This summer, I’m going to teach an online course called “Thinking Small to Write Big.” I’ve never taught this course before; the idea emerged from my book Small: The Little We Need for Happiness as a way to incorporate all I’ve discovered about small into teaching writing. But until yesterday, although I’ve written a detailed outline, the course remained an abstraction.
Then, after visiting my friend Susan in Chico, CA, I stopped in the tiny town of Colusa to take some photos. While driving to Chico and back might be accomplished more quickly sticking to the interstates, I love the back country roads through Arbuckle, Durham, Princeton, and Glen, walnut orchards and rural businesses keeping me company for at least an hour of my three-hour drive. On the back roads, I can count on coming upon views or small scenes that inspire me to stop and take photos, unless I’m in a hurry.
I had a deadline on my trip up to Chico this time, but coming home I allowed myself to stop several times to photograph rusted roadside pipes and old barns. Then I headed into Colusa to fill up on gas, and wandered around town a bit, taking a few more photos. Down one small side street, I came upon an old, metal building that looked perfect for my “Blight and Beauty” series. I first photographed the building from a distance to document its state of disrepair. Then I began moving closer, zooming in on tiny moments of beauty within the blight. I was so focused on small, I didn’t notice the sign “Fur, Fin and Feathers Taxidermy” over a door to my left.
When I walked through the door, I entered a strange universe. Boar and deer heads festooned the walls, and the front end of a horse stood off to one side. Signs advised that on these premises hunting bounty could be stripped and the fur or hide cured, meat processed and frozen and duck feathers picked.
As I was digesting all this information, a youngish man walked into the room, “Hello,” he smiled. “Thanks for stopping by.” And I before I knew it, I was asking questions: How long have you been doing this? Why did you begin? Where did you grow up? What has been your favorite taxidermy project? How did you learn the trade?
I’ve never thought much about taxidermy. But my mind began to whir. And I started to write a story in my head about this friendly young man so passionate about his trade. I’d begin with the enigmatic sign over the front entrance, then move on to his lifelong dream. I’d take pictures. Boy, would I take pictures!
I didn’t have the time or the equipment for a professional interview that day. So I told him I’d be back. Soon. And as I drove away, charged by the encounter, I realized once again how thinking small really does help you write big. I had discovered this man and his taxidermy business because I had walked closer and closer to his shop in order to take photos of the smallest moments of beauty.