Ann and John Brantingham spent nine summers volunteering and living in a van in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks away from wifi, electricity, plumbing, and anxiety. This experience brought them back to themselves. Kitkitdizzi is their dual memoir, Ann’s in graphite drawings and John’s in short essays. These summers gave them the time to stop and look and let their minds romp at random without the burden of triaging every moment as they raced through their days. What they found was a balm from the surreality of modern life. The book is out today everywhere and also available directly from us.
Dennis: Though John wrote the pieces for the book, and Ann did the drawings, Ann’s voice and thoughts figure profoundly in the book. As much as this book is about the High Sierras, both the landscape and the history of its residents from beetles and bats to explorers, exploiters, conservationists and campers, it can also be read as a meditation on marriage, on true love that has been fortunate to grow long in the tooth.
John: I’d agree with this completely. We were coming out of a time that was really hard for us. I don’t mean that our relationship had been tested, just that we’d gone through some difficult times for both of us together. The trips to the mountains helped us to move away from some really tragic experiences. We were self-consciously searching for new hope and possibly joy.
The thing about marriage is that you are constantly growing up, and if you do it right, you are teaching each other how to be adults. We wanted to be adults who were not full of disappointments and pain but people focused on possibility. I can’t see a better way than going into the joyful parts of ourselves by going into the forest with people we grew to love.
Ann: John and I have always encouraged each other to be who we are. My drawings and his essays exist together without one being secondary to the other. It’s important to have your own things outside of the marriage. It keeps each person growing and becoming themselves more deeply. We teach each other to find new ways to see the world because we have differences. This also makes the marriage stronger. We both keep falling in love with each other, and I hope that this happens for other couples too.
Dennis: I first saw these graphite drawings framed on the wall in your home/studio. Seeing them in the book spread out one by one and interspersed throughout the essays is fitting in the texts that speak of isolation, pondering a reflection of yourself as a youth quietly hugging your knees in and watching a bear, the hand as a small cage catching a moth for a moment before release. The drawings mirror the smaller recipe of each essay. How were the drawings and essays matched?
Ann: When I was going through and placing the images with the essays, I purposely tried not to have many images match the pieces. I was trying to match the emotion of the art. This was an intense nine-year journey that we went through broken up at the end of each summer, and it changed us. I think it helped us to turn more inward in some ways, and that reality is reflected in my art.
John: We wanted to make sure that the drawings were not simply illustrations of the essays and that the essays were not descriptions of the images. We didn’t want this to be one of our reactions to the other, but a reflection of how we both were growing internally because of the High Sierra. I think the drawings and essays have more to do with when they were completed than what we were trying to say. This is the mood we were in. These are our emotions.
Anyway, I don’t think it makes a lot of sense for me in an essay to try to explain what is happening emotionally in Ann’s art. If that kind of thought could be put into an essay, then she wouldn’t need to draw.
Dennis: The quixotic nature I have been present for in the Sierras is captured wonderfully in notes on hail storms, rubber boas, and bats appearing and disappearing just as quickly as they arrived. John’s mother also represents this in the book, her seeming ease to adjust to a beetle crawling on the tile in your home, or the beetle that she asks you in your youth to spend a moment soaking in the beauty of. There is a wonderfully playful rhythm to not just how you frame these stories, but how they abut and reflect off of one another.
Ann: When we first went into the mountains, I thought I was going to be afraid. I had never really camped in the forest as a child. There was a day that the group left for the entire day, and I stayed behind in camp. I thought for sure that was going to be frightening. Instead, it was a magical day. I felt a real connection to the forest, and I got the feeling that I was a part of the forest rather than a visitor. It was magical seeing all the phases of the woods and not being distracted from what was happening around me. I made a piece of art that day, but the most important part of doing that was that I just looked as closely and as quietly as I could.
John: Being in the High Sierra like that was a little like being a child again in that every moment was new. We had to figure out the woods in the way that kindergarteners have to figure out what school is. It felt chaotic for us, especially at first. It was even more that way for Ann who hadn’t spent any of her childhood in the forest. I had spent a good deal of it there, but never in this way, living without technology for months at a time.
