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A Late Bloomer Writes Her Wild Heart

With two memoirs and a new book of nature poetry under her belt, Carolyn Keith Hopper has come a long way from growing up in the hometown of Thoreau, Emerson and Hawthorne

If you believe it’s only about turning good phrases that makes a person a “successful” writer, then you’re likely to be in for agonizing disappointment. Carolyn Keith Hopper is the personification of what it takes to earn the titles of poet and essayist. Only through grit, persistence, failing to heed critics and writing every day, whether she feels like it or not, has Hopper reached a place where she believes she has arrived.

And now, she says, she hopes her words can be handholds for people coping with loss of place or loved ones.

Hopper, who adopted Bozeman as her adult home, grew up in a  New England neighborhood that a century earlier had given rise to a potent bastion of American nature writers. Swinging open the screen door to her house and jumping on her bike she was a few minutes’ ride away from Walden Pond on the edge of Concord, Massachusetts and a hill climb from where Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson now lie in the ground.

She says it is likely she gathered in some of the air they breathed which has influenced her passion for the natural wild world of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Undaunted by coming of age in the land of giants, she didn’t fulfill her dream of becoming a writer until she was in her 60s. Hopper, in some ways, could be considered a heroine to the late bloomers, hell-bent on defying those who claim getting a book published is a seemingly impossible task.

Moving to Bozeman in 2002, this mother and grandmother brought a passion for hiking, fly fishing, identifying wildflowers and tango dancing with her. The topics of Hopper’s first two books, both of the memoir variety, involve the quest of connecting with her parents. The first, River Shadows: A Passage From Head To Heart, delves into the emotional struggles she had dealing with her mother after her father’s passing—and how she turned to nature for solace. The second work, Fishing With My Father: A Daughter's Search For Legacy, explores the yearning that daughters have for connecting with their dads.

Wrote Brooke Williams in a review: “In life, fishing connected Carolyn Hopper and Hamilton Herman, her compelling but distant, complicated father. His found letters provide clues she needed to find him in the world of the dead. Hers, written a lifetime later, wake him with the question, Can you see me now? In Fishing with My Father, Herman becomes immortal while Hopper joins Norman Maclean and David James Duncan in that vaulted club of fisher-writers.”

As the pandemic set in, Hopper was in the midst of grieving the passing of her husband, Dan.  Earlier she and Dan, created the online Wildflower Hikes Montana to help people know where to  view and learn about wildflowers on our local trails.

In 2021, she has published a book of poetry, Poems From A Wild Heart. She debuted parts of it at the recent Elk River Writers Workshop at Chico Hot Spring put together by the fine folks at Elk River Bookstore in Livingston.  Mountain Journal had a conversation with the author following a summer that she spent disappearing into the outback of the West.
Carolyn Hopper gathering fresh material in Glacier National Park
Carolyn Hopper gathering fresh material in Glacier National Park

MOUNTAIN JOURNAL: You mentioned that you are a writer because you don’t have any choice in the matter. It’s something you hear many writers say and there are people in their lives who may not understand it. What does it mean to you?
CAROLYN KEITH HOPPER: There is a space between the involuntary, like a heart beating, or breathing, and the voluntary, like I’m going to eat now because I ‘m hungry, or today I might go for a hike. And in this space lives the “why” of my writing. The “who” of me. It’s in the space between heart beats.

MOJO: Do you see yourself as observer or companion?
HOPPER: Although I’m surrounded by a magpie gathering twigs for a nest, snow sifting off spruce branches, ever changing cloud formations, and dazzling sunsets, I do not always ask you to “look!” But the impulse is there. My search for words to show you is as if looking for nymph casings beneath rocks in fast flowing stream. Was I born with “look!” or “love it, too!?”

Maybe. Because that’s what it feels like. The impulse to share the beauty of a calypso orchid, a sunset, a bird in a nest, or story of an adventure is always with me. Sometimes I want someone one to save it. Sometimes I want you to sit with me beside it. It’s my heart beat. It’s the call of salmon to birth water. It’s the pull of the moon in the water of my body. My essence.

MOJO: What was it like growing up in Concord, Mass?  For those who haven’t been it’s filled with history and home to several famous writers as well as having Walden Pond. 

My girlhood in the historic town of Concord, Massachusetts in the late 1940s and early 50s was one of playing outside nearly all day from morning until dark. There’s a small hill near where we lived that was great for sledding or budding skiiers, the Concord River to skate on where it overflowed its banks, woods to explore, games to play with friends like “kick the can” often until just after dark. My next door neighbor and I would ride our bikes up and down the hills many times. Concord is almost all hilly. Sometimes when we played in our backyards we’d climb on of her fir trees and hang upside down by our knees then flip over in what we called “skinning the cat.”

After dinner on summer evenings my mom, dad and I often rented a canoe and we’d paddle down the Concord River all the way to the Old North Bridge—site of the first battle between the English and the farmers who fought against them for independence. In history those farmers were known as the “Minutemen.” I still have my paddle, by the way!

MOJO:  When you were growing up who were your bright lights in terms of writers?

