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Writer takes art lovers on a literary climb

Audubon Society's Wild Arts Festival lets nature weave its artistic story


by: COURTESY OF WILD ARTS FESTIVAL - Wild Arts Festival highlights: Former chef turned artist Susanne Newbold fashions beautiful gourds using leather dyes, acrylic paint, fiber, found objects, see grass and pine needles.
Two years ago, Peter Zuckerman left his job and boarded a plane to Nepal, intrigued by a news story he’d read about a disaster on the world’s most dangerous climbing peak, K2.

The North Portland 32-year-old (who happens to be Mayor Sam Adams’ domestic partner) took the plane as far as it would go, then a jeep as far as it would go, and walked for several weeks to reach his destination: a remote village where the language is so unique, it required two translators to communicate.

“I’d ask, ‘How old are you,’ ” and there was a discussion between the translators and his interview subject, Zuckerman recalls. His subject answered, it went through both translators again, “and then he would say, ‘I was born in the winter during this festival of the Buddha.’ ”

It was the ultimate test in cultural differences and communication.

“I hung out for a week until they got comfortable talking to me,” he says, “and then they said the person I was looking for was in another village.”

by: COURTESY OF PETER ZUCKERMAN - Peter Zuckerman's book has landed on bestseller lists and garnered plenty of accolades. He'll appear at the Wild Arts Festival, Nov. 17-18.Somehow, Zuckerman and his cousin, Amanda Padoan, were able to collect stories of the sherpas during a total of seven trips to Nepal, and spend the next year and a half writing his second book, “Buried in the Sky: The Extraordinary Story of the Sherpa Climbers on K2’s Deadliest Day.”

Since its release in June, the book has landed on bestseller lists and has been racking up the accolades, including the 2012 George Orwell Award for Distinguished Contribution to Honesty and Clarity in Public Language, as well as the Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival’s 2012 Mountaineering Award.

This month, Zuckerman will be one of 70 local several local authors and artists whose works will be celebrated at the 32nd annual Wild Arts Festival, a benefit for the Audubon Society of Portland.

by: COURTESY OF WILD ARTS FESTIVAL - Wild Arts Festival highlights: Pieces of metal work by Andy Blakney and Lisa Geertsen of Firelight Forge Studio.The festival on Nov. 17 and 18 will showcase writers and artists who use works of nature or wildlife as a subject, promote sustainability, or use natural materials as a medium. In addition to paintings, other media include photography, glass, watercolors, jewelry and woodwork, among others.

Zuckerman will sign copies of his book, along with other local celebrities Colin Meloy (“Wildwood” author and The Decemberists’ lead singer) and Oregon Poet Laureate Paulann Peterson.

Other mainstays at the annual event are the “6x6 Wild Art Project” with local art for $40, a silent auction with more than 100 items, and Audubon’s educational birds for kids.

Next stop Malawi?

Since the release of “Buried in the Sky,” Zuckerman has been overwhelmed by the reaction to the book — especially since it began as a harebrained idea.

“People thought, ‘You’re crazy — a gay, Jewish American going off to Taliban-infested regions of Northern Pakistan the U.S. Embassy told you to stay away from, you don’t have a publisher and you’re quitting your job to do this.’”

Zuckerman, a Los Angeles native who moved to Portland and met Sam Adams months before Adams was elected to office in 2008, had written about Clackamas County for The Oregonian.

He had also racked up prestigious awards for his investigative reporting at the Idaho Falls Post Register, where he broke national news about the Boy Scouts molestation scandal.

As Zuckerman and Padoan returned with their research from Nepal and put together a book proposal, they still didn’t know if anyone would go for it, Zuckerman says.

“It was sort of like eBay — nobody’s really interested until the last hour, and then tons of people jump in,” he says.

They were able to find an agent and publisher, and continue the work — all with Adams’ support. The couple registered under Oregon’s domestic partnership last year, and Zuckerman says “things are good.”

“It would be nice to someday have the freedom to marry in Oregon,” he says.

When Adams ends his term in office in January, Zuckerman isn’t quite sure how their life will change: “It’s sort of hard to imagine it because it’s so busy right now.”

Zuckerman says he will invite Adams on his next adventure, wherever it may be. One idea is set in the African nation of Malawi, where a same-sex couple was having an engagement ceremony in their backyard.

“Police raid it, send them to jail, sentence them to the equivalent of death,” he says.

It was 2009 and Madonna was there, adopting her 4-year-old daughter. The internationally known performer heard about the event and was horrified. She called U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, and the couple’s imprisonment became a cause celeb.

“The case changes how the United Nations handles foreign aid to countries, and to some extent it exposes a campaign by the religious right to push draconian anti-gay laws,” Zuckerman says.

In one way, Zuckerman sees it as the ultimate Romeo and Juliet story. On the other hand, he thinks of its marketability: “It’s gay people in Africa,” he says. “Not exactly the biography of Steve Jobs, an obvious huge seller.”

Before he heads off to Africa or anywhere else, Zuckerman is keeping busy doing communications and advocacy work at Basic Rights Oregon.

He has a steady schedule of local book-related events, like the Wild Arts Festival, where he tells his audiences why his book is unique in the world of true adventure stories.

It’s told through the eyes of the sherpas, who do a lot of the most difficult and dangerous work in mountaineering, like hauling supplies, establishing routes, escorting their clients to the summit and rescuing them when it gets bad.

In most mountaineering books, “they’re not named; they’re these unsung heroes,” he says.

The universal theme, he says, is this: “We all hang from knots other people have tied. We all have mountains in our life. We’re all surrounded by sherpas, who do all this work. When you tell stories that fail to include the perspective of the sherpas, it can lead to a disaster.”

If the book has an impact on readers, he hopes to change the way people tell stories, “that it shifts so that we pay more attention to the sherpas in our own lives.”

For more information, check the website www.wildartsfestival.org.