LATE ONE SUMMER AFTERNOON while out for a walk, my six-year-old daughter Hannah and I decide to follow some pronghorn tracks, just for practice. Tracks, as Hannah knows, are story. To follow a track is to pursue a single story line through a palimpsest landscape, a richly imbricated world of interlacing narrative possibilities, the ultimate hypertext. How fast is the animal moving, in what direction, and for what purpose? Where does it pause to observe, rest, or forage? Why is it here at this time of year and this time of day? Where is it coming from, and where is it going? The pronghorn’s trail intersects with those of jack rabbit and coyote, kangaroo rat and quail, father and little girl; its story unfolds in a particular place at a specific time and for certain reasons, only some of which are discernible by us. We engage deeply with it because we relish the language of hoof print and fur tuft and scat in which it is told, but also because, like all readers, we crave resolution.
After we have followed the antelope trail for a few hundred yards, Hannah asks, “Dad, what’s at the end of these tracks?” “A pronghorn,” I reply. “How can you be sure?” she insists. “I can’t, but that’s what I believe.” “Okay,” she says, “let’s keep going until we find it.” We follow the dual crescent moons of the socketed hoof prints another hundred yards until they crest a rise from which we look down and see a huge pronghorn buck looking up at us. “Dad, just like you said!” Hannah whispers excitedly. It was as if, in turning the pages of an autobiography, we had somehow read our way up to the author as he sat at the desk, writing.
I never figured out how to explain to Hannah that in more than thirty years of following tracks I have never — either before that day or since — walked a track right up to the animal that was making it. It was as if Hannah’s question about the outcome of the antelope’s trail had somehow called the animal into being — as if by reading the trail’s story carefully she was able to write for herself a satisfying conclusion to it. If a trail is certain evidence of our faith in things unseen, the pronghorn was for Hannah the substance of the thing hoped for.
MY WIFE AND TWO YOUNG DAUGHTERS and I live in the sagebrush steppe of the western Nevada Great Basin Desert, at six thousand feet, on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada, on an exposed hilltop that is desiccated by extreme aridity, raked by howling winds, inundated with deep snowdrifts, rocked by earthquakes, incinerated by wildfires, and inhabited by rattlesnakes, scorpions, and vultures. Hannah Virginia and her three-year-old sister, Caroline Emerson, have never known another home. To them, living in this place and under these conditions is simply what little girls do. This is the place our stories come from, by which I mean this stark, high-desert landscape holds and inspires fantastic tales, but also that it profoundly shapes the larger story of our shared lives — our human attempt to structure, articulate, revise, and interpret the narrative of our experience in the world.
When I was Caroline’s age, my father told me bedtime stories about Harry the Duck, a character of his own invention. Like my father himself, Harry was a great friend and also a comic figure. He was a resilient creature, always in a bit of trouble but perpetually able, through resourcefulness, generosity, and good humor, to escape his various predicaments — though I recall worrying that Harry might not survive some of his more harrowing adventures. When, at about two years old, Hannah seemed ready for bedtime stories, I considered making Harry an intergenerational narrative figure in our family. But as I reflected on how attached Hannah was already becoming to her desert home, a duck seemed the narrative equivalent of an invasive species, an alien figure ill-suited to the parched hills among which we live. Instead, the very first story I offered to tell Hannah was about a pair of black-tailed jack rabbits that at that time frequented the weedy sand flat that passes for our yard. “What are their names?” she asked. “Well, the older one is named . . . Peavine,” I said, quickly appropriating the name of the mountain to our south to cover for my lack of preparation. “And his little brother is Charlie!” she declared, quite out of nowhere. “Sure,” I said. “That’s right. Peavine and Charlie.”
From that moment on, Peavine and Charlie became a part of our family, and each evening I’d detail their latest adventure for Hannah before she slipped into slumber. In the early going I wasn’t a particularly resourceful storyteller, and I noticed to my disappointment that Peavine and Charlie, endearing as they were, tended to become dull, especially when I was tired, or when the frustrations of my work life impinged on the joy the jack rabbits would otherwise have sought and found. Worse still, many of my narratives seemed heavy-handed and didactic, as if the brother rabbits existed only to serve my adult need to foist moral lessons upon my daughter. I often felt that I had imprisoned poor Peavine and Charlie — who were, after all, wild animals — in a narrative cage fabricated of my own fatigue or anxiety. There were some evenings when I almost sensed the jack rabbits’ frustration with me, and they might well have wished they could step out of my bland tales and wrest control of their telling, if only to liberate themselves from the constraints of my tepid imagination.