So it felt random and spectacular at first. Then as we began to understand the beat of the forest, and what the plants and animals were doing, we learned the rhythm of it. Of course, that only made the world around us more spectacular. There is a logic to the ways animals behave. It’s like when you adopt a dog, and you have to figure out its personality and habits. We were doing that with all the animals of the forest all at once.
Dennis: My wife and I have formed fleeting relationships with camp hosts at places we stayed at for a week or more. I don’t think that when most folks embark on dry camping or even RV camping, they anticipate the effect that a good camp host can have on them. It is not that different, I imagine in some ways, to that of teaching. I like that this aspect is hit upon, that is not simply John Muir quotes; that Haskell and Martin appear as apparitions in Kitkitdizzi.
John: The volunteer camp where we stayed was at a strategic point on the mountain. It has been inhabited for perhaps thousands of years as is evidenced by the grinding stone at the edge of the camp. There have been park volunteers and employees there, Boy Scouts, Buffalo Soldiers, a socialist utopian community, and many others. In the middle of it are two mounds that kind of disappear under the foliage sometimes. I keep thinking that these might be two graves. I have nothing to support this except that they kind of look like that. I wanted to honor all of those people who lived in this place where we lived, and so I brought in Haskell and Martin. John Muir was an interesting person, but people tend to refer to him as a sort of man-god of the forest. Muir was not perfect, and his was not the only way to see or relate to the forest. As for teaching, that is sacred to me. I think you’re right. We’ve all been in classes where the teacher hasn’t been the best. I have at times been that teacher. When you do it well though, there is a kind of magic. Nowhere for me was that more apparent than in our camp. A lot of people found themselves here. Not everyone did. Some people just had fun, but for a lot of people it was a life-changing experience when they understood themselves completely differently. That’s true of me. I’m essentially a different person because of it.
Ann: Everything that John said times two. I am who I am now because of our experiences in the High Sierra. The second summer we were there was the first summer I started leading art workshops. I led five of them that summer. The people that came were creative and hungry for new experiences and ready to get to work. We looked closely at plants, hiked for spectacular views of the mountain range, and spent hours in a meadow drawing everything. Every group was different but they all were absolutely fulfilling, and I feel deep gratitude for getting to be part of all these people’s journeys. At the end of that long summer (that year we got to stay until October 1), we had kind of a debrief with our volunteer coordinator. She asked me how I felt this experience changed me. I hadn’t thought about it yet in those terms and I became emotional when I realized that I now considered myself an artist. I had earned degrees in art and had done some here and there and on book covers for my own small press, but now I saw myself as part of something bigger than myself.
Dennis: You both love poetry and language. The simplest things are often the hardest. I mean this in regard to naming a work which often comes near the end of completing a work for many artists. Kitkitdizzi is such a wonderful title for this book. Not only is Ann’s drawing of the bush a wonderful choice for cover art, and the word lending itself to define for me a state of mind that I am sometimes in when I am out in the middle of nowhere, alone, or with a few of my loved ones in the Sierras. The roll off of the tongue of kit kid dizzi is such a fun thing to say aloud but also sounds like instructions to an easy euphoria. Somersault down the hill! Spin 15 times fast! Close your eyes for three minutes then look up at the belt of Orion from a sleeping bag on pine needles.
John: I know exactly what you mean. Most people call that plant “bear clover” or “mountain misery.” Gary Snider used the Native American word “kitkitdizzi,” and I like to think that’s because he’s a poet and the word just has magic to it. It also is one of the most powerful realities of the Western slope of the High Sierras. There are places where it’s all you can smell. It overwhelms the pine scent. Still, people don’t notice it until they’ve been in the forest for a long time. The reason is everything there around them is magic and they are seeing bears and giant trees and granite rising out of the ground and their neurons are firing so hard that they just don’t have the time to slow down and notice the scent. It’s what you recognize after having been there a while I think. Now here I am, living in New York nearly as far away from the High Sierra as I can get. I both miss that magic, and I don’t. The reasons I miss it are obvious, I think. The reason I don’t is that every moment of the earth is infused with the possibility of hope and joy. The simple magic of nature is still around me. If you come down to New York and spend the day with me, I’ll show you Thunder Rocks in the Allegany and we’ll both stand there with our mouths agape like we’re staring up at a giant sequoia and all we’ll be able to say is, “My god.”