Corning writer lets it flow
Corning writer Daniel Thomas delves into the local landscape and human existence in his three books
Daniel Thomas leaned back in a white plastic chair. His salt-and-pepper beard was shadowed by a blue ball cap pushed over a small, gray ponytail. He wore a white shirt with thin mustard-colored stripes. Its breast pocket held a note card and pen, just in case. He never knows when the call to write will strike.
Thomas pushed his glasses up on his nose and read, searching the pages of his three books for his favorite essays. He can’t always remember where they are. It was a Sunday morning, and this reading was more relaxed than the one he gave the day before at a Chico bookstore.
Thomas, 70, was sitting in the shade of trees he planted himself. The Ten is the name he and his wife, Marilyn, a librarian in Orland, have given their 10-acre spread in Corning. The Ten, along with his constant bouts of “wanderitis,” is the inspiration for his writing, and for his most recent book, 100 Miles.
“When it’s like this, it’s all worth it,” he said, taking a breath and looking around at the world he had created. The mingling of redwoods and poplars, the fruitless mulberry and weeping willow, the lily pond that began as an old bathtub and that is now shaded by dense, knotted trees. It’s his favorite place: a once dumpy, abandoned piece of land turned into a charming retreat.
Here, he can relax. He can listen to the wind in the trees.
Four or five cats followed Thomas as he walked the rest of The Ten. There were long fields of parched, yellow brush, the result of a dry spring. The cats picked at the ground, fought, or lay with their bellies stretched out. Marilyn, who’s 63, loves cats and has as many as 32. They’ve been married for 18 years, and Thomas said meeting her was “the greatest event” in his life.
“She is this to me,” he said, crossing his arms over his chest.
The day before, June 7, Marilyn accompanied her husband to a reading from 100 Miles at Lyon Books in Chico. Thomas, a Willows native, self-proclaimed Valley kid and Chico State graduate, was nervous. Despite having spoken before crowds of 5,000 when he was a high school principal, he was thrown off by the intimate setting and personal subject matter.
“I’ll get better at this,” he told the small crowd.
The former teacher and principal spent many years doing “writing of a different kind,” as he put it. It wasn’t until the last three or four years that he started writing what Heather Lyon, of Lyon Books, calls his “deeply personal” and “fascinating” essays exploring human existence.
Thomas has the time now and notions to “sit down and let it flow,” to reach for “things you wish you could touch but can’t,” he said.
“I try to write from my heart and soul.” He waits for something to move him. For a connection. An instance or thought that results in what he calls a “mind tide.”
He’s got heart problems that give him occasional trouble, but the illness has also made him more vulnerable and open and taught him to “move forward ever.”
“It sharpens my vision of the world,” he said.
His “adjusted lifespan” compels him to create something of a legacy, to leave something behind for others and for loved ones.
In 2005, Thomas published his first book, Essays from The Ten, for which he gives Larry Jackson, of Chico’s Stansbury Publishing, great credit for encouraging him—"I’d be proud to have my name on that book,” Jackson said—and helping him create it.
His second book, Evening Country, has gotten some attention. Thomas says the greatest pleasure comes when people he likes and respects get something from his books. He is very satisfied to publish locally, to leave his mark, however small.
“Writing at all is an act of bravery,” said Heather Lyon during Thomas’ reading at her downtown store. He writes with “nostalgic eyes,” she said. His descriptions are “like revisiting somewhere I’ve been.”
At one point she could see he was nervous, an introvert unaccustomed to sharing intimate aspects of his life, so she took over briefly, asking to read her favorite excerpts from his books.
When Thomas returned to the lectern he was composed, his voice calm. He writes like he talks. In person he is enthusiastic, well-spoken and thoughtful.
He’s been blessed with the gift of curiosity. When the call to wander struck him, he ventured out into the 100 miles surrounding his Corning home—an area comprising 7,854 square miles.
“I was totally amazed at the diversity of landscape I was about to enjoy,” Thomas writes in 100 Miles. He writes of the Sacramento Valley, the Coast Range and the coast itself. Of Mount Shasta and the Trinity Alps and the Sierra Nevada. Every adventure became an essay, an exploration into nature, life, love and relationships.
“My circle is alive with possibilities,” he writes.
Neither his illness nor his nerves concern him as much as this moment, right now. He has learned there is nothing but the present, he said.
Thomas is in the evening of his life and feels compelled to get it right, as he says in Evening Country.
“Perhaps that is what these essays are really about. They serve as a measure of my existence, to ask the ultimate question: Am I getting it right?”
He responds “yes” to that question without any hesitation.
“Isn’t that what we’re all doing? What I’m still doing? Finding my voice?”
His “eternal now” consists of daily projects on The Ten, spending time with Marilyn, and working on his fourth book, Beyond the Circle.
On The Ten, summer is a demanding time. “I’ve created a beautiful, green monster,” Thomas laughs, as he talks about cutting brush and moving water.
He looks around again at the lush green of his favorite spot. “If there were such a thing, this is what stops the world for a moment,” he says, listening to the wind rustle the trees.