Building a story world is part of crafting a story. This world building does not demand that the story-crafter live in that world. If that were the case, none of us would be able to tell very many stories. Story crafters can use research and imagination to build their story worlds. But imagination, in my experience, is rooted in the world I consider especially mine – not my everyday world, but the world of my heart. And I know that world not in words but through my senses, not only visually but through sounds, feelings, and even smell.
The world that anchors my imagination is centered around a small town in northern New Mexico. Los Alamos occupies a number of the mesas along the Pajarito Plateau between the Jemez Mountains and the valley of the Rio Grande. This world has specific boundaries (I am using the word “boundaries” with the meanings of “edges” not the meaning of something that cannot be crossed.)
The Jemez Mountains -- more usually referred to as “The Jemez” (HAY-mez) – define the western edge of my childhood world. I still know the shapes of those mountains as well as I know the shape of my own hands. The eastern edge of the world was marked by a much newer and far more official boundary. Where the last of the volcanic eruptions that resulted in the mountains of the Jemez occurred approximately 40,000 years ago, the “Main Gate” of Los Alamos was erected in 1943 after the United States Government acquired a portion of the Pajarito Plateau (between the Jemez and the Rio Grande valley) for use by the Manhattan Project.
It was not until 1949 that a young chemist, who had spent the war years on the Project, but at Oak Ridge, drove his pre-war Plymouth up the narrow road the clung to the side of a cliff east of Los Alamos. He and his wife had travelled from Wisconsin, where he had just finished a post-doc, to New Mexico with their new baby girl tucked into a basket in the back seat.
That is why my father always told me I came to Los Alamos as a baby in a basket – it sounds a bit Biblical but that was not my father’s intent. Besides I’ve seen the basket. It would not have floated. Given my age at the time, I have no idea if my parents checked in at the war-time Main Gate, or the “newer one,” the one I do remember. Soon we were all settled in the form of housing called a Sundt, directly across the street from what was then called the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, where my father spent his entire career.
With the passage of time, my parents moved to one of the post-war neighborhoods, one built for the vast numbers of young scientists hired by the Lab to work on the development of what was sometimes called the H-bomb. Many of these scientists arrived, as had my father, with a wife and the beginnings of a family. The ones who were single soon snapped up (or were snapped up by) the young teachers hired to work in the Los Alamos School system. In any case it was the era of the baby boom and the US Government spent the early 50’s building laboratory facilities to replace the wartime buildings and neighborhoods to house that baby boom.
My family ended up in what was called Western Area, a neighborhood of one-story single and duplex houses with nice yards and an average of three kids per family. For the kids, the best thing about Western Area was playing in “The Woods.” This was an extensive ponderosa pine forest with canyons both to the south and north of the slopes that led up into the Jemez.
We were, at a rather young age, allowed – nay encouraged during the summers – to leave home after breakfast and play in the woods, canyons and all. Sometimes we went as part of a pack of kids, but solitary exploration was also common.
Thus I, at the age of 8 or 9, started to find the world that would provide me the raw material for the world of stories like one of my favorite Norwegian folktales. Shortshanks!
In this tale, collected and published by Asbjornsen and Moe, Shortshanks was the younger of a pair of twins born to an impoverished family. As soon as he arrived, the elder of the twins sat up, looked around, and announced to his mother: “I can see there’s no room for me here. Give me a bite of food to eat and a rag to wear and I’ll be on my way.”
The poor mother was not a woman who was willing to turn a newborn loose, but the child won the argument, took the food and toddled off. Soon the second twin put in his appearance, made the same observation and the same demand as his brother and also toddled away.
Once he caught up with his brother, the twins sat down, shared their food and decided to name themselves. Thus the elder became “King Sturdy,” and the younger “Shortshanks.” The twins then divided the world in two and parted. Before bidding his brother farewell, King Sturdy told Shortshanks, “If you ever need help give me a shout, and I’ll show up.” But he wasn’t that good a big brother because he added, “First be sure you really need me. I won’t like it if I find out you could have settled matters on your own.”
To that, Shortshanks answered, “Then it will be a long time before we see each other again.” And off he went, stumping and stamping and stamping and stomping along the traill that wound through thick pine forest.
Research tells me that the large conifers of Norway are the Norway spruce and the Scots pine, not the Ponderosa pines I stumped and stamped and stamped and stumped through in the woods. But the feeling of independent and maybe slightly scary aloneness among trees that towered far over my head is one I can give to Shortshanks.
Yes. A world of story, built from my world with research and imagination,