Going, going… 

Giving something back to a celebrated literary magazine

The award-winning, nonprofit literary publication Northern Lights magazine (five Pushcart Prizes, four Utne Reader Alternative Press Awards), has been published in Missoula since 1984. Still, after nearly 20 years “Northern Lights remains Missoula’s best kept secret,” says Missoula artist Mary Beth Percival. September 3 marked the start of the magazine’s online auction, conceived as a creative alternative to spotty foundation support.

“Northern Lights is eclectic. We’re all about creative activism. That has often made it difficult to pursue consistent funding,” says its director Deborah Clow. This month Northern Lights is offering a wide array of items including signed first edition books, lithographs and found objects, as well as an assortment of opportunities to spend time with some well-known and esteemed writers. All are available for sale to the highest bidder.

Everything in the auction has been donated by writers and artists in support of the magazine. Each is listed with a minimum bid. Many are accompanied with original text by the author stating that item’s relevance; say a buffalo skull (Glen Chamberlain Barrett, $300), recreating an impression, a moment, giving us a rare glimpse into the story behind the story. “When you lift it, it is filled with seeds of grass and webs of spiders and nests of mice. For many years it has contained whole worlds in it, more than you will ever know. You bring it home to remember all that it holds,” Barrett writes.

David James Duncan’s first fly rod, his “magic wand” ($777) is accompanied by an insightful bit of writing about divining truth in an effortless yet deliberate sort of way. The rod he offers is the same one that he says opened him to a “rivery life,” or what he refers to as “a kind of Druidic Religion–flyfishing.” He writes, “Our wand should remind us, when corporate dreck is trying its best to mesmerize and bury us in ads and urges, who we set out to be in the first place. It should remind us of how little we need to be happy. It should extend our being to other levels, other worlds, other beings, as surely as does prayer.”

The auction offers a view into the underpinnings of fiction, of narrative, of thought, even. There is a way each of us imbues the objects around us with deep meaning. The best writing has always transformed the ordinary surface of a thing into its countless aspects. The memories associated with things, the way they can act to transport us to other places in time, to other state of mind, are what Northern Lights sells.

Beyond the curiosity that might compel us to find out what someone like Barry Lopez might have donated, the auction itself speaks volumes about the high regard in which a large community of artists and writers in the West holds Northern Lights. Rick Bass’ statement speaks to this: “Like no other magazine I know of, Northern Lights is comprised of equal parts fairy pixie-dust and rock muscled grit; of art and advocacy. It is born of western soil and is a magazine to fall in love with, as are the landscapes it celebrates and seeks to protect, and the human communities in these landscapes. It is revolutionary, peaceful, cunning bare and true. It is the enemy of numbness in a benumbed world.”

Perhaps the most striking component of the auction is the degree to which many writers are willing to make themselves personally available on behalf of Northern Lights. No less than 20 writers have donated time under the category, “Experiences of a Lifetime.” A sampling of the experiences offered: a weekend writing retreat in Laramie, Wyo. with Julene Bair, $150; an evening fishing on the Missouri River with Pete Fromm, $150; a day of hiking with Doug Peacock, $200; rock art tour and dinner in Moab, Utah with Brooke Williams, husband of Terry Tempest Williams, $200.

One item that stands out because of its playfulness is Debra Earling’s offering in the experiences category: Something Cheesy and Personal. She writes: “If you bid on this option, you will find yourself sharing a burger and beer at the Mo Club in downtown Missoula, Montana, with yours truly. Not only that, but I will make you a basket of fry bread, I will write a love letter for you, and I will tell you a ghost story around Halloween. If you’d like a Christmas letter, I’ll write that, too.” Opening bid: $100.

The auction site somehow reminds me of the credit card commercial on television that lists the cost of various purchases. It always ends the same way. And considering the importance of Northern Lights to this community of writers and their audience the relationship seems apt. It would go something like this: two letters from folk singer Kate Wolf: $9. Allen Ginsberg’s chair: $200. Value of sustaining Northern Lights magazine: priceless.

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