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‘Turnaround Time’: Walking through the woods, confronting thoughts of mortality

David Guterson is the author of the book-length poem “Turnaround Time: A Walking Poem for the Pacific Northwest.”
Headshot by Tom Collicott
David Guterson is the author of the book-length poem “Turnaround Time: A Walking Poem for the Pacific Northwest.” ";s:

David Guterson has been walking through the mountains of the Pacific Northwest his entire life. He knows the Olympics best. They’re closest to his home on Bainbridge Island, where he’s lived for decades. Guterson taught high school English there, as he wrote “Snow Falling on Cedars.”

Back then, he says he had an ambition to change the world through writing. That book had a shot. It sold millions of copies, won the PEN/Faulkner award, and was adapted into a movie. 

Now, 26 years later, the intention of Guterson’s art has shifted. He says he focuses on the page, and not the pursuit of success. In the past five or six years, it’s poetry on the page. “Turnaround Time: A Walking Poem for the Pacific Northwest” is a book-length poem, split into two sections — Out and Back. It chronicles a journey — a hike through the woods. But more significantly, the poem is a journey through life.

The energy of youth charges ahead, reaches middle age, pauses a moment, turns around and heads back. In the book, the poet’s voice changes, steps more carefully through aches and wisdom, noticing a new perspective of familiar ground. Mortality emerges — an inescapable conclusion. 

Guterson says when he’s standing in nature, he’s at peace with the notion of mortality. The meter of the verse draws us toward the rhythm of walking, onto the trail and into nature. And we find we feel at peace, too.

Guterson on the term “turnaround time”: “Strictly speaking, it’s a term from the mountaineering lexicon. And it's a time that's established in advance, in which the party will turn around regardless of whether the goal has been reached. So if you're climbing a peak and you're within 500 feet of the summit and your turnaround time comes, the prudent thing to do is to, in fact, turn around and go back. Otherwise, you're putting yourself in jeopardy of some kind.

“In the conceit of this book, life divides into two stages, Out and Back. And the idea is that in the first half of life, is a moving with greater ambition and greater force into life, as is natural. And then comes a time when it's also natural to turn around, and to take the reverse view, so to speak. And so this is a sort of larger metaphorical notion that I bring to bear in the poem.”

Guterson on writing poetry in the second half of life: “It's an art form that takes a real laser focus, a real sitting in one place, kind of calm deliberation. It's not expansive the way the novel is. You know, the production of a novel is an enormous undertaking.”

Guterson on contemplating mortality while in nature: “Well, I think the sort of fundamental human subjects are love and mortality, things that rise to the surface with the greatest force in our lives. In a natural setting, our thoughts about mortality differ than they do in other settings because we're able to place ourselves in context more easily. The truth of the passage of time, you know, the beauty of the earth. They all elicit an attitude towards mortality that is not so easily elicited in other environments.”

Listen to David Guterson read an excerpt of “Turnaround Time: A Walking Poem for the Pacific Northwest” below. 

David Guterson reads an excerpt of “Turnaround Time: A Walking Poem for the Pacific Northwest.”