NEW MARLBOROUGH — Listening to her inner messages is a daily practice for Barbara Newman. Fifteen years ago, she was working in New York — driving to the city from the Berkshires — when she heard a soundbite on NPR from the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame. When a 101-year-old cowgirl came on the air and said, ‘You really have to saddle your own horse,’ Newman got goosebumps. She pulled the car over and wrote down what she knew in her gut was sage advice. After pondering the message — one rooted in resilience, independence, strength, and purpose — Newman’s thoughts turned to embodying what she calls “cowgirl spirit,” which she deemed necessary to truly blossom into the woman she wanted to become.
Once inspired, no grass grew under Newman’s feet. She went to Montana, Wyoming, and Texas to begin filming a documentary about the American cowgirl — gritty and resilient women of the earth and stewards of the land. When funding for the project fell through, the same week her mother died, Newman was bereft. And then she had a dream: “I was standing in the desert, inside a mandala (the logo of my cowgirl project), wearing an animal skin on my back — a sea of sand and dirt ahead of me. As the sky was filling with the colors of sunset, the wind came, whipping into a spiral around the logo, and coming down in another form — a book.” Newman read the dream as a message to let go of the film, one she vowed to honor.
Four characters quickly came to her, hailing from the four directions, each drawing power from nature’s elements: earth, air, fire, and water. Together, they vow to heal humanity, which has lost its way. Fast-forward seven years and “The Dreamcatcher Codes,” an epic YA eco-fantasy — “a love letter to Mother Earth and all of her daughters” — was published July 27 by Green Writers Press. The novel, Newman’s first, was written “in the creases” found between raising children, freelancing, planning a wedding, and fulfilling her role as a wife and friend.
Newman said the story was largely inspired by a deep desire to engage in meaningful work that empowers women and girls — including her own daughter, Sara (now 30). “Falcon, my character from NYC, is very much like Sara,” Newman said. “She is feisty, she is air, and she is half Jewish; her mother is white and married to a Black man, and she has a girl crush on her camp counselor,” the author explained, pointing to a mix of fact and fiction underscored by a deep desire for diversity.
“If I was going to write about Mother Earth, I really needed to know her,” Newman said. “I needed to know her in a different way, not just on a trail walk in the woods or a visit to a waterfall. I needed to watch her, to observe her creatures and cycles.” So Newman went to Ship Rock, a monadnock rising nearly 1,583 feet above the high-desert plain of the Navajo Nation in San Juan County, New Mexico, the very locale her characters use as their headquarters. “I had to go and walk the red-rock country in order to feel the bones of the mother, the rock,” Newman said. She took a solo trip to Ghost Ranch, Georgia O’Keeffe’s home (and today a retreat center). A guide at the center pointed her to an easy trail that he marked in pink, to which Newman responded: “See that?” pointing to a far-away peak, “I want to hike that.” Which she did, and some miraculous things happened on that mountain — namely, her introduction to animal medicine and the ways Indigenous people survived in the world.
The Berkshires figure prominently in the book, as well. In the chapter “Monument Mountain,” Newman recounts the tale of a Mohican woman falling to her death from one of the “knife-edged summits … [marked by] a pillar of stone … [and] now called Peeskawso Peak, [which] means virtuous woman.” There is an allusion to the famed meeting of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville on the same rocky slope, and clever compass points (5.28 for Great Barrington, 212 for New York City, from where Newman hails). “I wanted to bring it home,” she said of the deep influence this land has had on her and her creative process.
Ultimately, the themes about which Newman writes — namely the need for unity among all who inhabit the earth and humanity’s tenuous relationship with the planet — are more timely than ever. “It became more and more apparent,” she said of her intuition that things were changing, and people were largely not paying attention, but she was. “I did not know what to do about it,” she admitted, acknowledging that she still “could do much better than I’m doing, in my day-to-day world.” Hence her crafting a story that hinges on allies of the earth. “I really wanted this book to be hopeful,” she said, especially for young girls. “I want it to galvanize people, I want my readers to look at the natural world through new, wondrous eyes so they fall in love. When you fall in love with something, you want to protect it.”
What keeps Newman inspired, as a woman and a writer, during these increasingly turbulent times in which we are living? “Trust,” she said, after a measured pause, adding, “trust that it’s all going to be okay. I trust that things happen the way they are supposed to happen, I trust that maybe this is the great churning of the earth. It has been really divisive, but it is all for a reason.”
She also leans on various sisterhoods, and sitting in intentional circles is integral. “We make our own tribes, we carry each other, we support each other, we raise each other up; that’s been really important to me — and a big theme of the book.”
For more information on Barbara Newman, including forthcoming workshops for students and organizations around the themes of her book, visit her website.