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Wonder Spot

From THE PAINTED FOREST

The Dells of the Wisconsin River (1856): For Recreation Resort to the Dells! Where depressed spirits can be alleviated, gloom and melancholy soon be dispelled and the mind become Greatly invigorated. Leroy Gates has purchased a pleasure Boat for the purpose of penetrating the numerous occult caves of the Dells.

Evidence of human attempts at luring are here in all these excavated lots and parcels, these sums of money once borrowed from the bank, this old resort cabin now sheltering earwigs and mice, the Eastern European college students who wake to interim American lives, to jobs as fudge confectioners or laser tag cashiers. This small Wisconsin settlement, the kind of town that might have centered itself around the Catholic Church, the family farm, the local tavern, instead hunkers down on the banks of the Wisconsin River, surveys the sandstone scenery banking upriver and down, and takes its communion by peering down at the promise that never stops eddying in froth and darkness here. 

It was from this spot, or these “Dells,” that local river pilot Leroy Gates first made the bid in 1856 to beckon the tourists forth. An offer of “Great invigoration”—later coupled with stereoscopic photos of the place—would generate the eager eye and middle-class pocketbook of the new nineteenth-century tourist: the Chicagoan, the Milwaukeean, the men working the desks of Saint Paul. From the start, there were tourists and there were locals; currency, that is, to be removed from your pocket and placed into mine.

In THE PAINTED FOREST, Krista Eastman uncovers strange and little-known home places—not only the picturesque hills and valleys of her childhood in rural Wisconsin, but also tourist towns, the under-imagined and overly caricatured Midwest.In 1960, John Steinbeck became one of the many tourists to pass by here in answer to Gates’s call. Born of a short stay occurring more than fifty years ago, his written observations are oddly complete. He mused over a seashell collection, one he was surprised to find in a place “which hasn’t known a sea since pre-Cambrian times.” He didn’t fail to note “the merchants of the cheap and mediocre and tawdry,” but he also approached the river with awe, speculating that its unusual rock formations might contain “the engraved record of a time when the world was much younger and much different.” When all present-day jet skis cease to advertise their individualism, having sputtered back to port for the night, the river and its formations do still suggest and invite a keeping and recording of time. These sandstone cliffs have the sedimentary look of history after history rolled out, a delicate sequencing, a careful brushing down. Up close, there is a beauty and endurance peculiar to this place—to this soft orange bedrock smelling strangely of five hundred million years gone by, and to the dank and secret quality of the river’s caves, canyons, and gulches. But again, up close, a similar level of scrutiny reveals other sorts of records being kept here, ledgers on profits and ensnarement, lists engraved on the lips of good witnesses, locals who will not forget.

Still alive are the names of the many boats that have traveled this river in remunerated quests for scenery, “Indian” culture, and the fresh air of the Wisconsin wild: the steamboats Modacowanda, Dell Queen, and Winnebago; the all-steel twin screws Red Cloud and Marquette, Joliet and Yellow Thunder; and now—given the current appetite for jet boat thrill rides—the nameless blurs performing splashy “power stops” before towering cliffs of sandstone. Fast, this is the newest promise made here on a river whose man-made dams have entirely reined in its once pregnant rise to rapids. And yet the river, and its role as watery platform for escape, is no longer even the half of it, just as the jet boat’s offer to transport you quickly is now far from the only one of its kind. One hundred fifty years of fabricated attraction will give way to some of the most varied offers ever made here on Earth: a deer park with large signage that has advertised the opportunity to 

FEED AND PET THE DEER!

since local time immemorial; restaurants, hotels, mini-golf courses, water parks, and bars themed to suggest you are (all at once) in the Caribbean, encountering Native American traditions, living like Paul Bunyan, on an African safari; and generously numerated offers like this one: “37 steep and slippery slides, 6 hair-raising roller coasters and 8 curve-hugging go-kart tracks, all sitting on 156 acres of adventure.” These days, it is not enough for a store to simply stand ready to be entered, offering only itself or its contents. Something must also be promised in big bold letters, lest the store go unnoticed by eyes just then taking in thirty other offers to exchange. Here, everyone understands perfectly when you emblazon

YOU NEED IT?  WE GOT IT!

on a panel stretching the entire length of your store’s exterior wall. The skies just behind this same panel fill with roller coasters that pile on one truss at a time, cranking out mechanical routes to the heavens.

