence. The essays in each section progress through a season in month order, even though the year the essay was written might be different.
Fettig Parton: In Woodland Manitou, you write often about your work from a home office. In fact, the setting of your home, located in a rural area, seems to influence the flow of your daily life and your writing. Do you think you might have written a similar book if you continued to work in a cubicle and lived in the city (which I know you did once, from reading this book)? Did you pay the same detailed attention to the natural world when living in the city?
Barr: Living in the city, I had a tendency to notice the little bits of nature that are still present in an urban area, but I found myself paying much closer attention when I started working from home and the pace of life slowed down. Being able to walk out the back door and hear birdsong instead of a busy city street made a difference in my desire to pay attention to the details.
Fettig Parton: When did you begin writing? When did you consider yourself a writer?
Barr: I wrote tons of short stories and poems as a child, and I had a fantastic English teacher in high school who encouraged writing about topics that were important to me. I had a lapse in writing after college when I started working, but as I said earlier, I found my way back, largely as a way to add more life to days spent in an office park. However, it wasn’t until I’d published my second book that I started to identify as “a writer.”
Fettig Parton: You work a full-time job as a health coach, you are the mother of a young child, and you raise much of your own food. Where/when do you find time to write? Can you describe your writing process?
Barr: I write in the margins, I suppose. My current job is pretty flexible, so I’m able to write now and then during the day. I wrote most of my first two books in between coaching appointments, while supper was cooking, and in the wee hours of the evening. I’ve never been a “sit down for an hour a day to write” sort of writer. I just write when I feel like it (unless there’s a deadline!) which has kept writing from becoming tedious. Maybe someday this will shift, but for now, while I’m still working and raising a family, this’ll do.
Fettig Parton: You quote many spiritual writers in Woodland Manitou, from Mary Oliver to Kathleen Dean Moore. Who or what are you reading these days?
Barr: I read a lot, and across a very wide range of material, so this could be a very long answer. But I just picked up Jenny Odell’s new book called How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, which I’m looking forward to getting into, and my most recent read was a forthcoming title, Born In Syn, by Beth Kander, book two in a dystopian trilogy. I also pick up Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass pretty regularly right now.
Fettig Parton: Reading this book inspired me to spend more time outdoors. Do you have any suggestions for readers for how to incorporate more time outside into their daily routine? What if they are the parents of small children?
Barr: Go outside every day, even if it’s just for five minutes. It doesn’t have to be in a wilderness area, or even a nature park – your own backyard or local park will do. If you can stand it, don’t take your phone and just sit and look at things for awhile. See what you can notice when you really slow down and pay attention to the natural world, the stuff that would be here even if humans weren’t. Several years ago, I actually put together a six-week course for caregivers of children called “Wild Child: Rewilding Childhood” that provides some simple activities and strategies on how to incorporate more nature time into life.
From Woodland Manitou:
“A River Lament”
My family and I live just down the road from the St. Croix River. There’s a public boat landing with some beautiful picnic grounds and a swimming beach about five miles from our house, and it’s right on the way to one of our usual grocery store destinations. Basically, it’s in the backyard and takes hardly any time or effort to go there.
This past Sunday, my daughter and I loaded up a backpack with towels, a yellow bucket, graham bunnies and carrot sticks and headed to the beach area at the landing. My husband met us there after picking up some sandwiches from a local café and we had lunch in the shade of some big cottonwood trees. The temperature was approximately 78 degrees. The sun was shining, and there was a gentle breeze coming off the water. It wasn’t crowded. After lunch we walked on the warm soft sand to the water’s edge and stood in the refreshingly cold water while Eva played in the sand, making little rivers and islands in between bouts of ‘splooshing’ into the deeper water. We watched a lady swamp her kayak while getting out of it and smelled a few wafts of cigarette smoke from down the way, but other than that, it was a picture perfect afternoon.
At one point when I was standing knee deep in the water, I turned to take in the view to the south. You can see all the way out of the backwater where the beach is to the main riverway, and the view is amazing. There are tree lined banks on either side of the slowly moving water that give way to a broader view of the main channel’s high bluffs in the background, their sheer cliffs commanding attention even at a distance. The further you look the more the details blur together into a haze of earthly beauty. You can feel the expansiveness of this wild river flowing on all sides, its energy a calm presence caressing the landscape. And as I stood there, marveling at the awesomeness of this place that is so close to home, I thought, “Why didn’t I come here more often this summer? It’s so close. It’s so great here. Summer’s almost over and I missed so many opportunities to do this.”
In the midst of a beautiful moment, I found myself lamenting the fact that I hadn’t visited this place more frequently. Instead of simply being in the moment and fully enjoying it, I plucked myself out and started focusing on the experiences that never came into being on all the past summer days when I had chosen to be somewhere else.
I’m glad I went to the river that day, and I’m thankful I caught myself lamenting before I got completely sucked out of relishing in the moment. Because once you notice something like that, you’re more likely to notice it again. And again. And again until it dissolves because you aren’t lamenting anymore because your default has become focusing on the beauty that is right in front of you, not what’s missing around it. We all have a string of moments, and a string of consciousness that weaves them into how we experience life in this human form. I want my experience to be more about relishing in the moment instead of lamenting what might have been missed.
From Cold Spring Hallelujah:
I paddle slowly, one stroke at a time.
Dip, pull, glide.
Dip, pull, glide.
Hurrying doesn’t work right now.
Rounding the final curve,
afternoon sun shines
through budded trees,
emerging like those last left
by the brush of the Painter.
I applaud in silent awe
at how a simple alignment of
creates a masterpiece
every single day,
just by existing.