The Hearthlight and Fire of David James Duncan

It’s mid-afternoon in Bellingham (WA), and a bonfire burns behind our house—split timber from last winter’s tree fall towered high and bright. An October breeze gently feeds the flames. There’s a break in a week’s worth of rain, and the wind has blown the grass dry, begging us to sit outside.  

With me is David James Duncan—the revered author, storied activist, and one of the most profound spiritual and ecological minds of our time. He’s just finished a forthcoming novel, Sun House, a sweeping 1100-page odyssey through the American West portraying what he calls “our biological and spiritually inescapable realities and the love and justice they demand.”

We’re here for a little window, and to use that time to catch and share shards of light and laughter and grace seems to me the great story.”   

                                                                                              – Brian Doyle

“I tried to stick to a more practical length, but the state of a world in which problems are no longer political, but epic, overwhelming, mythical, left me pining to pen an epic in what the praise poet Anne Porter called “an altogether different language.” I wanted this read to feel like walking El Camino in Spain, or the Pacific Crest Trail, or taking a month-long spiritual retreat in a place far from the nearest asphalt and fumes,” he says. “I’m hoping Sun House found that different language, and it’s my best and most timely work. It’s certainly been the most costly.”

How my audience with Duncan came to be is a separate story started around a much earlier fire—or an earlier reverberation of this same fire warming us today; friendships being no different than flames, the way lightning strikes for millennia have been carried from one hearth fire to light another.

Huddled behind us –as if they too were a fire—are twelve tamaracks raining amber needles like embers into our laps as broadleaf maple leaves the size of dinner plates and the color of the sun drift down around us. It’s cold out and we’re sitting close to the flames, savoring the warmth. Even my retriever reclines toward the heat, his back against the warm firepit stone and mortar walls. Nearby is a small and nearly dry spring-fed creek, a Lost Creek as its actual name predicts; its water diminished by four unprecedented summer months without rain. I’m in a hooded fleece jacket zipped tight to my chin. Duncan wears two long-sleeved, collared shirts and a hand-knitted blue scarf horseshoed around his neck, wearing it like a hug. “My daughter Celia made it,” he says.

Photo by Carson Artac


“Scattered on the acre behind you,” I tell him, “hidden under the salmonberry and sword fern are five Sequoia starts Ellie (David’s other daughter) gave me a couple of years ago. They may be the only conifers still here a few hundred years from now.” 

Holding the ends of Celia’s blue scarf while eyeing Ellie’s Sequoias, David remarks that he loves sitting in the backseat while his daughters choose the destination and drive. He says he wrote Sun House as a gift to his daughters and all the generations facing the epic and the overwhelming. “Our challenges,” he says, “have moved far beyond the political. The world situation is darkly mythic now. Epic. And requires a collectively mythic and epic response.” 

“Nothing having arrived will stay,” I remark, quoting a Wendell Berry poem, “…and yet this nothing is the seed of all—the clear eye of Heaven, where all worlds appear.” It’s a poem I hear resonant within the pages of Sun House. Inside the narrative is a sense that the womb of Earth herself harbors a smoldering warmth that cannot be extinguished, as if a maternal force hidden in the dark nothing, beneath the dirt, is waiting to become known.

“One of the most unusual things about my life,” Duncan continues, “from the time I was twenty, I’ve had many friendships with wise old women and a preference for the feminine expressions of wisdom, ongoing to this day. I drew on the saint Julian of Norwich in The River Why, and visited her home city when I was just seventeen. I draw on Julian again in Sun House, saying ‘Just as God is our Father, so God is our Mother.’ Toxic masculinity has driven our engagement with Mother Earth in the wrong direction for centuries. I heed wise women facing the direction of life, not money. As our Muscogee Nation U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo wrote, ‘Remember the earth whose skin you are.’”

Photo courtesy of David James Duncan


For the better part of my life, David James Duncan has been a treasured companion, for years now in person, far longer in his body of work. Like every Pacific Northwest river kid Huck Finn wannabe, at age sixteen, I wanted to be Gus, his protagonist in The River Why, finished in 1979 when he was just twenty-seven and published in 1983. At the time, Duncan was mowing lawns for a living in Portland, OR, and driving a Dodge Coronet with two smashed quarter panels and a door that wouldn’t open. “But it got me to the Deschutes in two hours,” he said, “and to my favorite coast streams in an hour forty-five.” Living in a $100 a-month cabin on an urban creek, finger-pecking at a typewriter, and without an agent to his name, every publisher in the country rejected his unsolicited manuscript until the Sierra Club Books changed their ‘Nonfiction Only’ policy and made The River Why their first novel. Nearly 40 years later, it’s still in print and widely considered a classic.

In 1992 his novel, The Brothers K was published, an 800-page effort he spent seven years writing, portraying a Vietnam-era American family, broken for the same reason families break today, pieced back together with deep understandings and heroic acts of forgiveness. The Brothers K earned Duncan widespread acclaim and international attention; ever relevant, it remains in print.