And yet as eyewitness I might be guilty of something here. I’ve begun with a bit of natural beauty, given it the sheen of gold, and then finished with a physical cobbling on, a smorgasbord of plastic thrills grown large enough to obscure the hearts of people and noisy enough to silence entirely what could be the sound of a river if, in fact, the sound of the river was the descriptive detail that got chosen. When faced with so many neon grabs for the pot, it is tempting to paint only with the wide strokes of Americana, or to lay the groundwork for an easy allegation of greed and consumerism all around. It is easy, again almost natural, to classify tourists as materialist drones consuming the world in increments and pieces, just as it is also easy to define the local population by their open pockets. Harder, though, is to put one’s finger on the Everyplace pieced together by these transactions. “Escape,” the bumper sticker used to read, “to Wisconsin.” To this town come people who wander in awkward states of not knowing and not known, who surrender much and surrender often in their search for escape. Promises flicker and twist at a dizzying pace. Eddying, after all, is when water doubles back, turning out a small whirl.

— — —

 

The Wonder Spot (1952–2006): No one stands erectly, sees correctly, or walks a straight line as things that appear to be quite normal are just the opposite. You’ll be mystified at what you experience in this small corner of the world where the laws of nature have gone awry. Would you believe that your sense of balance and perspective have deserted you?  Water flows uphill, pendulums hang crookedly, and chairs balance on only two legs. The Wonder Spot defies the law of gravity as natural forces tilt you up to unexplainable angles. Discovered in 1948, the Wonder Spot has baffled its visitors for over 40 years. You have to see it to believe it!

The Captain bounces on wiry muscle and loose joints, shoots the river his grin.

“This. Place. Is. Funny.” He stands in ritual at the helm of his small tour boat, his hand fidgeting on the innermost circle of its wooden wheel. It appears he’s seen something on shore and this something has set him to smiling. Leaning away from the controls, he pours himself another Styrofoam cup full of coffee and adjusts the black locks he keeps pushed up into a cap. “What?” I ask, “What is it?”

“This place is fun-ny!” the Captain says again, this time in a dark tavern downtown where a bachelorette party, recently alighted from its rental bus, plays “Suck for a Buck,” offering men the opportunity to suck Lifesavers off the T-shirted breasts of the intoxicated bride-to-be.

This Captain could tally up more than five decades of living here, more than enough time to observe purchased discovery playing out in vacation-long increments, or to see each Memorial Day bring in a new crew of workers, any of whom might eventually disappear into the relief of Labor Day, their pockets heavy with cash and anonymous leave-taking. A middle-aged man who has supped again and again from the fountain of youth, the Captain’s bearing nonetheless shows a stalwart accumulation of years. His “Welcome aboard” and “Sit back and relax” and “Thank you, come visit us again” are easy and unforced. And yet, in private, he speaks in language measured by years of analysis and theory. His is the speculative language of the researcher who has undertaken a lifelong study, who, upriver and down, navigates the same five miles of river, over and over again asking why.

When visiting the Captain at work, I stand at his boat’s entrance, hands clasped behind my back, feet cast slightly apart, smiling and greeting each of his customers as they board. I also spring off the boat as it’s docking, grabbing its lines and twisting them into half hitches on the cleat, smiling once again. “Have a good night,” I can’t help but say to his passengers, an old, practiced sincerity automating all over again. Compared to the Captain, I have put in only a few years of study here. Ushered into the adult world at least partially by the experience of working in this town, emerging from it with what may be the requisite amount of skepticism, I worked summers here from ages fourteen to twenty-two, spending the last four of those years as a tour guide on the river, at the heart of the oldest industry, either holding a microphone to my flapping mouth, or floating pleasantly about the small all-steel vessel as I asked my brood of eighty if they had any questions

“How deep’s the river?”

Generally speaking most of the river we’re traveling on today is about thirty- to forty-feet deep, but we do travel over a section that is about eighty-feet deep. I’ll point that out to you as we come to it.

“Why’s the water so brown?”

Because of a natural substance called tannin or tannic acid, which is found in the tamarack and hemlock trees that grow north of here, and which naturally makes its way into the water. Actually, a lot of ponds and lakes in Northern Wisconsin are also similarly dark in color.

