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Oregon Literary Fellowship Recipient: Siobhan Ruby McConnell

We’re excited to be featuring the 2016 Oregon Literary Fellowship recipients on our blog this spring! The applications for 2017 fellowships are due Friday, June 24, 2016 and you can read the guidelines and download an application by clicking here.


2016 Oregon Literary Fellowship Recipient

Siobhan “Ruby” McConnell


Literary Nonfiction


Siobhan Ruby McConnell  is a registered geologist, environmental educator, dancer, and adventuress who writes about the intersection of the environment and human experience. Her published works include professional geologic papers, personal essays and articles, her blog, Ruby Gone Wild, and her recently released her first book, A Woman’s Guide to the Wild.

Q&A with Literary Arts

1. What are your sources of inspiration?

I draw inspiration from the natural world, especially the broader landscapes of the Pacific Northwest. I’m particularly interested in the ways in which natural processes mirror and influence the human experience and how our lives are recorded by the world around us.

2. How would you describe your creative process?

Messy. I typically start with a strong central thematic element, often just a single word, and write everything I can about it and anything it inspires. From there, I take the whole mess and weave a more cohesive narrative. I usually end up cutting at least half of what I write.

3. What is most exciting about receiving a fellowship?

I’ve really enjoyed the opportunity to meet the broader Oregon literary community. Also, paying bills.

4. What are you currently working on?

I am working on a collection of place-based personal essays centered on the Pacific Northwest and the concept of the home-place.

5. What advice do you have for future applicants?

Keep trying. Rejection is an opportunity to revise, use it as fuel rather than being discouraged.

OLF Judge’s Comments

McConnell’s work is timely and significant, and daring—a radical exploration and understanding “that environmentalism cannot be about restoration, that the window for reversal has closed, that now, it is a matter of survival.”  Her current project, Home for You, avows to, among other themes, “enhance our understanding of environmental systems and processes” as well as “recognizes that the female relationship to the natural world is unique and valid and our voices and perspective are inherently valuable to the environmental debate.”  McConnell’s “multifaceted” project won me over; it is textured and interactive—nonfiction that is candid and creative.

—Sherry Lee

Excerpt from current work:

At the Counting Window

For three months now I have been thinking about the salmon.  It started, somehow, in thinking about home, or nesting, or love.  Or perhaps it was the receipt of bad news, an old friend, long sick, passing on; the anniversary of another friends death.  I had just returned from long travel.  At first it was just the word, salmon, that came to mind, mostly in times of melancholy, or whenever I was trying to focus on getting things done. Then it was images, the rush of water, silver-green streaks of light with both sadness and joy. Then memories; my mother with a camera urging me as a very small child to stand still as my father, just home from fishing, dangles a Chinook next to me for scale. In quiet times, I have begun to watch them jump upstream in my minds eye, reaching, over and over again. I have been under some stress.

Now, in the solitude of winter, I revel in these moments with the salmon.  I find the photo in an old album. In it, my father grins broadly next to us as I carefully consider my cohort. I sit on the porch of my house in the trees, close my eyes and let the salmon jump. I take deep breaths.  For a moment, my mind shifts to the holidays, freshly over. I think I should have brought a cup of tea out with me.  Or some whiskey. I wonder how many eggs each salmon mother lays, if she will ever know how many children she has. I return to the stream. I eat a stale cookie and think about Christmas. The thought that my parents are getting old emerges. I’m tired. I must be getting old too. I think about a recent visit with a good friend who told me that we are all responsible for keeping ourselves above the water.

I am an Oregon native; like the wild salmon the streams of my youth trace back to a single source descending first to the Willamette, then the Columbia, then out to the Pacific Ocean. Like all Oregon children, the story of the return of the wild salmon to their native headwaters year after year to spawn and die has been pressed upon me like the grooves of a well-worn album. How they are first shunted out down rapids and into the salty shock of the open ocean where they gorge themselves on Bait fish. How they return, by scent, to the river’s mouth and begin the long and arduous climb to their spawning grounds, the grounds of their parents, and their parents before them. How there, after spawning, they die and nourish the waters for the next generation.

The stories describe the salmon as prodigal sons, overcoming all obstacles, debris, dams, fishing nets, and sea lions. They tell of the salmon as Pacific gold, the life-blood of the Northwest people and the keepers of traditions. In the best of these stories, the bravest of the warriors are the salmon of the Columbia River run; my run. These are the salmon that once ran so thick the fisherman could walk across their backs to make the river crossing. These are the salmon forever immortalized in pictures of the native fishermen, on wooden platforms, salmon jumping the falls over their heads. These are the salmon I see now behind closed eyes. How do they know what to do? I wonder. Why do they fight so hard?


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