The Pacific Northwest where I live is a rich, complex environment so fertile that it gave rise to the coastal Indian custom of potlatch, a gift-giving ritual in which the more you gave away to others, the more status you had. (Hmm . . . what could we learn from that?)
In modern times, my home state of Oregon is not known for economic prosperity (our unemployment rate, for example, is often highest in the nation), but is richly colonized by the creative class, i.e. writers, artists and all types of innovators. Among Oregon’s writers, the best-selling author is Jean Auel, of prehistoric fiction fame. Oregon’s best writer, though is arguably Robert Leo Heilman, a soft-spoken, intensely literary man who has worked all his life at physical labor and never darkened the doors of a college classroom.
I talked with Robert on the phone recently, having read his award-winning book Overstory: Zero: Real Life In Timber Country. He’s lived in Myrtle Creek for 31 years, a small town in rural Douglas County, Oregon, with his wife Diane. Overstory: Zero tells in first-person essays of life there and larger truths, of loving land that is being torn apart, of baseball and community, of laboring and being laid off, of Reagonomics and how the alleged trickle-down played out in rural America. Mr. Heilman’s prose is highbrow and grounded. It’s open-hearted yet pointed, politely forcing us into clearer thinking about our lives and our nation.
Am I the only one who thinks this guy is brilliant? Well, Overstory: Zero has five-star ratings from folks who voluntarily reviewed it on Amazon. If I were you I’d buy a copy to read this summer (he did not ask me to say that :).
Robert Leo Heilman seems to me like a distillation of Oregon itself: rich in the things money cannot buy, like relationships, connection to nature, honest work, a creative inner life, community and sense of place.
Come to think of it, that’s also a description of what I call a diamond-cut life.
Having introduced you to Robert Leo Heilman, in Part II I’ll write what I learned in my conversation with him and print, with his permission, a choice anecdote from a recently written, unpublished piece.