“Miss, what did you say you’re majoring in?”

English and French.

“What are you going to do with that? Teach?”

Is it after two years of this work or two days that all tourists start to seem the same? Come morning, passengers board, come evening, they disembark. The sun will then rise on the group of them, in line with tickets, waiting again the next day. After a while, there is no question you’ve never been asked, few kids you haven’t seen smacked. There are hardly any religions to which you haven’t been converted, no accent you can’t place. Even tourists who grow self conscious and clever, who watch you in just such a way, who want you to know they realize full well that this, their change of scenery, is your everyday grind, who are capable of remarks that mock this place, this tour, this tourism, even these people are merely an average day to you. Such repetition should make it difficult to keep watching. And yet, after purveying your daily myth, after sitting down in final silence, smile turned off, the boat heading back to port, it’s good to be wary, to wonder at these passengers who doze and cuddle, who relax all of a sudden, who have hastily rummaged through your offer of escape until at last—experiencing something, experiencing nothing—a silence falls and not a single desire can be heard over the bellow of the boat’s Chevy engines.

In sociologist Dean MacCannell’s classic The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class, he writes, “Just as the great lighted signs at Las Vegas can be converted into sights, it is possible to transform the tourists themselves into attractions.” The tourists, yes, but everything else too, every single wayside promise. When the Captain says to me yet again, “This place is funny,” I know the moment well, but I know it by the impulse he has helped work into my bones, the way the refrain keeps me on course. The sentence may fall in mystery from the Captain’s lips, but what he means is that there’s never a bad time to lay claim to your wonder, to take a long look around, to wryly catalog how the laws of nature can astound.

— — —

 

Xanadu (1980–1990): The original Xanadu was a palace seen in a poet’s dream....A house built of insulation. A house which is inexpensive and energy efficient: solar heated and furnished with appliances and conveniences which are guaranteed to influence home design. The basis of Xanadu’s construction is the spraying of polyurethane foam insulation on the inside of large hemispheric balloons. After the foam cures, the balloons are removed, leaving a very strong dome structure resistant to the elements. Tour at your leisure 12 newly decorated contiguous domes featuring: Balloon Form Construction, Climate Room & Spa, Home Computer, Solar Collector, Champagne Glass Bed, Children’s “Swiss Cheese” Room, Wind Generator Room, Habitat Room, Super Spa, and Geodesic Room. Xanadu is a practical and plausible application of futuristic products of today.

I imagine Chuck Anderson, Master Teacher, to have been here once or twice when still a little boy, a child meandering down river roads that in his day were lined with little more than a humble series of small cabin resorts. That’s purely conjecture and yet, being a Chicagoan, what a local might call a FIB (fucking Illinois bastard), it’s quite likely that the Master Teacher was a tourist in the Dells before buying real estate here. From 1992 until his death in 2008, Master Teacher built here a spiritual community formally known as the New Christian Church of Full Endeavor. It would grow to include dormitories, a Miracles Healing Center, the Endeavor Academy, several businesses, and at least one satellite campus abroad. And while the New Age persuasion of those entering the academy might suggest that physical location is beside the fact, I couldn’t help but notice that the academy’s location wasn’t beside the point, not quite. Instead, it was beside the Dells of the Wisconsin River, beside promise upon promise already whirling for well over a century, promises already gathering car-bound crowds come to be altered on site.

During Master Teacher’s lifetime, the Endeavor Academy was known to many locals as simply “The Cult,” a designation shared by some former members as well as the cult expert Rick Ross, who told CBS News in 1999 that “it appears to be a destructive cult.” Outside its oldest and largest restaurant, one of several sources of community income, sat the occasional car or two, “For Sale” signs in the windows marking someone’s decision to enter what Master Teacher called the “mind training.” In those early years, it was difficult for locals to know or understand what was happening inside. The new community members’ reluctance to socialize with outsiders plus the town’s natural proclivity for gossip and suspicion together ensured that the academy remained shrouded in almost titillating mystery. The Captain had a friend who used to be one of the academy’s food suppliers.

“Trust me,” the Captain said to me one day, mouth full of mirth, “he could tell you stories.”

