“Everything has a place, and everything fits together.” Paying attention to what’s in front of us, with Ann Vinciguerra

“Whether I’m walking an ancient path in Italy, scaling a peak in Wyoming’s Snowy Range Mountains, or admiring my neighbor’s garden, I always notice the rocks. I can’t look at them without wondering about their provenance.”

Moving Stones

By Ann H. Vinciguerra

The Madison River meanders by on a warm summer day. Rocks smoothed by the river’s force litter the landscape providing ample material for the garden project at my new home in Bozeman, Montana. Working solo, I begin filling my old green Subaru with rocks.

This is easy, I think. Sometimes I gather as many as five or six rocks in my arms, while other times, I heave one hefty stone into my car. It’s work for sure, but never too arduous. After several trips scurrying up and down the riverbank, a thin layer of dust coats my clothing and hands, and dirt is encrusted under my fingernails. I admire the rocks filling my hatchback. Pink, orange, and multiple shades of grey and brown. Flat, lumpy, rounded, and squared-off. I smile as I envision them in my soon-to-be-created garden. Satisfied with my progress, I head home eager to start work. As I begin laying stones to mark the edge of my garden, I realize I don’t have enough, and remind myself to slow down and enjoy the process. If I fall short, it’s okay; the stones aren’t going anywhere. In stonework, as with life, it’s best not to rush.

It wasn’t until I moved to Bozeman from Jackson Hole, Wyoming and purchased a townhome that I began to appreciate the unassuming beauty of stones. Pleasing but ordinary, the landscaping at my home was designed to be low maintenance. Hoping to transform this space, I used stones to mark an arc of ground for a small urban garden. Over the next eight summers, I planted perennials, yanked bushes, built a cinderblock raised bed, and decorated the area with eye-catching stones.

While I treasure the flowers that return year after year, the strawberry plants that produce delicious morsels in June, and the leggy nasturtiums that tumble over the cinderblock walls each fall, I am most delighted by the assortment of stones. Collected from the Bridger Mountains, the Snake River, and a creek outside of Yellowstone National Park, these rocks represent the culmination of my hard work and bring to mind my love of exploration and memories of the meaningful places in my life.

Whether I’m walking an ancient path in Italy, scaling a peak in Wyoming’s Snowy Range Mountains, or admiring my neighbor’s garden, I always notice the rocks. I can’t look at them without wondering about their provenance. What began as an effort to beautify my surroundings has become a hard-to-shake hobby and a contemplative practice. When I work with stones, I engage in the task at hand as well as the tasks of life. Time slows, my mind becomes focused, and my attention is drawn to the immediate.

*

Stones are intrinsically simple, easy to find, and useful for a variety of projects. No technical skills or complicated equipment is needed to harvest them. The only requirement is time.

I’ve played hooky from my communications job at the university. The day is a blank canvas to do with as I please, so I set out to the Gallatin River to move stones. It’s spring, a season when the weather changes like time-lapse photography. The sun and clouds engage in a seesaw battle to see who will dominate, and an erratic bone-chilling rain and snow mix pelts my face. I’m glad I threw on an insulated jacket and lightweight ski cap.

I walk along the chilly river bank with my head down ignoring the beautiful landscape that surrounds me while I focus on the stones. They are everywhere, but I select carefully as today I am harvesting only flat rocks to line my garden’s edge. The stones are cool to my bare hands and eventually the warm coziness of home draws me from the river.

Upon returning to town, I am ecstatic to see the sun has won its skirmish with the clouds and wind. My jacket and hat come off as warmth embraces me, and a palpable feeling of transformation and promise is in the spring air. I unload my harvest, and as I partake in this unpretentious task, I savor the beauty of time on my hands and the joy of an unexpectedly glorious day. 

Riding my bike to work the next morning, I remind myself to take time to appreciate the small pleasures each day may bring.

*

Each summer, I travel from Montana to my uncle’s property along the Delaware River in Pennsylvania. It includes a flat spot at water’s edge that my family calls a beach. With the hills of New York State across the river, cheerful gaggles of rafters floating by, and visits from eagles, deer, and an occasional bear, it’s where my family gathers and counts life’s blessings.