Over time, though, Peavine and Charlie began to push back, to defy my urge to control them, occasionally rupturing the boundaries within which my stories tried to enclose them. They became less predictable, wilder, sometimes even irreverent. They would suddenly do or say things I hadn’t anticipated, taking my tales in new and sometimes dangerous directions. When the rabbit boys were challenged to a soccer match by Raven and Magpie, they secretly persuaded Packrat to urinate on the ball, since they suspected — correctly, as it turned out — that their corvid opponents would find the stench intolerable. When Peavine and Charlie were warned by their parents not to venture beyond the rim of their desert basin, they instead persuaded Golden Eagle to fly them all the way to the summit of Petersen, the highest mountain in our valley. Whereas in earlier stories the boys might have learned a valuable lesson from their disobedience, they now had the time of their lives, returned home before dinner, and were never caught. In some stories the jack rabbits even shared adventures with Old Man Coyote, an unsavory companion borrowed from native trickster tales: a witty, energetic, ingenious, libidinous, impertinent outlaw who drinks heavily, has sex frequently, farts lustily, and boasts about it all.
The most important developments in the Peavine and Charlie tales, however, came from Hannah, whose increasing involvement in their telling helped the brother rabbits to grow into three-dimensional characters. When I first began this bedtime ritual I would announce, with unassailable, adult authorial intention, the topic of the evening’s story: “Tonight I’m going to tell you about the time Peavine and Charlie went to a birthday party with the white pelicans.” And that was that. Later, Hannah began asking me to repeat stories, which I soon discovered I could not do to her satisfaction, since her memory of a story’s details was so much keener than my own. As a result of this incapacity on my part, Hannah inadvertently became a more active participant, a co-narrator who inserted and corrected details as necessary: “No, Dad, the king of the pelicans baked a chocolate birthday cake, remember?”
AS HANNAH’S ROLE in the evening storytelling grew, a new dimension emerged in our narrative collaboration. She began to ask me if I knew a particular story — but in asking she would refer to an original story rather than one previously told. For example, she might ask, without provocation or precedent, whether I knew the story about the time Peavine and Charlie flew from Nevada to Australia in a hot air balloon — a story I had never dreamed of. Hannah’s presumption was that the story existed independently of my ability to create it, and so the question was not whether Peavine and Charlie had actually flown to Australia in a hot air balloon (of course they had!), but instead whether my own limited life experience had made me familiar with that particular story. As our bedtime stories evolved, we no longer told tales of my own imagining, and we ceased repeating tales. Instead, each evening Hannah would ask if I knew the story . . . of the time Peavine and Charlie took a nap on top of a thundercloud, or the time the jack rabbits ate a bunch of fence lizards just to see if they would get a tummy ache, or the time they saw Old Man Coyote drink up the whole ocean, or the time they helped Kestrel fly so fast that it made the sun dizzy.
What came of this new phase in our evening storytelling was as remarkable as it was simple, as illuminating as it was obvious: it turned out that I did know the stories. All of them. And while Hannah expressed amazement each night that I knew every tale she suggested (asking once, “Dad, when did you have time to learn all these stories?”), I too was amazed. I was astonished at the plasticity and power of narrative to spontaneously express any set of experiences that two jack rabbits — or, by extension, a father and his daughter — might have, and in that amazement I was liberated, along with Peavine and Charlie, from the repetitive plots and moralistic conclusions that had previously constrained us. Instead of forcing my furry protagonists at narrative gunpoint toward a preconceived and didactic conclusion, the jack rabbits now led us into fields of story we had never imagined. And though the new stories were implausible, fragmented, sometimes even unfathomable, they were utterly spontaneous and fresh. They were also funnier and more engaging, though often less conclusive. Telling Peavine and Charlie stories was now like following tracks: the more attention we paid to each meandering narrative hoof print, the more certain we were that a big buck was out there, even if it remained invisible from where we stood — or lay — while telling the tale.