For most, a trip to the restaurant provided the easiest window in. A converted cheese factory with decor eerily suggestive of, say, a future-obsessed 1953, the restaurant also featured an old, immaculate soda fountain, a glass case operating as leisurely carousel of large, frosted desserts, and a half dozen lean and attractive waitstaff, people whose accents often revealed other native tongues and whose bowties or flowery skirts fused odd bits of disparate kitsch— something like the favorite sweater of rural Austria meeting the bobby socks of the all-American, silver-streaked diner.

The atmosphere strove for throwback but also remained strangely monochromatic, pleasantly flat, as if it were a powder someone had been charged with blowing in through the vents. On any one visit, those same lean and attractive waitstaff would wander to and fro tables, untouched by all stress or urgency, joyfully delivering high-fat and high-sugar vegetarian foods, the consumption of which tended to override all autonomy, leaving you inert, heavy, vulnerable. What just happened? I’d take to wondering yet again as I waddled out the double doors full and curious, stopping only to drop more of my suspicion onto the giant stocks of flowers lining the entrance’s pathway. It was here, at this restaurant, that I also saw the Master Teacher in person for the first and only time. An old man with falsely black hair, he walked slowly into the restaurant with a smile tucked into the elastic folds of his lips. The sight of him caused the staff to illuminate on the spot, elation seeming to push their bodies up on the tips of their toes, an eagerness to be noticed by him raising their shoulders.

On another visit many years later, I picked up a free Master Teacher DVD entitled The Production of the Story of a Course in Miracles on display near the register. I took it home and watched breathlessly as the Master Teacher shuffles onto camera, removing his jacket. He nods, says, “Hello. Hello,” his cartoonish eyebrows shaped like vise grips coming together and pushing apart again, his shoulders bobbing as if to music. “Are you okay?” he asks almost inaudibly, breaking again and again into an intense smile, an almost joyous smirk, that lasts uncomfortably long. Through much of the DVD, he leans towards the camera, a forearm on his knee, with tiny dark eyes staring so relentlessly at the camera that his blinking feels monumental, his lids opening and closing on some other world. Devoted to my wonder, I transcribed, connecting his words, assembling his sentences.

This is a very special day because in the mind training, you’ve decided to take the spirit of energy of love and multiply it in the idea, okay, of, in the idea of being, well, here in this cycle, aren’t you? …

Now, obviously the problem that you have is when you examined it in your frame, I become what you think is an eighty-year-old body with all sorts of memory. I don’t do that. I don’t know how to do that. I’ve taken a frame of reference of the joy I’m feeling about myself and letting it represent the small location in which I find myself by not resisting the idea and accumulating something else within my mind. What am I actually doing in the miracle? Shortening time. …

Reminding you that you can shorten the interval of time in which you’re representing yourself with a whole universe out there, okay, 14,000 million years it’s been out there, and you’ve been here for a fraction of a second, and what you do is, rather than let it accumulate in you, you take a hold of it and you hang onto it and have another instant of death within your own association. …

It’s going to make you very happy.

At certain intervals, text scrolls vertically on the screen, disappearing as Master Teacher’s voice reads it. Other times music is played, a welcome reprieve from the work of figuring out how to shorten time. And Master Teacher often sings along. When “Unchained Melody” begins playing, Master Teacher’s wrinkled eyes turn to pour out their love, and he gazes down at the camera as if looking down into the tear-streaked face of God himself. “You’re the one I’ve been looking for,” Master Teacher says. There is a pause. “A conversion technique of the energy of reflected light can bring you an image as suddenly right now as it did a thousand years ago....A thousand years from now. I’m going to show you.” There is a pause. And then—right then—the Righteous Brothers chime in on perfect cue, a high-pitched “I ne-eeed your love,” and Chuck Anderson, Master Teacher, smiles.

Twice this man will focus his small and earnest eyes on my own, lean into and across the screen’s plane, violate our otherwise easy separation, and say to me with a touch of amusement, “I’m the Master Teacher. I don’t get old, I can’t get sick, and I don’t die!” After I hear it the second time, I stop the DVD and take off for elsewhere, for the kitchen, where I plunge fingers into dishwater, eager just then for my hands to do earthly work. Chuck Anderson, as it’s beginning to turn out, promises what could be a startling occurrence, a miracle. The Master Teacher, having escaped a universe tyrannized by the time dimension, offers up the mind vacation, eddying without end.

