Writing The Night Field by Donna Glee Williams

I SO wanted The Night Field to be a short story. I’m a lazy hound, and novels take lots of actual work, so my basic stance was “not going there, if I can help it.” I really thought I could get in and get out fast, telling the life of a young hero-woman—think Greta Thunberg, X (Emma) Gonzalez, Malala Yousafzai, or even Joan of Arc (the unofficial patron saint of my beloved New Orleans.) Led by her guiding voices, my protagonist would walk a path of environmental action that would get her jailed—think Mandela and Gandhi. Like them, her strong heart would carry her through the ordeal and into national leadership.

I actually wrote that story. Called it “Bridges.” But kind friends, honest friends, told me that the environmental message was unbearably preachy and I should just drop the idea and move on.

But I couldn’t drop it. The Night Field wouldn’t let me.

As I dove deeper into the story, I began to feel the stirring of old currents that have flowed through life forever.

For years—no, decades—I’ve been a friend and student of Dr. Gerald Marten, the guy that (literally) wrote the book on Human Ecology. Gerry has invested his life in gathering and analyzing what he calls “environmental success stories,” cases where eco-devastation has been reversed and healed. (https://ecotippingpoints.org)

As I dug into The Night Field, Gerry’s principles of environmental healing, what he calls the “ingredients for success,” began to give Pyn-Poi’s story a structure, a sort of skeleton on which to hang the settings, action, and characters of what was undeniably (sigh) becoming a novel. If you are a teacher and want to use The Night Field to bring the strong, hopeful message of ecotipping points theory into your classroom, Gerry has prepared a set of questions for discussion linking the book to the theory. You can find them on my website: https://www.donnagleewilliams.com/questions-for-discussion

The Night Field’s settings are rooted in my life in beloved real-world landscapes: paddling and walking (and sinking into!) the swamps and marshes of Louisiana. Hiking Appalachian forest trails. Kicking up the sandy soil of West Texas. Adventuring in the jungles of Mexico, my birthplace, and later in Costa Rica, Ecuador, and India. I grew up a very sedentary, bookish kid—although I do remember, even in childhood, going out into the woods and putting “poultices” of mud and moss on injured trees. But generous friends and opportunities woke up my senses and gave me the skills to put myself out into Nature. Being out there—and learning to notice the complex interweave of relationships out there—this is the source of Pyn-Poi’s world.

The sources of the action of the book are many-layered. Deepest under the surface is Joseph Campbell’s idea of the Hero’s Journey. Two of my great teachers, dream-worker Jeremy Taylor and author/editor Patricia Lee Gauch, gave me a huge respect for Jung’s (and Campbell’s) approach to mythology. But as l let the story take control of its own direction, it didn’t exactly fit itself into Campbell’s monomyth frame. Oh, there was a call, struggle with the call, and then an acceptance of the call, sure. Pyn-Poi met the expected tests and obstacles and found the required allies and helpers, but…

If you’ve really watched the struggle for liberation for girls and women, for anyone not White, anyone not cisgender, you will notice that, IRL, Campbell’s “bringing the boon back to the People” is usually less an individualistic triumph and more of a shared effort. One hero often carries the quest as far as they can before they drop, exhausted or destroyed, and pass the flame on. An authentic Hero’s Journey in the post-patriarchal world will look more like a relay race than some “hail the conquering hero” scenario.

Hannah Szenes, another actual hero, was killed before her twenty-third birthday, but she was never defeated. “Blessed is the match,” she said, “consumed in kindling flame.” Not just in the book but in what we laughingly call “The Real World,” I hope Pyn-Poi’s story kindles flame.

Another part of the Hero’s Journey that is often ignored is that somebody always stays home. I got this notion from fellow North Carolinian Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, which so beautifully entwines twin stories of the courage of going off to war and the courage of keeping the home-fires burning. But the home-staying archetype is much older than Cold Mountain; where would Odysseus be without Penelope staying at her loom for all those years?

I wrote that story, too—Pyn-Poi’s mother at home, leading her people towards survival in their changed world—and wound up cutting it, to keep the novel short and tight. But then we found a way to bring its essence back through Pyn-Poi’s dreams towards the end.

Another spark of inspiration for the action of the book came from the remarkable work of Karnati Venu Madhav and SECURE in helping farming villages of Andhra Pradesh, India, break free from the pesticide trap that wrecks lives, economies, and ecosystems. I visited them in 2008 on a Fulbright Senior Environmental Leadership Fellowship and was knocked sockless by their courage, tenacity, and success. http://gerrymarten.com/publicatons/pesticide-Addiction.html If you are a teacher and would like to engage with this real-world hero story that conveys the underlying principles of environmental success stories, check out the excellent curriculum available to you at https://ecotippingpoints.com/education/how-success-works-india/

I’ve mentioned the some of the inspirations for the settings and actions in The Night Field, but when it comes to the characters, I’ll have to confess that they came to me as if already wholly real on some other plane that I just needed to access and bring to the page. I can’t think of anyone I know in life riding along disguised as the folk in the book. But it does seem to me—looking back on it, not while I was writing—that Pyn-Poi embodies the rising fierceness and fury of young women today who care for people and the planet. I’ve already mentioned Greta, X, and Malala, but there are thousands more stepping into their power every day. And if our world is to last in any way that is remotely friendly to human life, I think it’s likely to be because young women warriors like Pyn-Poi do the work that is in front of them, with passion, with nothing held back. Maybe the character of Pyn-Poi is a gift for them, a sort of tribute. Or maybe she is a gift from them, a reflection on the page of the heroism that is already unfolding around the world.