Please welcome Emily B. Martin to The Qwillery as part of the 2016 Debut Author Challenge Guest Blogs. Woodwalker will be published on May 17, 2016 (eBook) and June 14, 2016 (print) by Harper Voyager Impulse.
I am twelve feet off the ground, clinging to the spindly pine trunk with my knees and fumbling to tie a hitch knot in the dark. We’re in bear country, which means anything that smells remotely tasty—chapstick, deodorant, white gas—has to go up in the trees at night. It’s midnight, and we’re exhausted, but a bear bag must be hung.
Somehow I have drawn the short straw.
It’s been a long day. My two companions and I have logged sixteen miles with full packs, three of which were devoid of water thanks to some poor planning on our part. New Mexico will dry a person out, and by the time we drag ourselves into the nearest staffed backcountry camp, we don’t even bother asking if the water is purified before sucking down a few liters from the pump. We refill our water bottles before hoisting our packs again and continuing the last few miles in the dark to the bus turnaround, where we hope to catch the first morning shuttle back to Philmont Scout Ranch base camp or risk the ire of our superiors.
I finish off the knot in the bear bag rope, my fingers sticky with pine sap. The tree bends and sways underneath me. On the ground, my companions are unrolling their sleeping pads. We’re so tired and sore we’re not even bothering to pitch our tents, rain and dew be damned. It’s July, and thunderstorms usually blow up in the afternoon, so we should be okay for the night, but I look up anyway to check the sky.
And as always, I catch my breath.
I’m from back east, where smog and ambient light wash out much of the night sky. Even in my favorite pockets of southern Appalachia, starscapes can be limited by clouds and haze. But not here. Here in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, a southern spur of the Rockies, the night skies are vivid and clear, resplendent with so many stars it’s hard to pick out the ones I know. There’s the tail of Ursa Major, leading me in an arc to Arcturus and further on to Spica. There’s the graceful curve of Corona Borealis and the cluster of the Pleiades, so bright I can easily see the dimmest of the bunch, Celaeno. I forget momentarily about the long, hot haul of the day and the buzzing tiredness in my arms and legs. I simply stop, and I look.
It’s this juxtaposition of pragmatism and awe-filled reverence that, almost eight years later, informed the story of Woodwalker and the protagonist, Mae. As a Woodwalker—a skilled ranger/forester—of the Silverwood Mountains, Mae must have a certain degree of levelheadedness and detachment. She must be able to adapt to nature’s circumstances, read warning signs in the woods, react to immediate threats, and undertake strenuous physical challenges. She must be practical enough to fell stands of dead timber and perceptive enough to reroute her scouts under threat of lightning or flash floods. She has to think quickly, act rationally, and make snap judgements that can affect the lives of her scouts and civilians.
But riding hand-in-hand with this pragmatism is a deep veneration for her home. She recognizes that she is not a master of the forest, but a steward and disciple. Her folk place their origin story deep in the dirt of their homeland, where they had to be taught to crawl and walk and speak by such unassuming creatures as earthworms, mantids, and cicadas. Their spirituality centers around humble things found deep under the trees—moss, and fireflies, and mushrooms that glow in the dark.
Mae knows that she is simultaneously very, very small while still being big enough to cause significant damage to her home. There is no delineation between the two. The same infected tree she fells to prevent blight reminds her of the deeper connectivity between everything in the forest. The same thunderstorm she surveys with a discerning eye also fills her with a welling awe at the power and grandeur building in the sky. Even among her own folk, she tends to be especially astute to both her practical and spiritual relationship with the forest. This is what makes her one of the best Woodwalkers the Silverwood has seen in generations. And this is what makes it so excruciating when she is cast out of her home and forbidden from coming back.
Up in the pine tree in the middle of New Mexico, the wind picks up, and I am forced to clamber back down. I unroll my sleeping bag next to my hiking buddies and lie on my back, gazing up at the stars peeking through the pine boughs. I fall asleep to the wind in the branches and wake up to one of the ranch horses standing over me, snorting curiously. We catch the bus back to Base Camp in time for the breakfast bell. And then, our next set of days off, we do it all over again—the miles, the heavy packs, the bear bags, the lack of proper planning. There is plenty from that adventure, and the ones that followed, to root deep inside me, incubating, nourished by nostalgia and circumstance, waiting for just the right moment to germinate into something new—Woodwalker.
Harper Voyager Impulse, May 17, 2016
eBook, 336 pages
Harper Voyager Impulse, June 14 , 2016
Mass Market Paperback, 336 pages
“What on earth would I gain from that?” I asked him. “Risk my own neck by violating my banishment just to leave you? The sentence placed on me if I return is execution. If I’m entering the mountains again, I’d damn well better get something out of it.”
Exiled from the Silverwood and the people she loves, Mae has few illusions about ever returning to her home. But when she comes across three out-of-place strangers in her wanderings, she finds herself contemplating the unthinkable: risking death to help a deposed queen regain her throne.
And if anyone can help Mona Alastaire of Lumen Lake, it is a former Woodwalker—a ranger whose very being is intimately tied to the woods they are sworn to protect. Mae was once one of the best, and despite the potential of every tree limb to become the gibbet she’s hung from, she not only feels a duty to aide Mona and her brothers, but also to walk beneath her beloved trees once more.
A grand quest in the tradition of great epic fantasies, filled with adventure and the sharp wit—and tongue—of a unique hero, Woodwalker is the perfect novel to start your own journey into the realm of magical fiction.
Park ranger by summer, stay-at-home mom the rest of the year, Emily B. Martin is also a freelance artist and illustrator. An avid hiker and explorer, her experiences as a ranger helped inform the character of Mae and the world of Woodwalker. When not patrolling places like Yellowstone, the Great Smoky Mountains, or Philmont Scout Ranch, she lives in South Carolina with her husband, Will, and two daughters, Lucy and Amelia.