Dave Cook | Lit Local | Indy Week
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Dave Cook 

Nature's bibliographer

These are the longest days of the year. We find all kinds of reasons to stay outside in the twilights of June: gardens, sidewalks, woodsy paths and lightning bugs beckon. Animals are friskier. There's no better time to be in nature than around the summer solstice.

One late spring walk changed Dave Cook's life. Remembering the day, he smiles and says, "The world just lit up." Dave's journals and nature diaries evolved into The Piedmont Almanac, nearly 300 pages of seasonal observations, charts, drawings, weather data, home-grown stories and monthly musings.

Over breakfast one morning, Dave and I traded stories of finding Mason jars and arrowheads in long forgotten fields in Orange County, the march of the subdivisions, and how to stay in touch with the natural Piedmont.

For June, Dave shares stories on box turtles and io moths. His almanac also advises us to listen for the whippoorwill's call, watch for the blooming downy skullcap and white-topped aster, and notice the soft and black-winged damselflies gracing the deep woods.

The Independent: Your Piedmont Almanac is quite an anthology. How did you collect all your information? How long did it take?

Cook: I'd like to take credit for envisioning the work full-blown, but that's not the way it happened at all. At 20, I was inspired to keep a journal, by Thoreau, by my need to witness my own thoughts and feelings as I was going through what was for me something of a renaissance. As a child I had played in the woods, along creeks. One day in my sophomore year in college, I took a walk on Bolin Creek near Chapel Hill. I was taking a class in American Literature with a wonderful man named Dr. Carroll Hollis, a "Whitman" man. Thoreau was "stirring up the bottom."

I was protesting the Vietnam War, filing for Conscientious Objector status.

Civil Disobedience was my door in. It made so much sense I just had to read other stuff that Thoreau had written, Walden, of course. There are lines in there that will just set the mind on fire.

I started keeping a journal, and I did that for a number of years. One year I wrote nothing but haiku.

I got involved in environmental education doing internships, co-founded the Schoolhouse of Wonder at West Point on the Eno with Wayne Poole. I met Thomas Berry, got more involved with ecospirituality. We used to call it bioregionalism.

Thomas was at an annual conference at Camp New Hope, an amazing gathering every year. He was exhorting us to take up the work. I had been keeping a journal. It seemed like a good thing to start keeping observational records in more detail. I began to pull it together with the idea that it might be useful to other people.

Rich Kilby of Barefoot Press was positive and encouraging. I showed him my super-duper copy of 200 pages and off we went. So the book was in the making for a long, long time and put together in four years.

What are your top five "Best Natural Areas in the Piedmont"?

Bolin Creek. It's not pristine. It's a record of a community's story and a great deal of it is nothing to be proud of. The four-toed salamander, a threatened species, was last recorded there in 1988. Its habitat gave way to a sewer line.

McDowell Park near Charlotte. My mother and I started walking there after Hurricane Hugo. My mother kept index cards of the wildflowers. Those are in The Piedmont Almanac. Groves of bloodroot, robin's plantain, ghost pipe--not Indian pipe or pinesap--but ghost pipe!

Landsford Canal. I went there first with Bruce Holt, a Native-American healer. The first weeks in May, the Rocky Shoals Spider Lilies bloom along a very short section of the Catawba River. It's an event.

Stone Mountain. I've spent a lot of time there; precious memories, soul renewing.

The Eno River, of course. My wife and I can't walk there without saying thank you to Margaret and Holger Nygard and all the good people who had a vision and worked for it.

You've been a popular teacher for years. Please tell us about your latest, favorite school project.

I've had a new life at Forest View Elementary in Durham. In January, the second and third graders began construction of a bird observation station, a bird blind. It was hammer, nails, drills and saws. The students built the whole thing. We tar-papered and shingled it, hung a door. It's ready for next year.

When do you write? What are you working on now?

I write early in the morning, before work when I'm usually at my best.

I've been working on an extended metaphor, The Adventures of Crow-boy, a story of a fairy born in these times and faced with the demise of the Natural World. He's faced with the "The Darkening," the loss of the world's soul, the loss of beauty.

I used to think writing was a solitary activity; some aspects of it are, of course, but it's a great deal more communal than I ever suspected. Dave Hart has been helping me with the manuscript lately--I hope with the finishing touches!

What writers have inspired you?

Thoreau. He used a technique of extreme statement, requiring me not to slough off. "Think on these things. They are true unless you can honestly resolve that they aren't." He doesn't let you wiggle off.

A.A. Milne. The House at Pooh Corner is one of my favorites. Truth through the vehicle of story.

I greatly admire Ursula Le Guin's mythologies.

I don't read other writers of fiction at present. I want to be as original as I can be. EndBlock

Contributing writer John Valentine can be reached at ajcg@acpub.duke.edu

Selected text from The Piedmont Almanac
Oak Chorus

The singing of katydids in the dark oak leaves will always remind me of childhood, summer nights in my grandmother's house in Maryland. Theirs is a rhythm, a pulsing language, implicative of what lightning bugs do in the visual realm, and syncopative like a call-and-response. It is a high celebration of the life force as they feel it. It is all their own, so non-human, and yet I always feel the connection of myself to the bigness of life, to how strange and how good it can be. Childhood is like that. You can imagine anything. I can't hear the katydids' going on without wanting to just sit right down in a porch chair and listen to them and dream of anything I want to: life on other planets, alien starships, Elvis, Nat King Cole ... anything.

  • Nature's bibliographer

More by John Valentine

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