Thursday, June 20, 2024

Q&A with Lynne Spriggs O'Connor


Photo by Douglas Lees



Lynne Spriggs O'Connor is the author of the new book Elk Love: A Montana Memoir. Also a rancher and conservationist, she lives in Montana.


Q: What inspired you to write Elk Love?


A: Pain. Loneliness. Wonder. Grace.


Twenty years ago, I became overwhelmed by physical and emotional pain. Struggling all alone became more than I could handle. I’d reached my limits; it felt as if I had no choice but to completely surrender.


In my early 40s, that meant leaving everything behind - trading in my East Coast city life of academic “knowing” and transplanting myself to rural Montana, a place of vast open spaces and beauty. It felt as if my soul demanded I stretch out, quiet down, and listen to the silence.


It was a rocky transition. But as I leaned into the mysterious energy of things, I fell in love - with an unusual man, a particular place in nature, and everything that lived in that place, all at the same time.


I felt inspired to write about those years because they were a real pilgrimage and a significant rite of passage that resonated with something universal.


My determination to gather knowledge shifted to a fascination with what is unknowable. I became calmer, responding instead of reacting. A lifelong feeling of separateness finally gave way to belonging.


To honor and express gratitude for all that I experienced during those transformative years, I wanted to share this story with others.


Q: The writer Pam Houston said of the book, “In prose that is by turns rapturous, bawdy, hilarious, and serene, Elk Love sings a song of relationship; with the man, yes, but also with the Earth.” What do you think of that description?


A: I was absolutely thrilled when she sent this to me – she gets it! At various turns in my story, I was going for soulful poetry, devilish naughtiness, hearty laughter (as in eye-rolling, you’ve got to be kidding me snorts and chuckles, and that delicious kind of belly laugh that tickles so much you cry and can’t stop), and the peace of mindful awareness.


Seeing what authors are going for – even if they don’t always get there – is one of Pam’s many superpowers. I tend to take things way too seriously, so I love being around people and animals who make me laugh. Humor is a subjective thing.


Lucky for me, Pam and I share similar perspectives beyond humor - a love for horses and dogs, the land, Iceland and the American West (Santa Fe in particular), and the great joy of our each having found an amazing man to love late in life.

Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: Pam was brainstorming on the phone with me one day. After a long time of us combing the entire book for ideas, she suggested Elk Love. I had to sit with it for a while, but the title stuck. In a literal way, it signifies the surprising mystery of unexpected intimacies in life. (Never in the world did I ever imagine feeling love for elk, but I do!)


Metaphorically, it recalls what I was learning by being quiet in nature back then. Stalking elk led me to pay fierce attention – to listen and observe everything around me in nature, to notice and appreciate what was speaking.


Exposure to elk hunting and harvesting further seasoned my sensibilities, reminding me in visceral ways that no living thing is ever separate from the sacred and inevitable cycles of death and life.


My book centers on experiences of falling in love with what is wild – in nature and in myself. To admire elk, to be in awe of their intelligence and their power, their beauty and their vulnerability; to listen to the stunning musicality of their voices; to humbly take their body into my own as sustenance so that we literally become one; to feel gratitude and deeply comforted in their presence – all of this is woven into my title.


Q: What impact did it have on you to write this memoir, and what do you hope readers take away from it?


A: I’ve been thinking a lot about how curiosity and experiences of wonder in nature – like those I describe in Elk Love – are invitations to engage in intimacies of the Spirit. And I’ve come to believe there is nothing more important in life. Follow those glimmers of wonder, no matter what!


In trying to stay open - without judgement - and be with what was unfamiliar and sometimes uncomfortable, I began to appreciate the surprising energy and intelligence of everything.


Traveling by foot or on horseback through vast grasslands, sitting quietly in woods, showing up over 12 years to write Elk Love, I learned how my presence in silence could become a kind of invitational offering; patience and kindness became ways of honoring.


By just spending time – in a rural Montana town or in the middle of deep wilderness - I learned to listen and to care. It was a new practice of allowing what was unknown to reveal itself and to come into relationship with me on its own terms, in its own ways and time.


I’ve never really had much of what is called “common sense” in life. But I am learning more about how to trust life, as it is. Through a curiosity about what is wild in nature, I’ve discovered the healing capacities of coming to know what is both precious and disturbing – in myself, and in us all.


I hope Elk Love inspires others to listen more carefully for the mysterious voices that may be speaking to them.


Q:  What are you working on now?


A: I’ve got a roughed-out draft of a second memoir that picks up where this one ends. I’m largely a visitor in Harrison’s world of ranching and hunting in Elk Love. In my second volume, I’m initiating a lot more as the astonishing adventures in our valley continue to deepen and expand.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I’ve had a longstanding fascination with the concept of alchemy and transformative experiences in life. There is a lot of alchemy in Elk Love – in the heat of things, I’m changing into someone different.


Phyllis is a playful trickster figure. Harrison is half man, half beast. We construct a lantern using willow branches that looks like a butterfly chrysalis or an egg. In another scene, Harrison and I build a bridge together over the creek we must ford to get home.


Every Zendo and monastery I’ve been to has had a bridge to cross, symbolizing the passage from one world to another. Inviting conversations with what is different or unfamiliar, building bridges of connection through awareness, seeking relationships between what is human and not human, comfortable and uncomfortable, visible and invisible…. This is where I like to live.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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