Soon enough Hannah was no longer simply suggesting the stories but actively helping me tell them. I’d ramble up to a particular plot point and then ask her if she “remembered” what happened next — even though the story was invariably being told for the first time. So if Peavine and Charlie were swimming across Pyramid Lake on the back of Lahontan Cutthroat Trout, I’d ask if she remembered where they swam to. “Oh, sure!” Hannah would always say at first, perhaps to give herself a moment to formulate the next passage. “They swam all the way to Anaho Island so they could eat rattlesnake eggs and visit the magic well near where the white pelicans live!” “Exactly,” I’d reply, affirming her acts of imagination, “and do you remember how they got the water out of the magic well?” “Oh, sure! They drank it up with a really, really long straw!” And on we’d go like this, taking turns telling, stitching together stories off the cuff and on the fly, without the slightest idea where we were headed, enjoying the experience immensely. We never corrected each other or felt that one person’s story had been stifled by some outrageous turn the other person interjected into the narrative. On the contrary, the delight for me came from the way the collaborative dynamic prevented the narrative from conforming to my own narrow, linear, adult expectations for how a story should proceed. Because I’m a grown-up — which I can’t help and for which I might well be pitied — I would have thought Peavine and Charlie would retrieve Anaho Island’s well water with a bucket. But, of course, I was wrong. Since they had instead used a really, really long straw, that magical water was now inside them, and it would be up to me to discern what wonderful effects it might produce. The godlike omniscient narrator was at last dead and gone; what remained was a world of uncertainty and flux, which is to say a world where it is easy to become lost, and where everything you experience feels unprecedented, inimitable, enchanted.
During this phase of our collaborative bedtime storytelling, Hannah never once implied that she viewed our stories as the product of invention, creativity, or imagination. Instead, she continued to speak of the tales as if they preceded both the tellers and the telling. As far as she was concerned, all possible stories existed, and all existed independently of our speaking them. Even in their most unexpected and peculiar details, the tales were to Hannah an infinite number of tracks that we had not made but could always follow. To her, the stories of the nonhuman beings whose lives we narrated already possessed an uneditable fullness and integrity of their own — a fantastic, preexistent logic we could never contain or control but were free to discover and express. As our collaborative storytelling progressed, I began to wonder if Hannah wasn’t somehow correct that even our wildest and most improbable narrative imaginings simply describe the world as it is. Because the world was there before us, maybe she is right that the stories were there before us too.
HANNAH, WHO WAS THREE YEARS OLD at the time, began telling baby Caroline stories almost from the moment she was born. And this introduced yet another phase in the lives of Peavine and Charlie, one that positioned Hannah as the primary teller of tales in our family. Many of the stories Hannah told her sister in that first year seemed designed to convey practical information about our home landscape. There were stories about how Peavine and Charlie learned to recognize and avoid the buzz of the rattler, and how they used snowshoes to keep from becoming trapped in the drifts, and what precautions they took when wildfire scoured the hills behind our house. In one tale, Peavine and Charlie strayed too far from home one evening but navigated back by walking toward the North Star, which Hannah carefully explained could be found near the Big Dipper’s bowl. In another, the jack rabbits wisely avoided going out after dark, since Mountain Lion might be hunting the area. In yet another, the rabbit brothers failed to carry enough water on a hike up Petersen Mountain, and so would have become dehydrated had not Raven flown to their rescue from Summit Spring carrying water in a bag sewn of balsamroot leaves.
In addition to being dramatic admonitions about scorpions and rattlers, Hannah’s stories to Caroline also functioned as an introduction to the natural history of this high desert environment. In the single story of “Peavine and Charlie’s Bird Baseball Championship,” for example, Caroline was introduced to most of the avian species that live here in summer. In the tale of the rabbit boys’ long walk to Lone Tree, Caroline was offered a fairly clear overview of kid’s-eye geomorphology: the best climbing rock, the canyon where the snow stays deep, the ridge where the stars look so bright. The story of the jack rabbits’ “Great Water Race” identified the general locations of the several natural springs within walking distance of our home, while the account of how Peavine and Charlie enjoyed a midday nap in the shade of some boulders seemed calculated to instill a potentially life-saving respect for the intensity of the desert sun here at high elevation.
I listened to these stories but never interfered with their telling, except when I was asked to help — as when Hannah couldn’t quite fill out the rosters of Peavine’s and Charlie’s bird baseball teams without me suggesting Juniper Titmouse, Say’s Phoebe, and Western Tanager. As I listened, I was amazed not only at how much Hannah had learned about her local environment, but also how clearly she could convey information through the vehicle of her Peavine and Charlie narratives. It was telling, too, that while Hannah’s stories were replete with joy and humor, they also seemed crafted to convey lessons that one’s little sister, if she intended to become a permanent inhabitant of the sagebrush steppe, would need to learn. In this sense, Hannah’s stories might be said to have adopted a touch of Dad’s didacticism, the key difference being that her jack rabbit tales were not contrived morality plays, as my moribund stories had so often been, but instead were engaging, detailed, informed local narratives that used nonhuman lives to convey valuable information about how to live well in this place. And this, it seemed to me, must be very close to the root of all stories, which from time immemorial must have sprung from the desire of one person to teach someone they love how to feel at home in the world.
