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Death of a journal

Obituary—Northern Lights magazine


As more and more species of plants and animals become extinct, the world grows smaller. The loss is so insidious, their disappearance so quiet, that on a day-to-day basis few of us consciously notice. But as the science writer David Quammen points out, on a subtler level the world becomes a lonelier place.

In the fields of literature, the same thing can be said to be happening. The purple loosestrife of Barnes & Noble, the coyotes of large publishing houses, each are crowding out the local, more indigenous population of writers and people bringing us those writers, the editors of journals and small presses.

For 14 of its 18 years, Northern Lights has been published by Deborah Clow of Missoula, first from offices on Higgins St., and then out of her home on Skyline Drive. In the world of letters, Lights has shown itself to be one of the most respected and thought-provoking magazines on the market, illuminating the hearts and minds of readers around the country with its solid prose and unique black and white photography. Printed on newsprint, it has held a humble place, poised with elegance and integrity against the other flashier magazines stuffed with advertising. It is the only journal of its kind devoted to personal essays, giving voice to Judy Blunt, Rick Bass, Terry Tempest Williams, Gretel Ehrlich, Glen Chamberlain-Barrett, Ed Abby, William Kittredge, David Quammen, Barry Lopez and Mark Sprague, not to mention many lesser-knowns. It is also no longer with us.

What does it mean to lose Northern Lights? It is like asking what it means to lose a star from its place in the sky.

The following is a kind of obituary, homage, and letter to a friend. All quotations are excerpted from an interview with Deb Clow at her home last autumn while the final issue of Lights was being prepared. Author’s statements were collected over time. I found that Deb, like her journal, spoke from the heart, communicating her passion for good writing, hard thought, art, and the need to keep all of them alive. For the record then:

On the afternoon I visit, Deb Clow greets me at the door in a sand-colored V-neck sweater, black corduroys and green canvas sneakers, her salt and pepper hair in a nimbus around her. We sit at her dining room table, a handsome slate rock serving as center piece and trivet, and her dog, India Rose, and cat, Hazel, making polite, periodic visits. Deb speaks quickly, as is her habit, full of digressions and tangents. She looks me in the eye, not probing, but with a startling transparency, one that lends itself toward a reciprocated kindness. At the end of a long monologue, she arrives at the crux of the matter:

“I don’t want to traffic in fear. One of the things I try and do at the magazine is to constantly rise above fear, to say, look, this is the other way, this is the other way.”

What one quickly learns is that the other way is not a narrow valley of thought (precious to her) to replace another narrow valley of thought (precious to someone else). Deb’s idea of a healthy society, a healthy self, is something as wide as the western landscape, as overarching as the Montana sky.

During its 18 years, Northern Lights won five Pushcart prizes and four Utne Reader Alternative Press Awards. Unlike other journals, it has relied on grit, not advertising, to sell copy, and a bare-bones, wrap-on-the-knuckles dedication to beauty and honesty. Over the years, stories have explored native wisdom, poverty, the role of animals in our lives, how to help our children shape their lives, and more. Western by birthright and in focus, it is absent of cheap pity and sentimentality. Northern Lights doesn’t shoot from the hip so much as extends a helping hand. “Come with me,” it says, “let me show you something.” Rick Bass has called it, “Revolutionary, peaceful, cunning, bare and true,” adding, “It is the enemy of numbness in a benumbed world.”

Deb: “[Literary magazines] are to help people think creatively, to keep moving in a way that flies in the face of cultural norms…to help people shift the way that they see and feel their way through the world, to become more aware of who they are, to become better citizens of the world. To start internally with the self…to really confront the things in ourselves that make us fearful and make us hold back [from] being active participants in the world.”

Terry Tempest Williams: “Northern Lights is a shimmering, smart, savvy read for all of us who live and love the American West…In each issue, there is a surprise, something I wasn’t expecting, something I needed. Consider it our own secret of sanity.”

The light on the ceiling in Deb’s office shifts on a diagonal from late night to mid-afternoon. We, too, have shifted and are sitting in the northwest corner, a full moon above us, and stars, four- and five-pointed asterisks of gold, also in happy abundance. Painted by her daughter, Catherine, the scene bleeds from lavender into pale blue until you reach the door, where cumulous clouds build in benign concordance as if blown in from the hallway. The overall effect is to shelter the office in a beveling calm, a twilight serenity that is safe, comforting and warm. It is exactly the kind of sky the editor of a nationally acclaimed journal needs to lean back and look up at during the course of a day. Or a lifetime.

Deb: “This is not an easy time, this is not an easy life, no one has ever been given an easy life…we have our time, we are given this time to be, and so, we need to be minute by minute, moment to moment, in the present. We need to be brave. We need to be clear and we need to be kind. And we need to show, and I hope Northern Lights does, that there are people who are being these things…And we also need to have a sense of humor. I think we all take ourselves way too seriously and that’s really a big one right now in these times when it’s hard not to take things seriously.”

I look around the room. Stacks of books and manuscripts sag the shelves. The poetries of Mary Oliver and Rilke jump out from a host of others. Nearly all the Montana writers are represented here, and all are referred to by first name if asked about. Fearing that this will be her last issue, Deb laments not only her personal loss, but the loss of the voices she is able to publish. “Who is going to publish these amazing people? Their amazing stories?!”

Like before, her words spill out, gathering momentum, then slow to a trickle, halt. She leans back and looks at the painted sky, and her eyes fall away into their distance. I can hear my tape recorder spin. When she speaks again, it is as if she is speaking to the moon.

“I want Lights to be accessible to people, to reach into the human heart and mind. Work that has long tentacles, that can reach way inside of people to places they didn’t even know they had and pull things back out again. Turn on little lights in places that are dark in people.”

Little lights in dark places, I think. Reaching way inside people.


Good night Lights. Rest in peace. We will miss you.

Charles Finn is a writer in Potomac.

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