— — —

 

Stand Rock Indian Ceremonial (1929–1997): Greetings friend! And an invitation from the Native Americans of Wisconsin Dells to join in our celebration of Life . . . and Love of Country, through the art of ancient tribal dances. Performed nightly under the stars in a beautiful, natural rock ampitheatre [sic]. An educational treat for the entire family!

We became fluent in nonsense. Our next point of interest will soon be sliding into view on your right. You’re looking for a formation that resembles a buttery stack of pancakes. Studded with what we call “points of interest,” the boat tour was often like this, like it had almost always been. Points of interest are rock formations sculpted by wind, water, and frost erosion, and imagined into a variety of shapes: Chimney Rock, the Baby Seal, the Naked Lady, the Navy Yards, Hawk’s Beak, Fat Man’s Misery, Demon’s Anvil. In fact, few outcroppings of rock or fern-lined ravines went unnamed here, where the tour boats have for years passed all day long, from April to October, a guide directing peoples’ gazes to the same views again and again. Our words placed stories and likenesses onto silent bits of rock and root (Giant’s Shield! Sunset Cliffs! Steamboat Rock!), making tidy increments of this sliver of universe. We knew that this particular iteration of escape—the suggestion of new air, new experience, the bittersweet loveliness of one’s own wake—would be recognizable to many. That it would stand mapped and ready for pre-prescribed discovery, its own collective taking.

As the captain swings the boat around, two towering cliffs on either side of the river will soon be sliding into view on the starboard side of the vessel. I’d been barely aware of speaking, or facing my passengers, or using my left arm to point straight out at the cliffs, or of the eyes that clambered along the angle of that same arm, straining to see what it was I told them to. Called the Lower Jaws of the Upper Dells, or sometimes the Gateway to the Upper Dells, these cliffs mark the official start of our tour here today. I did notice, however, that a couple in their late thirties sitting just before me, cozying up to the helm, smiled as they leaned forward and into my tour. Watching them now and again, my words ran along unchecked and I thought about different things altogether. Off to the right side of the bank is High Rock, rising about sixty feet out of the water. And, if you scan over to the left, that’s—uh—. What was the name of that one? I’d identified it a thousand times before, most recently, in fact, two hours previously.

“Romance Cliff!” the couple in front whispered to me simultaneously, leaning toward me in swooping rescue. The man, his manner conspiratorial, mouthed the words to me again, earnestness in the round O of his eyes: “Ro-mance. Cliff.” Later this couple would tell me they’d taken this tour dozens of times, that they loved it here, that they came back each year for their anniversary. But in that moment my stuttering, my grappling for the right name, stretched longer still, the boat’s passengers all waiting now for my sentence to finish unfurling itself. I stood silent, microphone in hand.

This is Romance Cliff, and it stands about seventy-five feet out of the water, I finished, feeling somehow chastened by this nice couple, now calm and nodding. Generally speaking the waters we’ll be traveling over today are about thirty- to forty-feet deep. We will, however, pass over some spots in excess of eighty feet deep, and I’ll be sure to point those out to you as we come to them. Again, I was back on track and talking but still I turned to something else. I wondered at my part in excavating this place’s promises, bringing them to life in language, asking of everyone all day every day, Do you see it? Do you see Beauty A, B, and C? [Pause.] Beauty D approaches.

Once, worn out and close to done with my job for the season, I stumbled into an accidental experiment in the unscripted. I said to a tourist, “The Devil took over the Dells in 1962,” and then immediately regretted it. Unlike the many canned responses I’d honed over several seasons of guiding, this one halted conversation, the tourist now feigning interest in his feet. Together, we moved down our canyon boardwalk in silence.

I knew that I was meant to have chosen more wisely.

The steel planks for this walkway were put in here in 1954.

The first concession stand was built back here in the late 1800s.

The first boat tours are believed to have taken place as early as 1856.

It’s going to make you very happy.