HOPPER: Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women, was probably my favorite author. Perhaps I knew about her best because she grew up in Concord. And I loved reading other historical fiction or about historical figures which is how I discovered Sacajawea. There used to be a series of books that I remember as being all with orange covers, about famous women as girls and Sacajawea was the subject of one of them.

Alice Turner Curtis (1860-1958) was another favorite author. She was an American writer of juvenile historical fiction and probably best remembered by young readers of her day for The Little Maid Historical Series. I don’t know how I found them, but remember each girl as going off to play in the woods or her town and meeting famous Revolutionary figures, like Ethan Allan in Vermont, and getting somehow involved in spying for the Americans during the Revolutionary War. It all sounded like great fun to me!
MOJO: What was the impetus for you coming West?

:  I fell in love with the idea of living in the west during two or three trips out to Wyoming and Montana with my parents, once at 9 and two or three times during summers while I was in college. I felt at home riding in the mountains even at 9 and the wide spaces and probably what is not a “real” west, but some romantic picture of it. This love was rekindled while riding and some fly fishing during college at a couple dude ranches. d I remember hoping my dad would buy some property out here over near Clyde Park and the G Bar M. When my marriage life circumstances changed in 2001 and I visited again in the summer of 2002, I felt a pull to leave where I was in Maryland back East and make my way west to see what life could be like here. While I still love to ride, the draw was hiking in fields of wild flowers and views of the mountains with a little fly fishing thrown in. Back to the idea of feeling a pull like salmon to birth waters.

MOJO:  Every writer wants to write a book. How did your first one come about?

HOPPER: The catalyst for my first book was finding myself wondering how I could relate to and possibly help my mother after my dad passed away. They had been married for 65 years and she missed him to the point of deep grief. Up until that point, I’d written a bunch of articles, freelancing for Outside Bozeman and Zone 4 so thought of myself loosely as “a writer”.  My thinking then at a time of having my own mixed feelings about missing my dad, helping my mom and wishing to spend time involved in my own marriage, was “I’m a writer. When Mom passes on I’ll figure out what my feelings really were.” It took me four years to write that book and I think now that I dared myself to write and finish it. Dan, my late husband, was a very big help.

MOJO: Why do you use the handle “cowgirl” in your email address?

HOPPER: I use “cowgirl” for fun. I chose it after I moved to Bozeman and had to obtain a new e mail address. Friends back East had teased me about moving “way out West” so for fun I asked for the “cowgirl” address and found it  was available. I still like it 20 years later

MOJO: You have a new book, yes?

HOPPER: The collection of poems in Poems From A Wild Heart is a compilation of works that began in 2003, shortly after I moved to Montana in 2002. During hikes and travels around Montana I felt inspired to try to write about what I was sensing in the landscape around me – like voices waking up. This still holds true. Some poems are about a love affair and loss, and over time my voice may have changed as I learn more about living in the west, but I am still inspired to try to give the voices of nature a voice.

MOJO: Tell us about your earlier works and what connects them?

: The catalysts for River Shadows and Fishing With My Father were my parents. My mother, in the case of River Shadows and my father with Fishing With My Father. In both cases how my dad’s passing affected me. And for the experiences in both books, it was the time I spent out in wild nature around my home in Bozeman that helped me cope with my mother’s grief after she lost her husband of 65 years and another sort of grief for missing conversations I wish I’d had with my dad. It was in the writing of them that I came to know myself better and came to understand how they loved me and I them.

MOJO: You recently attended the Elk River Writing Workshop at Chico Hot Springs. What did you take away from that?

HOPPER: I took away a new way of looking at the land and how I have been affected by it and how I have been affecting the land through the poetry class I took with Pam Uschuk. While the focus of the weekend was on this subject —referred to as eco-poetry—in the case of Pam’s class, I now carry what I hope will continue to be sharpened senses when pondering how to show readers of my poetry what is happening on the land, and also its beauty. Can I show them how the light shines through the pink petal of a calypso orchid or why the bear’s eyes appeared blue when he gazed at me or how it feels to step into cold, rushing river? And beyond that grieve for  what is lost as was so well talked about  by Gary Ferguson in a panel discussion one evening? It’s a challenge I gladly accept.

MOJO: What do you think the role of writer and poet are in our society?

HOPPER: In my opinion, the role of  the writer and poet in our society is to tell the stories that lie deep in their hearts as best they are able. Some wish to inspire love— of  a person, a wild place or why the dandelion breaking through a side walk matters. Others may wish us to bend over in grief over tragedies in society. Yet it is the stories perhaps like these and surely others that need to be kept alive, be given light. If we keep silent who then will others turn to in the dark? What happens to dreams?

MOJO: That’s a great question—what does, and the answer is?

HOPPER: For me, my role is to look for and imagine how the wild beauty will not just be in tatters by the time my grandchildren are teenagers. Or even before then. May I save one orchid or one dragonfly or one bear with a story? I sat around a campfire last week, somewhere in the mountains in Wyoming, and watched sparks rise up toward Ursa Major (whose name means “greater she-bear”) and her brother and sister constellations. 

I found myself quietly humming “Home on the Range” and thought of my dad playing this tune on his harmonica around another campfire, decades ago. And Dan, too, under falling stars around another fire.  I hope our stories are like those sparks, that they draw us into a song and enlighten our nights just a little.

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