Writing poetry for his new book and hiking the backcountry help Professor Paul Willis transcend the loss of his home and work
English professor Paul Willis was scheduled to read his poetry at Santa Barbara City College the evening of Nov. 13, 2008. He never made it. Instead he sought shelter in Westmont’s gym with other faculty families from Las Barrancas and hundreds of students fleeing the Tea Fire. His wife, Sharon, a nurse with the Health Center, helped care for students, while Paul comforted the dogs who found refuge along with their owners. Sometime during the night he learned the fire had consumed his home, his personal library and years of research and written work.
When the organizers of the poetry reading heard about Paul’s loss, they held a benefit for him and delivered 23 boxes of books. It’s one of many such donations Paul has received in the past year. “I was very touched to be remembered like that,” he says. “People I didn’t even know sent me books.”
The fire damaged another one of Paul’s creations: a trail that winds through a mile and a half of barrancas on Westmont land. He developed the path five years ago as a place to walk his dog. The neighbors soon discovered it, and Paul has met many of them there, including children on their way to school.
Student groups help Paul maintain the trails, but he does much of the work himself, which he finds surprisingly extensive and satisfying. Randy Jones, director of campus planning, advises him on what he can and can’t do in keeping with county regulations. The footpath required considerable repair after the fire, and Paul mourns the loss of a wondrous green tunnel of branches on one section. But he adds, “The fire did help eliminate non-native plants.”
“People need a place to get away,” Paul says.“Someone walking your trail is like someone reading your book. Making the trail grew out of my need to create something. If no one walks the trail, it won’t survive, just as books won’t stay in print if no one reads them.”
Paul has published a new book of poetry, “Rosing from the Dead” (WordFarm). A deeply personal volume, it touches on his life as a teacher, a scholar and a writer with poems about smart classrooms, libraries and former professors. On page after page he draws on his childhood, his family relationships and his faith to reflect on the nature of life and love and sacrifice. The title poem comes from his daughter, Hanna, who said as a 6-year-old that Jesus would be “rosing from the dead” on Easter. Paul was intrigued to learn that other girls had used this same expression, and the poem explores the implications of the imagery.
“This book is about resurrection and hoping for it when it doesn’t seem to be happening — about faith and doubt,” Paul says. “Each poem is true to a particular moment and experience.” The last section features poems of place, especially wilderness areas near the John Muir Trail in the Sierra. Readers will recognize Santa Barbara landmarks as well.
Whimsy and wonder characterize the verse, expressed in Paul’s gentle, thoughtful and concise voice. “Poetry is the art of compression, while novel writing is the art of extension,” he says. “As I write more poetry, my novels get shorter.”
More than 20 years ago, Paul completed two novels set in the Pacific Northwest: “No Clock in the Forest” and “The Stolen River.” He wrote two more volumes in the series, but they were never published. Paul has revised all four books, which will come out in a single volume in 2010 named “The Alpine Tales.” He has also signed a contract with writers who are developing a screenplay of “No Clock in the Forest.” Paul supposes there is growing interest in the kind or eco-fantasy the novels represent, which blends environmentalism with Christian themes.
Over the years, the Willis family has returned often to the Yosemite backcountry to hike and explore. Since the fire, Paul has made four separate treks to the Sierra, seeking solace in the midst of so much upheaval. “You long for the familiar when you lose your home,” he says. In August he co-led Inoculum, a 12-day wilderness adventure for incoming Westmont students that Paul’s brother, Dave Willis ’74, helped to establish 35 years ago. “One of the students and I watched a wolverine for about two minutes near the crest of the divide,” he says. “They’re extremely rare in the Sierra.”
In November, Paul and Sharon moved into their rebuilt home, where they’ve been unpacking, assembling furniture and dealing with things that don’t work, like the new dryer. “It’s good to walk to work again,” he says. “It’s good to be back among so many good friends.”