Saturday, July 24, 2010

A lyric of less-peopled places

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, essays, nature

People have two opposed yearnings, to be comfortable, and to be one with nature. The title of Susan Hand Shetterly's book indicates she's trying to have the best of both worlds: Settled in the Wild: Notes from the Edge of Town. Nearly forty years ago, she and her husband moved to a cabin in Maine, with the stated desire to "get back to the land." She notes being amused by the word back; they hadn't been there before. And anyway, if you're "settled", is it "wild"?

She writes little of the struggles and privations of "the simple life". Indeed, as she and her husband both had "day jobs" that they could pursue from anywhere, they were not wholly dependent on their (slender) farming abilities. Ah, the age of telecommunications. Our author can write for Maine Times or Audubon Magazine while living anywhere at all. So she writes primarily of relationships, with both animals and people.

Two essays reveal her evolving relationships and accomodations with difficult neighbors. I don't mean bad neighbors, just good-hearted people with widely differing points of view. One of them, Ray, is a trapper and the author's dog was once caught in one of his traps. Though this got them started on rough footing, much of that essay is about Ray helping her clear her woodlot. She doesn't mention whether he worked for pay or was being neighborly. I suppose it doesn't matter. He and she were able to speak frankly of their opposed views on wetlands preservation, and of a growing accommodation that resulted.

For some years she was active in bird rescue, and she writes of raising this robin or that raven to self-sufficiency. She writes also of answering a call about a young bird "mourning" its dead mother. Upon arriving on the scene, she is able to instruct the onlookers that this is a Cooper's hawk, which is eating a larger bird that probably died from hitting a car.

There are hints of difficult times. The stresses of the lifestyle ended the marriage, and she writes a little about the extra planning one must do to cope with a Maine winter. But she primarily writes of enjoyment. There is much to see, and she wants to see it all. She writes of putting her children to bed when they were young, then throwing on a shawl to step outside to see the stars. There are few places left that you can do that and see a sky worth standing in the cold wind.

The reading is easy, and I finished the book all too soon. I am re-reading portions. Books like this make me thankful for the gift of written language. I could not long endure "going back to the land." But I can enjoy the experiences of one who has and could write such lyrical essays about it.

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