Broken landscape 

Mike Medberry on memoirs and the dark side

Mike Medberry was an environmentalist and writer in early April 2000 when he suffered a stroke in the middle of Idaho’s Craters of the Moon National Monument, the bizarre and twisted landscape he was fighting to preserve. The stroke paralyzed half his body and killed a section of his brain. Almost 13 years later, he’s still an environmentalist and writer—though now, a much different one.

On the Dark Side of the Moon: A Journey Toward Recovery, published last November by Caxton Press, is Medberry’s meditation about the blood clot that nearly killed him, the arduous process of relearning just about everything he had accumulated over his 44 years and how the place that almost swallowed him became a monument to both the damage in his head and the long battle to overcome it.

Indy: You write about the year immediately following your stroke with what is, at times, remarkable detail. How did you do that, given the damage to your brain?

Medberry: I carried a journal with me everywhere, and even though much of the writing was unintelligible I was able to piece scenes and dialogue out of it. It damn near makes me cry to look at some of those entries now.

Indy: Your physical recovery was remarkable, but your mental recovery has been another story. How bad was the damage to your brain?

Medberry: Huge parts of my memory and cognition were totally wiped out. In the hospital, one of the therapists gave me a comb, and even though I recognized it at some level I had no idea what to do with it. I took a guess and moved it back and forth across my teeth. Then she gave me an actual toothbrush, and I had no idea what to do with that.

Indy: But you were aware enough to experience an identity crisis.

Medberry: I was well aware of my limitations, especially in communicating. My inability to find words and put them together in a sentence was terrifying. As a writer, this is what you do. When you can neither speak nor write, what are you?

Indy: What brought you to Craters of the Moon that day?

Medberry: I was out with a couple of colleagues, scouting an area in advance of a visit from Bruce Babbitt, the Interior Secretary at the time. There are these incredible areas in Craters, grassland savannas surrounded completely by black lava. We were hiking back from one of those places, called Laidlaw Park, when it happened.

Indy: During your recovery, and now in your book, the unusual topography of Craters has become a defining metaphor.

Medberry: You know, Craters wasn’t my favorite place in the world, but it was very cool. And then after the stroke I began to see the harsh black lava as the parts of my brain that had been destroyed. And Laidlaw Park I saw as the healthy, surviving part of my brain. When I spent time there after the stroke, I started noticing a lot of things I really hadn’t before, like snakes and all the different kinds of flowers there. And that gave me hope about my own recovery, and the recovery of the land.

Indy: In the book, mixed in with all the terror and frustration, you mention a sense of wonder during the relearning process.

Medberry: There’s a certain joy to learning, and with everything I had to learn again, there were definitely moments of wonder. I remember being in the car driving back to Boise from the hospital, and I had a revelation. I saw these big metal wheels and pipes, and water shooting out of them. I wondered where the water came from. Shortly after that we crossed a bridge over the Snake River and I knew the water came from the river somehow. It was a profound revelation at the time.

Indy: Has anything good come from all this?

Medberry: What I gained most from the stroke was a sense of perspective. I have an understanding now that I didn’t have then. Our human lives are only one perspective, and I don’t know what the rest of life is. I’ve gained a bit of humility. And the book—it’s probably the best thing I’ve ever written. The best thing I’ll ever write.

click to enlarge Missoula Independent news
  • Mike Medberry hiking near McCall, Idaho, 11 years after his stroke.

Indy: Sounds like in some way you’re thankful for the stroke. If you could go back and stop it from happening, would you?

Medberry: Oh, god yes. Absolutely. I wouldn’t wish that on anybody.

Mike Medberry reads from his book, On the Dark Side of the Moon, at Fact & Fiction Wed., Jan. 30, at 7 PM. Free.

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