Message in a Bottle: The Power of Words

Some mornings I wake up discouraged. I think maybe I would be better off to go and play Mindsweeper (or another game, if I had a single one on the computer) than to try to “say something” on the blog. Lord knows, it’s been almost ten years. What has it been about? Where have all those words carried me? What difference to anything have they made?

I look back through my scraps of pocket paper, my recent photographs, and the morning news to find something to think deeply about, and see what I say about it. I create my “morning pages” in miniature and yet another more-often-than-not disregarded message in a bottle is cast off into unknown. Sometimes, against the odds, it’s found by a passing stranger or an invisible friend. Mostly, those messages, from the silly to the profound, are still drifting out there looking for a beach.

Ten years ago, during a time of inner turmoil, knowing my days were numbered working for The Man, I turned to writing. I can’t say why except I have always loved the power of language to move me. Long before the blog, I told myself stories in the shower. I discovered alliteration, puns, and poignant metaphors while driving to work. None of those words ever escaped. With the blog, thousands of words now float, and hundreds of thousands have sunk invisible below the surface.

Since writing found me a decade ago, I can’t just stop it. Some mornings, I think I should–at least in this public, mostly-superficial, unfocused, broad-brush fashion, writing across the range of whatever comes to mind, literally, from chickens to cosmology. It’s apparent to the few readers regular enough to see it–that I write for myself and for those imagined future kindred spirits and genetic offspring who might wonder what we were thinking about life, the universe and everything back those ancient times.

And at times, I confess, I’d hope to change hearts and minds. Mine needs changing, and maybe that’s the greatest good the writing does. It firms up my convictions, my understanding of a vast variety of topics I’ve delved into over in ten years. Writing slows me down and makes me follow my assumptions about life all the way to some kind of conclusion. And if I can write clearly about it then I probably almost understand that little piece of it.

I especially think I should stop writing about ignorance, injustice, bigotry of all sorts, corporate greed, national hubris and imperial politics of our times. There’s not much choir left around the blog to preach to.

Then I read something like this paragraph (I cut it up into shorter chunks) that I found in Orion this morning by Derrick Jensen. His “Loaded Words” prompted this post I had not intended to write. I know I lose readers when my topics veer away from local-earthy tree hugging. But it’s hard to blog while Rome burns:

I would not be who I am and I would not write what I write without having learned from some of my elders who refused to believe that writers should or can be apolitical or neutral or objective. The truth is most important, they said. It is more important than money. It is more important than fame. It is more important than your career. It’s more important than your preconceptions.

Follow the truth–follow the words and ideas–wherever they lead. Words matter, they said. Art matters. Literature matters. Words and art and literature can change lives, and can change history.

Make sure that your words and your art and your literature move people individually and collectively in the direction of justice and sustainability. They said literature that supports capitalism is immoral. A literature that supports patriarchy is immoral. A literature that does not resist oppression is immoral.

But you can help to create a literature of morality and resistance, as each new generation must create this literature, with the help of all those generations who came before, holding their hands for support, just as those who come after will need to hold yours.


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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. I’ve given up trying to change anyone’s mind other than my own. That is why I keep writing: because I think it’s good for me. If anyone else is listening, cares, and/or enjoys what I write, that’s fine and good. But even if I were stuck on a proverbial desert island, I’d find myself writing, both to pass and keep track of the time.

  2. HiYa Lorianne….funny, I just this instant got an email fund raising request from the Thoreau Society–a newsletter that I signed up for a Walden Pond on our trip around the landmark, chatting all the while.

    I agree about the personal benefits of writing for clarity, for peace of mind, and to sort things out. And there are a few who listen, care and enjoy, and I value them highly. There is just not the uncritical mass of participants here that I remember, as you do, from the “Ecotone” days. That was then. This is now.

  3. Hi Fred,

    This post prompted me to offer my first comment even though I have been reading your blog and nodding in agreement for quite some time. I guess I am one of those “invisible friends.”

