By Jeffrey V. Smith
Jane Wodening has led a fascinating life, to say the least. Thankfully, she’s written some of it down. Hear the author speak and sign her work at Blue Owl Books in Nederland, Jan. 18.
Wodening’s latest release, “The Lady Orangutan and Other Stories,” is a collection of her “more solid work,” both unpublished and from her early books, that she decided to assemble as a kind of “train of thought through a lifetime.” It is the first of four manuscripts she had on the shelf and became determined to publish when she recognized she was turning 80. “I realized that if I didn’t get these made into books, they would probably never be made into books,” she writes in the book’s preface. “One has to do things, or they won’t happen.” The book was published with the help of Nederland residents Janette and Julian Taylor and their Sockwood Press publishing company.
The book’s title comes from a story of an orangutan who helped her realize there were still things she needed to tell people. “Although they seemed obvious to me, others didn’t find them so,” she said. At first, the collection seems like a number of unconnected stories of an individual’s observations and interactions with nature, but the unique stories and writing style come together to reveal the nature of the observer. Some stories will bring a tear to the eye, while others—especially anyone familiar with mountain life—will cause spontaneous laughter or perhaps even provide a new way to think about a common problem. All, however, provide some sort of insight into how or why the world works the way it does.
Wodening’s childhood was spent in a “prudish” Chicago suburb before her family moved to Fraser, Colorado when she was 11 years old. The change was upsetting and caused her to make better friends with dogs than humans. “They seemed to understand me better than people did,” she said.
She eventually ended up in high school in Boulder and attended college before dropping out and heading to New York City. Not long after, she married avant-garde film artist Stan Brakhage and traveled the country for a few years before settling in Lump Gulch in Gilpin County. She lived in the gulch with her husband for 23 years, with five children and a yard full of animals.
After 30 years of marriage she was on her own again so she sold her house and animals and drove across the U.S. for three years. She finally came to rest in a tiny, home-made cabin with no amenities in Fourth of July Canyon above Nederland where she lived alone at 10,000 feet for almost a decade. Her only neighbors, she said, “were birds and bears.” During this time she published seven books of short stories while deepening her connection to nature and animals—which after numerous “special encounters,” she knows are sentient beings. She’s living in Denver now, but continues to write and publish books—several of which are in the works.
“I have always just been writing whatever came to me, and then seeing what I wrote and seeing what I was think,” Wodening told the MMAC Monthly. “It was almost like I was observing myself observing things. I’ve always written what I’ve observed and what I could interpret, what I learned from what I saw. I always want to understand.”
Many of the author’s books, including “The Lady Orangutan and Other Stories,” “Living Up There,” her memoir of living in Fourth of July Canyon, and “Lump Gulch Tales” contain places and people Gilpin County and Nederland locals might find familiar. Her observations of the local wildlife and nature as well as her anecdotes about mountain living will ring true for any high-county resident and provide enough universal insight to enlighten anyone to the true nature of the universe, even if just a little.
Now that “The Lady Orangutan and Other Stories,” has been released, the author intends to do several book signings and talks about what she has learned about writing.
Wodening explained she recently found an interesting piece George Orwell wrote called, “Why I Write.” In it, he points out four motives for writing. The first is for ego, to say, here I am. “That isn’t a bad thing, she said, “it has complexities to make it meaningful.” Next is the motive of beauty. Wodening said this is “to capture the beauty of something and to make a beautiful thing with words. The third motive for writing—the one Wodening thinks she’s most interested in—is to find out what happened, to get it straight, find out what exactly happened at this moment.” The fourth motive is to change the world. “A lot of people write to change the world,” she said.”
Look for Wodening’s Books at various online retailers and local outlets like Blue Owl Books, 176 Hwy. 119, in Nederland.
Originally published in the January 2015 issue of the MMAC Monthly