Strewn with rocks, our beach calls for a fire pit and patio. The summer day is not overly hot or muggy; the sky is cloudless as I begin moving stones in my sundress. Radiant sun soaks into my bare shoulders and face, and the stones are warm to the touch. I notice my body reacting to the work and learn to work with it, not against it. By using my body efficiently, it will serve me well. I squat carefully, reminding myself to keep good posture and lift with my legs. I imagine my spindly arms are developing strong, ropy muscles.

At first glance, I see a non-descript pile of rocks, but upon closer look I see so much more. Flat stones are good for the patio and rounded stones mark the edges. The gray stones are nice but too many make my work dull. A scattering of pretty stones with dusty hues of pink will enliven the palette. What I need is often right in front of me. All it takes is paying attention.

*

My partner Mike and I embark on one last backpacking trip before snow blankets the ground for winter. It is a steely autumn day; the only colors are the bright tangerine and turquoise of our high-tech jackets. A brisk wind whips about and we take shelter behind a makeshift log barrier built by previous campers. While it’s sturdy, gaps between logs allow the wind to batter the flame of our camp stove, so I move stones to reinforce our shelter.

As I fill the gaps with rocks to create a wind-free cooking area, I am reminded of the satisfaction that comes from hard work. Unlike other hard work, stonework is fulfilling in an uncomplicated, Zen way. I get lost in this repetitive activity as the project unfolds in front of my eyes. Stonework is much more straightforward than solving the challenges I face in my multi-faceted university job.

Back at work, I evoke my peaceful, stone-moving attitude. As I face the day’s challenges “get in the zone” becomes my mantra. When I keep moving and tackle things piece by piece, just like building a wall stone by stone, the problems get solved.

*

A few summers ago, my brother built stone steps and a walkway between the two houses at my uncle’s river property. I admired his work, awed that his first stone project was a masterpiece.

“You begin building and have faith in the process,” he said. “Everything has a place, and everything fits together.”

Stones. Simple, useful, abundant. They make up the steps and walkway at the river house and decorate my property on the other side of the country. Around the world, castles, bridges, and town squares built centuries ago are made of stones, reminding us it is the power of the whole that takes us far. Although we come in different shapes, sizes, and varieties, we each play a part and are stronger as one.

Back home in Montana, I take a break from the tumultuous, fast-paced world. I turn off my computer, leave my cellphone inside, and head out to the small garden at my townhome. As I begin moving stones from my car and setting them into place, a sense of peace washes over me. I envision a world where time slows down, and everyone finds space in their lives to move stones. There, we notice what is around us and work together for the greater good.

Stones. Silent and inanimate, yet authoritative teachers. Through them, I have learned about so much more than just building a wall or a garden or a pathway. I’m glad I took time to slow down and heed their lessons.


Bio Photo B&W Yellostone.jpg

Ann Vinciguerra is a dual American/Italian citizen. She lives in Bozeman, Montana where she practices the art of balancing work (Events/Communications Director, Montana State University Library) and play (Backcountry skiing and mountain biking).  Her work has appeared in Ascent Backcountry Snow Journal, the Denver Post, Mountain Gazette, Outside Bozeman, and newspapers in Jackson Hole, Wyo. and Crested Butte, Co.

 

 

A summertime side trip to the Bitterroot with Peter Papathanasiou

"This is rugged cowboy territory, terrain for game-hunting and songwriting. It reminds me of home in many ways, of the vast, panoramic outback of Australia, which has big skies of its own."

Photo by Peter Papathanasiou

Caught by the Bitterroot River

by Peter Papathanasiou

And so, I find myself caught by the Bitterroot River in southwestern Montana. My mentor, Irv Weissman, is a world-renowned scientist who owns a ranch there, and every summer takes his entire research group for a retreat. It’s a chance to unwind, to eat barbecue and drink beer around a campfire, and also to fish in the pristine waterway that cuts through the Bitterroot Valley.

Photo by Peter Papathanasiou

Irv is the son of a hardware store owner and grandson of a fur trader. His grandfather emigrated from Russia a hundred years ago to avoid being drafted by the czar during the First World War. Arriving as an immigrant at Ellis Island, he made his way west across America, eventually settling in Big Sky Country with family. Born in Great Falls, Irv’s great love is biology. It’s been his career and helped him see the world. He’s published over eight hundred scientific papers, given testimony before the US Congress on the merits of stem cell research, and even spoken with presidents on the topic. But even then, Irv still seems to prefer to talk about fishing, and especially in his beloved Bitterroot River.