    I am not sure why I have been so reticent. Although I am now a hospice RN, in my previous life I was a writer and editor in the engineering field. Perhaps I just wore myself out typing away about technical minutiae.

    That doesn’t mean, however, that I don’t enjoy reading good writing, and your blog fits that bill. I appreciate both your thoughts on “important issues” as well as information on Floyd and its goings-on.

    As a matter of fact, it is because of your blog that my husband and I are traveling to Floyd for an overnight stay in April. Anything of particular interest going on at the Community Store on 4/21?

    Please keep writing and I, for my part, will try to be less invisible.


  4. Fred, please know that every thought and word and image you post here is treasured. I am quiet for the most part because of health issues, but this is one place I visit every single morning, and I can’t imagine doing anything else.

    Your thoughts shine, your words shine, your images shine. There is a wild truth and elemental beauty here – both are threatened, and we must sing them into continued being.

  5. I’ve been invisible lately, but that doesn’t mean I am not here. You can veer off the usual subjects any time you want, Fred, and you should write because you must – not to change anyone’s mind (although I am sure you have.)

  6. You know, Fred, one of the things I most enjoy about your blog (aside from its obvious concern–I’ve been a Floyd from the moment I first set foot on Main Street) is its versatility, and your keen ability to write about virtually anything without holding back. This is why we write. Not to only sort things, but to learn, to become wiser.

    Kudos to you for making a big, fat fist. I’m not so sure I agree entirely with Mr. Jensen–I read a lot of writers who are not afraid to tackle tough, political and environmental issues. (It seems to me that there is an abundance of coverage (which is encouraging)–not all of us care to listen, though.) And not every writer is meant to write about these issues. But even in strictly literary pursuits, no writer can be wholly neutral, nor ignore the world at large. Whether we’re writing about nature, and it’s beauty, or the destruction of the same, the end result is that attention is drawn to our world, our environment, our values.

  7. I get a “quote for the day” email, and yesterday it was from Ram Dass – “We are all just walking each other home.” It seems to me that rings with truth – and whether we are reading blogs or engaged in conversation with others, our shared thoughts and feelings are somehow bread for the journey, and we take away what we most need in the moment.
    You have a gift of words; share it because that is what you are drawn to do – not because you are attached to any outcome. Accept that you can never know all the results of your efforts, and just smile to think of the possibilities!

  8. Thanks, all, I’m not losing the will to write–not at all–but having doubts and questions about how to spend my writing minutes that pass through the neck of the hour glass. And also, I’m finding, as I perhaps remark here too often, that the blog does not seem to have the reach or impact it once SEEMED to have. I may be deluded about both present failures or previous successes, I dunno. But I do know my head (not to mention my growing blotter of potential writing topics) is full of ideas. I just need to do better (and I am doing better) at getting them recorded before they fade like frost at sunrise.

    The other issue this time of year is that outdoor work needs to be done during the cool of morning–which has always been my writing, thinking, and researching time. I will have to adapt to a new schedule to remain in some sense productive.

    Again, your kind words of encouragement are very very welcomed, and I am pleased to walk us all home.

  9. Don’t take the decline in readership personally. The masses have moved on to social media, namely Facebook. Personal blogs have become like books of old. I still like to pick out a good blog, curl up in my recliner by the fireplace and read..something about the feel of web pages in my hand.

  10. I have been out of town a couple weeks, and now I will be gone a couple months. I will greatly miss reading your blog every morning, and will try to get on a computer from time to time while I’m gone.
    I understand what you are saying about your limited time, but I will truly mourn if “Fragments” isn’t part of my day.

  11. Hi Fred – I guess I’ve been invisible for awhile. But I still do read your blog frequently. It is always a pleasure to get away from the chaotic news of the world and “travel” to Floyd to read your blog. It is always enjoyable, from the environment to puppies & chickens. From your blog, I usually take time to travel to Lorianne’s, Blue Ridge Muse & Creek Running North………….I sure hope you all stay around for a long time!