Sacramento writers channel changing seasons in works

Renée Thompson’s writing expresses her “deep love and appreciation for the American West.”

Renée Thompson’s writing expresses her “deep love and appreciation for the American West.”


With each season’s change in the Central Valley, two local writers will watch the transformations in sky and landscape, the birds on their migrations, and turn what they experience into literature. Poet Rae Gouirand and novelist Renée Thompson may work in very different forms, but their work shares a deep connection to this space we call home.

Gouirand, a Davis resident whose first collection of poems was recently published by Bellday Books, directed the writer-in-residence program at the Cache Creek Conservancy from 2005 until it went on hiatus this winter. She told SN&R that roughly half the poems in the book, Open Winter, were started or written at the nature preserve.

And the workshops she directed were “largely generative,” Gouirand said—which meant, simply, that following a discussion of process and some reading, the members moved out across the land to find a place to write.

“There’s 130 acres of riparian wilderness” at the Cache Creek Conservancy, Gouirand said, “and we each find our spot and we work. We’re there to hold each others’ space for working.”

The poems Gouirand produced relate to the natural world both directly and indirectly; the images are taken from nature, while the form of many of the poems—what Gouirand describes as “deconstructed sonnety kind of poems”—leads to an examination of how we breathe.

Breath fascinates her artistically, she says, “because the body is important, and because the breath is the one way we are always linked, whether we like it or not, to the world.”

“The breath is what suctions us to the world we live in, the landscape we live in, the things that are going on in our lives. Whether we are breathing consciously or not, that is—that’s the channel.”

And in terms of the relationship of the language and poetry to nature, says Gouirand, “it’s all about space.”

An East Coast native, she’s also spent time in Michigan, but Gouirand finds the Western landscape has lead to more openness in her writing.

“Out here in California, especially in the Central Valley, it’s all about sunlight and blue and everything that starts as soon as the tree branches end,” she says. “I think that has really changed—what it is that I notice; what it is that feels to me as primary in the world; what it is that my attention is keying to on a daily basis.”

That sense of place—and the air that we breathe—is certainly clear in the poems in Open Winter. Gouirand uses words iteratively, to stir what she refers to as a “feeling of returning and pulsing and regularity.” It is also a way for the form of the poem to reflect the seasonal cycles, migrations and even the circadian rhythms of the natural world.

The book’s title poem, “Open Winter,” is another reminder of the continuity and regularity of things. An open winter is one that is “free from snow or frost, free from the kinds of trappings that might most obviously and most immediately signify what it is that a moment in time is about,” Gouirand says. It’s also a term used to signify that bodies of water—ports, bays, lakes and ponds—are not iced up and remain open to boat and ship traffic.

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The poem—and the book’s title—represent for Gouirand a deliberate desire to understand those things that “don’t have a start and don’t have a finish. They’re about things that don’t necessarily have clear boundaries; things that are continuous, that are constant and that really have a lot to do with the way that we live awareness.”

Birds of a feather

While Gouirand’s poems are firmly placed in the natural world in this particular moment, Renée Thompson’s novel takes us to the wetlands of Southern Oregon and Northern California in the late 19th century, where a demand for the feathers and long plumes of American birds led ambitious men to take to the marshes, slaughtering birds by the hundreds of thousands.

Thompson, who lives on a small acreage in Granite Bay, is steeped in nature. Her husband, a biologist, has done a lot of field work, which meant that the family usually lived near on or near wildlife refuges—often wetlands—in the West. She’d intended to write a novel about more contemporary water wars in Southern Oregon and Northern California. But as she was researching the topic, she was struck by a photograph.

“I came across a photo of William Finley and Herman Bohlman,” says Thompson. “In their early career, they were oölogists—egg collectors—but when egg collecting became unpopular with bird enthusiasts, they turned to photography.”

The photograph was taken on the Lower Klamath River in 1905, and showed the two men in camp.

“The photo itself was simple, but captivating,” says Thompson. “Then, a few pages later, there was a photo of market hunters, the men who shot the ducks for the restaurant trade.”

The men in the picture, Thompson explained, were surrounded by their haul—the bodies of hundreds of waterfowl.

Something about the images clicked for Thompson, and she remembered the plume hunters—men who killed the most attractive birds for use as decorations on women’s hats—had also practiced their trade in Southern Oregon and Northern California.

“I knew that there had been a fair amount of pluming at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, because they had almost obliterated the great egret,” Thompson says. She’d lived near the refuge for a while, and says, “I knew that. So I just started quickly doing some research, and as soon as I came across that quote about 5 million birds killed in 1885, I knew I had a story.”

It became The Plume Hunter, a novel about the rivalry between two men: one with aspirations to be a man of science and the other driven by the hope of a better life for himself and his widowed mother. They start out as best friends, but their attitudes toward plume hunting and a love interest come between them. The novel also addresses the formation of the Audubon Society, and the rise of the conservation movement that eventually put an end to the practice of killing American birds for decoration.

Like Gouirand, Thompson makes full use of lush language to invoke the natural world, including a beautiful and haunting description of a “bulrush mat about an acre wide” on Tule Lake, made up of tule stalks and heavy enough to support two men and a campsite as well as almost a thousand birds’ nests.

Thompson’s novel—all her work, in fact—springs from “this deep love and appreciation for the American West, really,” she says, “and for the stories that are told here.”

Now readers who share that sensibility have two new ways to affirm the natural world in literature.