After a short early morning flight from San Francisco to Seattle, and an even shorter flight to Missoula, our group is bundled aboard a long yellow school bus and taken to the ranch. On the way, I see enormous mountain ranges and pickup trucks, and stores in Hamilton selling guns and guitars. This is rugged cowboy territory, terrain for game-hunting and songwriting. It reminds me of home in many ways, of the vast, panoramic outback of Australia, which has big skies of its own. Alighting from the bus, I hear wild rushing water splashing over rocks, and feel instantly at ease. Our host is already down by the water, clad in his trusty stocking-foot waders, indulging his love of fly fishing. I’m anxious to go down and see the indomitable river that Irv has spoken of so fondly but am instead given instructions to unpack, change into outdoor gear, and return to the bus. Is this a retreat or boot camp?

We’re soon trucked to the nearby Bitterroot Range, which forms part of the imposing Rocky Mountains. It’s a tiring two-hour hike to the peak, past fallen pine trees and isolated lookout towers, but the views from the top are sweeping and spectacular. Craggy peaks, snow-capped even in the middle of summery August. There’s very little snow in Australia, and it’s gone by spring. Squinting into the distance, I think I can see Idaho. Raptors circle majestically overhead, grand, exotic birds with broad wings that I’m only familiar with as national symbols, bald eagles and hawks and falcons. It’s an unexpectedly awe-inspiring sight. For a brief moment, America makes a little more sense to me.

Photo by Peter Papathanasiou

Knees aching, we descend the mountain, badly sunburnt and slightly dehydrated. A few of my more weary colleagues fall asleep on the bus on the drive back to the ranch. They retreat groggily to their beds on arrival, in need of an afternoon nap before the evening’s festivities begin. The rest change into swimmers and wetsuits and grab truck tire inner tubes for a float down the river. But I don’t. I grab a water bottle and notepad and go sit by the water’s edge to watch a master at work.

Photo by Peter Papathanasiou

Clad in khakis, long-sleeved blue shirt, baseball cap and fishing vest, I find Irv up to his thighs in river water. Over his shoulder, ring-necked ducks float gently across the surface, occasionally plunging their heads under for a fossick and feed. The afternoon sun reflects off the river, making it shine like glass, slick and solid, but silky and wild. I kick off my sandals and feel the day’s residual warmth in the smooth white river stones beneath my toes. The sensation is not dissimilar to a relaxing foot massage, and instantly makes me smile.

Irv sees me, waves; I wave back. I decide to keep my distance, to observe the proud Montanan in his element. He flicks his wrist expertly, back and then forward, casting his line out before lowering it down so that the grasshopper fly lands precisely as desired. I’m reminded for a moment of my late father and his own love of fishing. I was only a young boy at the time, being dragged reluctantly on excursions to lakes and rivers, to sit and watch Dad do nothing for hours on end. At the time, I wanted to run and jump and ride my bike, and didn’t understand the invisible tug-of-war at play, and the understated appeal of man versus nature. My current day colleagues don’t seem to grasp it either; having successfully obtained paddles and pale ales, they soon disappear down the river on their inner tubes, their sprightly voices growing fainter as the current carries them away.

I see Irv smile at their boundless youthful energy before returning to his more peaceful pastime. Now approaching eighty, he no doubt sees life is a marathon, not a sprint, and knows that moments are best savoured when the pace is slow, unrushed. My dad, who lived to eighty-six, did too. And besides, all that noise and activity was scaring the fish.

Photo by Peter Papathanasiou

The US government classifies the Bitterroot River is a Blue Ribbon trout fishery, with a healthy population of native rainbow and brown trout. Cutthroat trout are plentiful too, so much so that they gave Irv’s homestead its name: the Cutthroat Ranch. Many glorious cutthroat trout have found their way onto his line over the years, and I try to picture them gliding like eels beneath the waterline, tempted by the brightly coloured lure drifting tastily above their heads. But none take the bait on this particular day, which leaves Irv bereft of both a catch and a story that he would otherwise have retold around the campfire. The seasoned angler strokes his irongrey beard, eyes the angle of the setting sun, checks his watch, and reluctantly calls it a day. With darkness approaching, pairs of glowing eyes will soon start appearing beside the river, most likely deer, moose and elk, to lap at the cool, clear water. Irv doesn’t want to be around in case those eyes should happen to belong to a hungry grizzly bear otherwise in search of its own haul of robust Montanan trout. And nor do I.