To say Duncan has been prolific in the three decades since The Brother’s K is an understatement, but much of his work took the form of public speaking and activism. During those decades, he published three collections of essays, including the National Book Award-nominated My Story As Told by Water. In addition, he co-authored two activist-response books—Citizen’s Dissent with Wendell Berry and Heart of the Monster with Rick Bass—while giving some fifty talks in close to as many cities. 

About Citizen’s Dissent, cowritten in 2003, Duncan says the book was “in protest of the de facto political party embodied by the so-called ‘Christian-right’ which betrays the words and example of the very Jesus it claims to love…Jesus scorned riches and embraced the poor, blessed peacemakers, not war-makers, celebrated creation, diversity, empathy, and beauty, and insisted that compassion is literally compassionate!”

In 2010, in a heroic attempt to stop Exxon-Mobil from turning 1,100 miles of Montana’s scenic byways into a primary transportation corridor for the Alberta Tar Sands via river-routed roads—including the road passing directly in front of Duncan’s house and home water, Heart of the Monster was conceived, written, and published in fewer than three months. The proposed transportation corridor would have allowed articulating trucks, larger and heavier than the Statue of Liberty, to travel alongside five iconic Western rivers. The book required tremendous personal courage from both Bass and Duncan, and in the end, their cause prevailed. 

“We went head to head with Exxon-Mobil at the time of their greatest power,” Duncan says.

“We went head to head with Exxon-Mobil at the time of their greatest power,” Duncan says, “And thousands of local heroes share the credit for stopping them. With our book, Rick and I were, so to speak, the Paul Revere figures yelling, ‘The Monster is Coming! The Monster is Coming!’ It’s still hard to fathom how our side won this fight to protect the Clearwater, Big Blackfoot, Nez Perce trail of tears, and other national treasures from being turned into Tar Sands’ tentacles. But when I drive along those rivers today, by damn, I don’t see a trace of Exxon’s ‘high and wide industrial corridor.’”

Barry Lopez described their effort best. “What David Duncan, Rick Bass, and their colleagues have done with ‘The Heart of the Monster’ knocked me across the room. They have breathed fire into a worldwide effort to make Big Oil, Big Ore, and Big Government accountable, to bring them to bay. And they have set a standard here—for citizenship, integrity, and courage.”

Amidst these involved writing and activist efforts, Duncan continued to produce stand-alone essays, published in scores of magazines and journals and over 40 anthologies, including Best American Essays, Best American Spiritual Writing (appearing five times!) and Best American Sports Writing. He also appeared in numerous documentaries. The River Why and The Brothers K were adapted and performed live on stage to sold-out performances at the acclaimed Book-It Repertory Theater beneath Seattle’s landmark Space Needle.

Most recently, Duncan edited, curated, and wrote the forward to, One Long River of Song—a vast and heartfelt collection of writings by his close friend and much-loved Portland-based writer, Brian Doyle. Published in 2019, One Long River of Song is already in its second printing. On the back jacket of the book, the poet Mary Oliver writes, “Doyle’s writing is driven by his passion for the human, touchable, daily life, and equally for the untouchable mystery of all else.” It’s a description and attribute equally applicable to Duncan’s writing as well.


Photo courtesy of David James Duncan

Yet, for the past fourteen years, Duncan has primarily been in Montana, seated at the table of Sun House, writing a vast, multi-generational novel that is a fusion of Eastern and Western traditions with a chorus of blues, folk, and gospel music. Set against the mountains and rivers of the West and told through the perspective of multiple narrators, it’s the contemporary story of rural Montanans on a twice-failed cattle ranch joining forces with a few urban refugees who swallow their City Mouse vs. Country Mouse stereotypes.

While the community and characters in the novel are fictional, the implications of their viability are pertinent, pressing, based on the very best things David has seen, and in that sense, very real. “I’ve come to believe only love and justice can work this mess out. And will,” Duncan says, “as slowly and damagingly as selfish and cynical tricksters force it to. But I still see a path forward.” He’s written about this path with the urgency of a fireman entering a house ablaze and the calm wisdom of one who’s entered conflagrations before.

His writing days are six to twelve hours long. Occasionally he takes breaks for birds, mountain walks, and an occasional cast when fishing is good (a privilege reserved for those who live on trout rivers, whose fly rods are always against the wall strung up and at the ready.

David told me, “I’ve seen countless op-eds calling for a change of consciousness if humanity is to survive. I’ve seen zero op-ed descriptions of what this consciousness looks, feels, tastes, sounds, and lives like from day to day. That’s the void Sun House sets out to fill because that’s the void plaguing countless human lives.”

“Needed changes of consciousness are the through-line in my fiction, from The River Why to The Brother’s K and on to Sun House,” Duncan says, “and it will remain a through-line. Charles Eisenstein, an activist I admire, recently said in an essay titled ‘On the Great Green Wall, and Being Useful’—“To heal the world, people must no longer be treated as standardized producers, functionaries, or medical objects in a global industrial system. Not only does this alienate them from the local knowledge and relationship needed to heal the places where they live, it creates legions of superfluous human beings.” 

