Down from the mountain: the Oxford American summit

The thought began with lightning, months ago, when I first applied during a raging thunderstorm, and ended with the same this week, driving back home. Above us heat lightning snaked behind and through the clouds, while before us, toward Lake Borgne, thick spears broke wildly over the surface of the water. The rain never came, but it didn’t need to: it was enough to feel its presence in the air.

I’m describing New Orleans this evening, but the setting for the events of the past week, the Oxford American summit, could hardly have been more dramatic themselves. We met at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute at the top of Petit Jean Mountain, overlooking the river valleys of the Petit Jean and Arkansas rivers, a gorgeous, expansive site whose vistas will gladly rob you of your breath. The living conditions aren’t bad, either: the area has enjoyed continuous habitation for millennia due to its lush forests, abundant marine life, and fertile soils. (I’d stopped at Toltec Mounds State Park on the drive up, to pick up a little local archaeology; settlement in the region dates to around 10,000 BC, and for good reason).

At heart, the focus of the summit was the work – five straight days of workshops, critiques, lectures, and interviews. For those who were unable to attend, I imagine the recordings of the three public events – with William Whitworth, Pico Iyer, and David Remnick – will shortly be appearing in some form or another, and I’ll repost them here when they do. But you can’t work all the time, Faulkner famously said in the Paris Review, or at least shouldn’t; so activities at the summit were designed to take full advantage of our surroundings, including hikes, fishing outings, swimming expeditions, and trips to local overlooks and waterfalls. For a first-timer to Arkansas, I left wanting to explore the Natural State further (nor was a side trip to the Blanchard Springs Caverns near enough to whet my appetite).

Those hours that were spent at work, however, were as invigorating as the fresh, crisp air. Sharing a desk with so many talented writers of all ages, backgrounds, accents, and liver capacities – even for these few short days – left me simultaneously refreshed, through the rough-and-tumble of our discussions and disputes, and reassured, that there are milestones to reach and insights to be gained, each to be discovered on their own terms. That, afterwards, you work longer, harder, and with less complaint is a testament to the lasting effects of such a gathering. Of all those effects for which I am thankful, accountability stands out the most: the bonds of expectation to which friends hold one another, the insistence on future delivery of work come to fruition, the shared celebration when it arrives. New landscapes, new friends, new ideas: such gifts shrug off their price as a hilltop does its rain.

That the days evaporated too soon goes without saying. But it was fitting that the summit ended at the studio on the edge of the mountain, overlooking the river valley below. In those small hours of the night, as the nearby towns twinkled in the depths, it was difficult not to think of the lives which we would shortly be returning – but to my mind, a layer of continuity had already been laid down the day before. One of the sites we visited was a Native American rock art site dating to approximately 1600 AD, nestled deep in a cave in the heart of the inner Petit Jean basin.  Most of its petroglyphs, scrawled in a mixture of ferrous hematite, sap, and animal fat, had long faded, but portions were still visible on the ceiling and the cave walls.

Clearly, this site has been significant for people for centuries, for both ceremonial and navigational reasons (one petroglyph appears to represent a saddlefish, abundant in local waterways). In those prehistoric years lost to words, however, our vision of its use is limited. Yet use continued – a few decades ago, the state archaeologist told us, the cave was so covered in graffiti that the surface had to be completely cleaned, itself not unusual for an historic site open to the public. The thought is striking nonetheless: the consonance of individuals drawn together to a place, for whatever reason or purpose, to find a blank surface and with whatever tools the centuries afford them – a stick scratched in blood and dirt, a can of spray paint, or even just a pen – make a mark upon it.

It is a solitary art, writing. But not so lonely as one might think.

My thanks to the Hattiesburg Arts Council, of my native Hattiesburg, Mississippi, for a grant which enabled me to attend the summit.