The Place Where I Write: Leath Tonino

I’d like to say that my feet know the narrow dirt path better than they know my socks. The path leads through a birch grove floored with ferns to a cabin beside a stream. Inside the cabin I sit at a clean desk on a hard chair and write essays, poems, and stories. That I have a place, that I go there daily to revel in its moods and variations, that I work there, that the place works through me, out onto the page—these are things I would like to say but I will not, for I am not a liar. I am, as a friend recently put it, “a wandering bastard.”

The first prose I ever published was written by hand on a homemade wooden raft measuring six by seven feet. I was living on the raft, drifting-rowing-sailing my way up the length of Vermont’s summery Lake Champlain. The raft was thin, sensitive; the slightest wave wobbled my script. I took breaks, sharpened my pencil, dunked my head and came up dripping. Rowing the shoreline with the finished essay I found a farmer soaking his toes who said he’d be happy to deliver it to the newspaper in Burlington.

On the other side of the country and years later…

I used to walk twenty blocks to the San Francisco Public Library, often in the rain, my computer wrapped in a garbage bag and stuffed down in a backpack along with peanut butter sandwiches. I’d eat the sandwiches in the too-warm hallway by the downstairs bathroom, then go up to my favorite table. Sometimes my feet would touch the feet of strangers beneath the table: old men with funny ears, young ladies studying medical textbooks, children wriggling out of boredom or delight, so-called “bag people.” I wore headphones and listened to the same piece of Estonian choir music on repeat for weeks on end. I didn’t get much work done, distracted more often than not by books about bears and monks.

My favorite office, to date, smelled of detergent. It was a laundry room in the wilderness. For four springs and summers I lived and worked out of a Forest Service field station on the Kaibab Plateau, about thirty miles from the Grand Canyon. The room was furnished with three washing machines, three dryers, a broom, a sink, a clean desk, a hard chair. The acoustics in the room were interesting—bouncy, you might say—and often I sang or chanted as I wrote. Just out the window, in the siding of a neighboring building, a family of house wrens came and went from their knothole home. The birds’ songs overlaid my own as well as the churning, droning song of the washers. There were lovely harmonies to explore in that room, and sunrise-pink light, and hours of effort. Sometimes I miss the wrens.

As for that perfect studio-shack, that snug, birchy, ferny cabin in the woods where the words rain down, through my mind, to puddle the page… Let’s just say that I’m hoping to buy some land, fell some trees, and make it happen. Carpenters speak of building “from the ground up,” and that seems an appropriate practice for a nature writer. Until then, I’ll take what I can get. A tent in Scotland. A Quonset hut in Antarctica. The Embassy Suites. The leeward side of a summit boulder. Last month it was my mom’s basement. Tonight it’s the New Jersey shore, Atlantic City’s neon skyline out there beyond the bay of crying gulls.

How did I get here? What am I doing? When will I leave?

These are questions only a liar could answer. The gulls. The ocean. The computer on the blue bedspread and the spider on the wall. It’s not my home, not my place, but it’ll do. For now. For a wandering bastard.

Leath Tonino was born and raised in Vermont. He is the author of “The Drop,” which appears as a Coda in the May/June 2012 issue of Orion.


  1. I instantly fell in love with this piece and the writer.

  2. Great, honest. Good wishes to this writer and upon his craft.

  3. As to the bastard epithet, I note reference to Leath’s comment about writing in his mother’s basement. I have once again spent a week with Leath,this time paddling a canoe down the Connecticut River, the length of Vermont.I was present at Leath’s birth. I personally vouch that he is not a bastard. Actually he is a remarkabe person with a unique perspective on living life immersed in nature. He leads this life, whether in his backyard or on the Rim of the Grand Canyon, all the more remarkable in this age of technology. My credential for this testimony, I am his father.

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