Pocketing a few smaller river stones as souvenirs, I make my way back to the ranch, following a respectful distance behind Irv who walks slowly with fly rod slung over his shoulder. I suspect he knows there’s always tomorrow – another opportunity to chance his luck in the mighty Bitterroot River that flows through his very backyard.

 

*

Pete and his Stanford University research mentor Professor Irving L. Weissman published five research papers together between 2007 and 2015.

Peter Papathanasiou was born in a small village in northern Greece and adopted as a baby to an Australian family. His writing has been published by The New York Times, New York Post, The Guardian UK, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, Good Weekend, The Canberra Times, The Herald Sun, SBS, The Huffington Post, Neos Kosmos, Frankie, The Pigeonhole, Caught by the River, Structo, 3:AM Magazine, Elsewhere Journal, Litro, Meanjin, Overland, Going Down Swinging, Verity La and Tincture Journal, and reviewed by The Times Literary Supplement. He holds an MA in creative writing from City, University of London, and has lived in New York, California, London, Greece and Australia.

The Bitterroot along the Nez Perce National Historic Trail, near Lolo, Montana. US Forest Service photo, by Roger Peterson

Writing the Cover Letter: Some Tips

By Nate Duke

Let's say you just found out your favorite journal is open for unsolicited submissions, and you finally wrote something you think might interest them. You enlist the nearest coffee shop dweller to do an impromptu proofread of your piece, then you check to make sure you have a title and page numbers. You read the journal’s submission requirements two more times, and re-save your .docx as a PDF. You upload the document to Submittable (or whatever server this journal uses) and you’re ready to hit submit, but you’re confronted with the small expanse of the “Cover Letter” box.

There are many examples available of how to fill this box, and if you’ve been submitting work for awhile then hopefully you’ve been tweaking and developing your cover letter as you mature in your career. I’ve been reading unsolicited submissions for different journals for over a year now, and this post contains some of my thoughts on the kind of cover letter that works.

The essential purpose of the cover letter (for the journals I’ve read for) is to give a little context about the submitter. At best, a cover letter will communicate to the reader/editor that you’re a polite person who is respectful of other’s time and will be easy to work with. A good cover letter will not make your submission, but a bad one could very well break it.

The following suggestions are drawn from reading hundreds of cover letters, and my own experience writing them. They are merely suggestions, and in no way indicate the submission protocols of any organization including CutBank.

  1. Address it “Dear Reader,” not “Dear fiction/poetry editor, managing editor, *name of editor*, etc." In general, your work isn’t getting a first pass from the editor, but from a volunteer that is part of a changing team of readers.
  2. Keep it short and to the point. The more you say about your writing in your cover letter, the more time is detracted from what the reader is going to spend on your actual piece.
  3. Do mention if you received positive feedback on a previous submission to this publication. Also, if it would be your first publication, let them know. A simple “if accepted, this would be my first publication” at the end works great.
  4. IF THEIR SUBMISSIONS PROTOCOL REQUESTS A BIO, keep it under four lines. Do mention past publications and where you’ve studied or are studying. Do not talk about your pets or how you’ve recently moved somewhere hotter/colder than where you used to live.
  5. Mention past publications. Recognizable names and university-affiliated journals are great to mention, but The Online Journal of Literature Started by my Freshman Roommate isn’t. Keep in mind readers' eyes tend to glaze over after 3 publications.

Sample:

Dear Reader,

Please consider the attached [poems/short stories]—[name(s) of work(s) separated with oxford commas if necessary] for possible inclusion in [name of publication in italics]. After reading several back issues of [publication], I think my work may be a fit.

Thank you in advance for your consideration.

Bio: [Your Name] is a [graduate, student] at [University], where s/he studies/d [English, Creative Writing, Journalism, whatever]. You can find his/her work in Journal One, Two, Three, and several other fine publications.

________________________________________________________________

 

About the Author:
Nate Duke is pursuing an MFA in poetry at the University of Montana where he is on the editorial staff for CutBank. He is an alumnus of the Oxford American's editorial internship. You can find his work in Red Cedar Review, Driftwood Press, and elsewhere.