“Beginning with those wise, older women befriended when I was young…most of the people I’m closest to lead lives that are not only not superfluous, they’re heroic,” David adds. “I reference scores of these people in the epigraphs that open each chapter of Sun House, like these words from Meister Eckhart: ‘When the soul wants to experience something, she throws an image out in front of her, then steps into it.’…This statement reminds me of how you and your firehouse brothers step into a fire, Jimmy, ‘soul first’, and I admire that.”

Adding logs to the fire, I mention a paradox I’m well acquainted with as a fireman: the way water is taken into the darkness toward flames, where the light hides. “Inside a house on fire,” I say, “it’s complete darkness…ink black.” Duncan listens; his eyes are the color of a coastal river. “So, we navigate by feel and sound, searching for life and the seat of the flames, both felt well before they’re seen, inching toward them until a sun appears…We don’t put water on the fire until we’re nearly on top of where it’s hottest. The only way this is accomplished is with love, and it can’t be accomplished alone. Here firefighters can only navigate in unison, with literal, physical contact and a complete change of consciousness, turning entirely away from the self.”

As dusk arrives, and the shadows from the sun have all but disappeared, we move closer to the fire, and I remember something his friend Barry Lopez wrote before passing, “There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of leaning into the light.”

Photo by Carson Artac


This Duncan has done his whole life. Surrounded by darkness save the glow of the fire and its reflection against his face, his heartfelt truths and compassion are radiant. I can see it. The trees see it, as do the lost creeks. As do the hundred-billion suns in the night sky above us. Listening to him talk next to the fire, it strikes me that Duncan, now seventy, has become an elder—a guide, one comfortable both in this world and the other, the inner. His stories read like gospels—where the word is the water, ‘where all worlds appear, and where Duncan is carrying it with cupped hands. 

“We’re here for a little window,” his close friend, Brian Doyle, said, “and to use that time to catch and share shards of light and laughter and grace seems to me the great story.”

“What’s next?” I ask, to which Duncan replies with the expected itinerary of an author with a completed book—the back and forth with the publisher, book tours, readings, etc., and he has other works on the backburner too. But that’s not what I’m asking about and he knows it.

“In response to Barry’s insight that the great questions have no answers,” he says, “I find the unanswerable to be a reminder that I was born lost, but in creeks and rivers began to be found. Watersheds remain a place of pilgrimage, wild salmon an internal compass, rivers prayer wheels, industrialized rivers blues tunes, dying birds prophets and guides, wild places as small as weeds blooming in the cracks of city sidewalks a momentary home.” 


Photo by Carson Artac


Before retiring for the night, I try to describe to Duncan an experience I hold dear but can’t very well express, “Either I don’t have the words,” I tell him, “or by putting words to it, I’ll diminish the experience. I’m not sure which. Maybe it’s both.” David encourages me by saying what his late friend William Kitteridge said, that ‘secret’ and ‘sacred’ are basically synonymous.

“I see her, sometimes in dreams and sometimes awake. I once saw her in a house on fire. But most often, she appears on the far banks of rivers, ankle deep, holding a fistful of field daisies, smiling beneath chestnut eyes and long brown hair. It’s silly…” I admit. “She’s an image, an imagination, an apparition, or an angel. Or maybe she’s only a memory. I just know that I love her, and when she’s there, I drop my fly at her feet hoping she’ll pick it up.”

“One of the heroines of Sun House might tell you,” David answers, “that words aimed at such an event are trying to catch a thunderhead in the gopher trap of American English. But, from your long, sometimes impossibly intense friendship with fire and water, Jimmy, you know as well as anyone that the greatest love de-selfs us, making of us itself…So the story-telling problem you face here is wonderful: there are mysteries far greater than words or stories can contain.”

An Afterward, of sorts.

Hours after saying goodnight and unable to sleep, I’m lying awake beside our open bedroom window as the faint fragrance of smoke wafts in from the untended fire that’s long since gone out. It’s the black of night, ink black. From my angle of repose, even the starlight is unseen through the tree line and canopy and clouds, hidden. I can’t see outlines or shadows. Outside the dark vacancy of the window, I can’t see anything at all, but she’s there. I hear her whispers. They float on the back of warm ash in the breeze and are just as quiet—wordless and uncontained, sharing a secret and saying the purpose of all that we do connects us forever.

Jimmy Watts lives in Bellingham, WA, with his wife, their two sons, and a golden retriever.  An award-winning writer, his work has appeared in American Flyfisher, the Drake, and Orion magazine, among others. He is also the craftsman behind Shuksan Rod Company’s split cane bamboo fly rods, and for the past 22 years, has been a professional firefighter in downtown Seattle.

Carson Artac is a Bellingham, WA-based commercial and editorial photographer. When not behind the camera, he’s often mountain biking, fly fishing, or surfing. Much of the inspiration for his work comes from those magical moments of flow while pursuing these practices.

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