NEA Literature Fellowships

Laura Bell

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(2014 - Prose)

Excerpt from Claiming Ground

We push hard up the trail-riddled slopes that fall off into the headwaters of Porcupine Creek and down into Devil’s Canyon, the dogs working them until the lead ewes find the narrow gravel road that climbs Medicine Mountain toward the radar station notched in a peak and the Medicine Wheel beyond and the sheep begin to string out beyond my sight again into the frozen fog.

I drop from my horse and walk to warm my feet across fractured shale and fossils, the tiny alpine phlox of summer surviving still in cracks and crevices. With the altitude the sleet has hardened to snow and lightened to something I can lift my face to. There is the soft rattling of sheep hooves clicking across stone, the tinkling of their bells, the thud of Maple’s iron shoes following behind and the swish-swish of the long yellow slicker against my jeans. The ground levels off in the cloud and the sheep disappear into it along the two-track and shale, John waiting somewhere ahead to see them through the gate. I follow behind, picking up stragglers and walking with the dogs to the far edges to listen because we can’t see much of anything.

Out of snow wisps appears the tall chain-link fence that circles the Medicine Wheel, its woven wire studded with remains of pilgrimages, and I veer from our path to follow its perimeter. Thin strips of cloth, once bright reds and yellows and greens, are now bleached by weather and silvered with the gathering snow, tied in ribbons and fluttering limply. The wires are full of gifts: prayer bundles of soft hide and cloth, small animal skulls, branches of sage, beads strung on rawhide thongs, a silk scarf wind-whipped into soft fringes, an eagle feather, a small bell hanging silent. Inside the fence, sixteen rock spokes form a circle some eighty feet wide and, within it, another, ten or fifteen feet across. Around the far edges are six oval stone cairns, only a few feet long, now filled with offerings, but might once have held a person singing. All of this from some distant time that no one knows for certain, five or maybe eight hundred years ago, on this day receiving the first dusting of winter, soon to be covered in deep snow for months to come.

Without an offering myself, I look around for possibilities and end up pulling from my saddlebag a wet and frozen glove, traded earlier for dry, and work the fingers into the wire so that they’re spread skyward. For all I have. I weave its mate next to it as best I can, though it looks more clown-like than I would have wished among all the hopes and miseries tied alongside.

I walk beyond the fence to the west edge of cliffs and look out into the cloud, into the miles of what I know is there, but can see only the ground falling off to cliffs and crevices. What I know to be there is the whole of the basin, and to the far west, the Absarokas and the steaming sulfurs of Yellowstone. From this place where I stand fires were lit and signals sent and answered and still now the Crow, Shoshone, Arapaho, Sioux and Cheyenne gather to sing and pray here, so close to the sky.

The dogs sit their haunches, leaning out over the rocks below and the squeaking of marmots among them. When I reach for the saddle horn and pull myself horseback again, they turn and fall in at Maple’s heels. We complete the circle, stepping carefully around the rock edges, and follow the sheep as the ground begins to tilt back down toward the sound of John’s voice calling out to his dog and, beyond that, to the trails that will take us down.

(From Claiming Ground by Laura Bell c. 2010 by Laura Bell. Reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of ther Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved.)

Laura Bell’s work reflects the landscape that has shaped her—the high desert ranges of northwest Wyoming—and themes of loss and transformation.  In the mid-'70s she made Wyoming her home, and in the last 35 years has worked as a  sheepherder, cowboy, forest ranger, massage therapist, horse packer, bookstore and gallery manager, and conservationist. Her critically acclaimed memoir, Claiming Ground, was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 2010.  In a starred review, the Kirkus Review deemed it, “ A work of descriptive virtuosity and a hard, honest pull through rough emotional terrain—an exemplary memoir.” 

Bell’s essays have been published in several collections, and from the Wyoming Arts Council she has received two literature fellowships as well as the Neltje Blanchan Memorial Award and the Frank Nelson Doubleday Memorial Award. 

She currently works in fiction from Cody, Wyoming, and hopes someday to be a poet.

Photo by David Ireland Beckett

Author's Statement

I’m deeply humbled by the recognition given to me by the NEA review panel.  Working alone, it’s easy to think about crawling under a rock instead of pushing on. I’m a person who requires a job, and this honor is that job, setting my feet back on the trail.

I’d applied several times before, so when a call came through from a DC area code I didn’t suspect it was anything other than a sales call.  I didn’t pick it up.  I was driving my husband home from the Billings, Montana airport, and the winter light was all slanty and golden.  The roadsides were deep with snow, and the cell reception spotty. When Amy and I finally connected, I pulled over at the Chief Joseph Highway junction while she shared the good news. I’m surprised the snow didn’t melt with the glow.

This honor grants me the gift of time and the means with which to pursue research for my novel.  No less important is the confidence that there are people I’ve not met—readers, teachers, writers, administrators—who have my back.  For that I’m deeply grateful. With all my heart, I thank you.