— — —

 

Storybook Gardens (1956–2010): WALK THROUGH THE GATES—You look across a pond studded valley to the rolling hills beyond. In this attractive setting you mingle with the old favorites—you come face to face with those storied characters almost forgotten in the rush and hustle of modern living. Here you can—TALK with little Bo-Peep—you’ll be surprised and delighted with her stories about sheep. SEE the “Three Men” sailing in their “tub.” HEAR the Fiddlers Three, serenading Old King Cole. PET the tame goats cavorting with Jack; the Jack of candlestick fame. FEED the Three Little Pigs, marveling the while at their well-built brick house. SNAP A PICTURE of that youngster “eating” porridge with the Three Bears. LAUGH with the Happy Clown who dominates the landscape and keeps an eye on things in general. All Roads Lead to Storybook Land where you will find a large paved, free parking lot.

Away from the docks and away from the river, summer heat seeps into the concrete sidewalks and streets that support dozens of souvenir stores, a wedding chapel, countless burger bars, a haunted house, various thrill-oriented museums. Cars and SUVs stop end-to-end, inching forward through lights, their drivers honking horns at other cars carrying other people on other vacations. Here, as elsewhere, garish signs assault and attract the eye. Here, as elsewhere, there are lots and parcels and the latest attempts at luring built up and over and squeezed next to previous attempts, which sometimes need painting or updating. If there’s any hum at all it’s the panicky hum of consumption, the stress of a Suburban making a left-hand turn, the chatty excitement of children always on the verge of swimming, the irritation of locals trying to get home. Here, at street level, the divide between local and tourist becomes the easiest distinction to make, simple to turn over in one’s hand. In ticket booths, slick-haired youth promise families a savings of 35% on a dizzying succession of attractions and, as their clients pay up, calculate the commission they’ve just made in their heads. Heads of household then look anxiously into one another’s eyes as they discuss the offer, one of them returning a wallet to the jeans or purse, a symbol of power now on its unsteady trip home. While the local may cultivate a certain vacancy in the eye, remove herself from her own motions, the tourist will often seize upon this place and do so brick by brick, exclaiming at discoveries in language the detached local has heard a thousand times before. Such divisions can give way to under-the-breath usage of FIB or, from the tourist’s point-of-view, assumptions that locals are greedy, insular, and provincial, merely the dull stewards of this, a commercialized playground.

But perhaps this tired distinction also explains the strange appeal of the perversion that played out on the restaurant floor of the old cheese factory. Here I witnessed the microcosmic twist on the usual transaction between the usual characters. This time, bemused locals and near locals purchased something from the strangely vacant insider. In short, it was our turn to be the outsider on a visit, to purchase meekly from people who—though they may not have believed we existed as surely we felt that we must—would nonetheless create and market frosted rooms for us to move around in. Here, I suspect it was my own witlessness that was on display, and so I watched the Endeavor Academy members carefully as they crossed the restaurant floor in funny pants, my chocolate-flavored Coke in hand.

I wonder. How did the words of the Master Teacher affect these warmly humming heads? How is it that these sounds can produce such outward calm? (“Instead of trying to analyze conceptually what you’re doing you’re letting yourself be what conception is!”) Beneath those light and pleasant cake-proffering movements, was there a woman from Escanaba, Michigan, come by the Dodge Neon now for sale outside, a man from Oslo just in by train? Was there a person with a past life now invisible but still sweating, someone still trying to sort through something, sort through nothing, make a new kind of sense? Master Teacher says, “And right now I am well and I am whole and I am here. Let that be the truth if you don’t examine it!”

But still, I wonder.

— — —

 

“This place is funny,” observes the Captain.

Chuck Anderson died in May of 2008 at the age of eighty- three. The man who once told CBS News “I’m going back to heaven. I can leave for heaven at this instant,” and that “everybody” was going with him, was survived by hundreds of academy members. They continued to live by the banks of the river, to take my credit card, to return with the slip for me to sign, my first name familiar but my surname etched, temporarily, Tourist.

“This place is funny,” the Captain says from time to time, habitually, again.

And perhaps what he means is that on the banks of this river, in this occult and commercial town, the act of beckoning crowds to this spot—promising the mere possibility of escape—has very often been enough. What he could also mean is this: the true attraction comes on our penniless day of departure, when crowds finally head home in lines and in silence, their desires still whole but behind them, tangled into the wonder spot’s attempt to eddy and alter, into all this gaudiness, all that mercy.

 

This selection from The Painted Forest, by Krista Eastman, is reprinted with permission of the author and West Virginia University Press.

 

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Krista Eastmanis the author of The Painted Forest, which Poets & Writers named one of the five best literary nonfiction debuts of 2019.

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