IF HANNAH HAD in some senses taken on the adult role of storyteller, it was interesting how quickly Caroline consequently grew into the role that Hannah had once played. Not content with only listening to and learning from the tales, Caroline by age three wanted to help shape and guide the narratives, often blurting out suggestions that Hannah was challenged to accommodate. So, for example, Hannah would announce that she was about to tell the story of the time Peavine and Charlie discovered the buried treasure, when Caroline would stubbornly insist that the treasure was not buried but instead hidden in the crown of a cottonwood tree. Or Hannah would prepare to tell of how the jack rabbits helped California Ground Squirrel and Antelope Ground Squirrel get married, when Caroline would instead demand to hear how the rabbit boys taught the ground squirrels to play blues harmonica. I confess that it was amusing to see Hannah’s exasperation in these moments, for each time Caroline shouted out a suggestion, Hannah was compelled to relinquish her own narrative intentions and expectations, and instead follow the tracks that Caroline’s imagination was laying down. Hannah had to learn to share the stories: to view them as the fruit of collaboration with her sister, rather than as the product of her own unmediated authorial intent.
And then another wonderful thing happened. Caroline began to ask Hannah, just as Hannah had once asked me, if she “remembered the story about the time” the jack rabbits had this or that adventure — referring, as Hannah once had, to entirely new stories of her own invention. Hannah, for her part, fell naturally into the role I had formerly played, which was to reply joyfully that yes, in fact, she did remember that particular story. Although little sister was duly amazed at big sister’s wonderful capacity to “remember” all the stories she requested, Caroline nevertheless participated actively in their telling. Rather than seeing her involvement as a disruption of a stable or proprietary text, Caroline instead assumed, precisely as Hannah once had, that all the stories were simply out there in the world, preexistent and waiting to be remembered by their tellers. To listen to the girls tell Peavine and Charlie stories was not only to marvel at their imaginative capacity to empathize with the lives of jack rabbits and their other nonhuman neighbors, it was also to realize that in the girls’ world no story’s path was ever blocked, no detail unchangeable, no conclusion assumed, no possibility foreclosed. For Hannah and Caroline, the trail of a story could lead anywhere, and did.
WE ARE EACH THE HERO of our own life story, which we write daily with our actions and ambitions, failings and fantasies. If we’re fortunate, we may be able to construct ourselves as comic rather than tragic heroes, but in the end our attempt to write our lives remains tortuous and embattled. We struggle to control a recalcitrant protagonist, to impose narrative structure on a disorderly reality, to extract meaning from a personal story that is by turns fragmented, unfathomable, or mundane. And we often adhere obsessively to a preconceived storyline, even when our lived experience is painfully incongruous with it. I’m certain, for example, that those of us who are parents remain bound by a storyline within which we teach and inspire our children, helping them to mature into fine people, while also demonstrating our own wisdom and affirming our own values. But even as we wish to live our lives according to the stories we try to tell about them, we also struggle with the obdurate tensions those lives invariably present: their fractured narrative arcs and rough transitions, glaring stylistic flaws and troubling ambiguities, their tediously predictable plot points and frustrating lack of closure. Rather than embrace the inevitability of this uncertainty, we instead stubbornly fantasize that we possess infallible authorial control. As a consequence, the writing of our lives reflects an impoverishment of narrative possibility — an overreliance upon a limited set of plotlines designed to force our story toward the denouement we most desire.
I try to imagine how the world looks to a kid, but I find this increasingly difficult to do. There is something about adult perception, however finely honed it may be, that struggles to attain the sense of possibility that is instinctive to children. And while I reject utterly all Wordsworthian rhapsodies about the angelic nature of children — romantic nonsense that the odor of a single diaper plainly refutes — it does seem to me that children possess the enviable capacity to imagine and thus inhabit a world in which all stories remain possible, and in which any story may be told by anyone at any time.
What if adults lived in a world of comparable imaginative richness? What if, instead of choosing desperately from among the half-dozen threadbare plots that Hollywood sells, we asked a broader range of questions about our stories? “Do you know the one about the man who learned to love his wife?” “Will you tell about how the lady in the cubicle discovered that her work really mattered in the world?” “Do you remember the tale about the day the very old man played guitar for the first time?” “Please spin the yarn of that father who, while splitting a bucked juniper stump at dusk, suddenly looked beyond himself and witnessed alpenglow igniting the snowy flanks of Petersen Mountain.” Who knows what new questions we might ask, what new language we might ask them in, what new answers our stories might inspire. After all, no good story unfolds without surprising plot twists, and no story can determine its own conclusion. Perhaps our lives may only be written once we relinquish narrative control, allowing the tale to tell the teller — once we believe in a world in which a little girl reading the trail of a pronghorn can imagine the animal, and, through that imagining, can summon a breathing ungulate on a dusty mountainside.